Bruce McPhaden was a Renaissance man whose mind contemplated history, classical music, business, politics and even his own death.
Three years ago, McPhaden, long one of the most influential men in Spokane, furnished The Spokesman-Review with a short letter meant to assist his obituary writer.
Sadly, it is time to read that letter. The former Kaiser Aluminum executive died at the health care center at Rockwood Manor early Sunday morning. He was 80 years old and had been in poor health recently.
“As a regular reader of The Spokesman-Review’s obituaries, I am impressed that they don’t tell much about who the deceased really was and what he stood for,” McPhaden wrote in October 1994.
“To the writer who is assigned the gloomy task of telling who I was, and what I was all about, I’ve written a few lines to help out,” he wrote.
Yet, in the end, the greatest help in understanding McPhaden comes not from his own words, but from those whose lives he touched.
“He was a tremendous mentor and teacher and encouraged me to finish my education, for which I will be forever grateful,” said Susan Ashe, who was a 27-year-old single mother in 1978 when McPhaden hired her as a secretary.
She finished her degree at Eastern Washington University and is now Kaiser’s Northwest public affairs manager.
As the vice president of Kaiser’s aluminum division from 1974 to 1982, McPhaden was one of Spokane’s most important business figures. In those years, Spokane’s future was intimately tied to the fortunes of the company.
“If it were not for Bruce McPhaden, Kaiser would not be doing as well as it is today and may not have all of its plants open in the northwest,” said Dennis Bracy, who was hired by the tall, generously girthed gentleman in 1981 as a public affairs manager.
Bracy worked for McPhaden until 1984. “It was like getting a Ph.D. in life working for Bruce,” said Bracy, who is now CEO of RXL Pulitzer, a television and software production company in Seattle.
The son of a doctor, McPhaden grew up in Concrete, a town of less than 1,000 people in the North Cascades. He went off to Ohio to study at the liberal thinking Antioch College and graduated in 1942. His first job out of college was as a production worker for General Motors.
He joined Kaiser in 1963 and helped manage plants in Brazil from 1965 to 1969. Later he would become Kaiser’s Northwest public affairs manager, then vice president.
He was a Democrat who loved classical music filling his office. He was as comfortable watching a baseball game as an opera. He was a voracious reader and sought out lively discussions. He spoke Portuguese and, in his mid-70s, visited a Robert Mapplethorpe photography exhibit to see what all the fuss was about.
“My biography cannot show my abiding love for Spokane and its diverse people,” he wrote. “I’ve enjoyed the many hours of off-the-record discussion with mayors, councilmen, and city department heads. I hope they learned from these discussion - I know I did.”
He was heavily involved in everything from politics to education to the arts. He was chairman of Governor Dixy Lee Ray’s economic advisory council, vice president of the board of trustees for Antioch University, a member of the board of regents for Gonzaga University and chairman of the board of trustees for Eastern Washington State University. He was also a member of the executive committee for Expo ‘74.
“If you were putting together a dozen people from the post-war era who really made a difference for Spokane, Bruce McPhaden would have to be on that list,” said Shaun O’L. Higgins, director of marketing and sales for the Spokesman-Review and a close friend of McPhaden’s.
In his note to his obituary writer, McPhaden talked about his belief that the nation’s health care system needs to be overhauled and that, in politics, “Republican or Democrat is unimportant: participation is.”
There was more to McPhaden’s letter, but his friends loved him beyond what his own words showed. They spoke where he could not.
“Bruce defied the image of the businessman as someone who is only interested in business,” Higgins said. “More than anyone I know, the business of life was his business.”
McPhaden is survived by his wife, Patsy Jones Bacon; five children; four grandchildren; a stepdaughter and two step-grandchildren.
Funeral plans are pending.
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