When Joe Custer arrived in the Spokane Valley with his young family in 1954, the community was in the early stages of its transformation from a primarily agrarian economy into a post-World War II suburban success story.
The Valley has lost a man who, along with other business leaders, had the vision and energy to usher in an era of growth that ultimately led to today’s incorporated city.
Custer died Sept. 28 at age 88, but his legacy lives on.
For nearly 40 years he was the face of Vera Water and Power, first as business manager and ultimately as general manager. The company grew from 850 customers to one that serves the needs of 9,000.
“He was in the right place at the right time because there were so many similar-thinking people,” said his son John Custer, now an administrator at West Valley High School. “They were survivors of the Depression and World War II, a generation that had a ‘can-do’ attitude.”
Their advocacy helped to build the community.
A soft-spoken Renaissance man, Custer’s interests were varied. Foremost was his desire to make Vera Water and Power, a public utility, successful. In that role he hobnobbed with politicians, notably U.S. representative and future Speaker of the House Tom Foley.
Custer was on boards and committees too numerous to mention. One in which he played a major role was creation of the Centennial Trail.
He believed in equal opportunity.
Gail Gibson, for 23 years the district secretary at Vera, said, “He elevated women by giving us equality and opportunities for education in this venue. He treated us with the utmost level of respect.”
She had come from Boston to interview for a position. The two talked about their shared Irish heritage and, Gibson said, she was told, “ ’You’re hired.’ We clicked from that day forward.”
Custer also had an abiding love of athletics, recognizing their influence on a young person’s life. He was a president of the Greater Spokane Sports Association (a volunteer forerunner of today’s Spokane Regional Sports Commission) and ultimately was recognized on the Inland Northwest Sports Hall of Fame’s Scroll of Honor.
But mainly he was an advocate for the Central Valley School District’s athletics programs, befriending administrators and coaches and seeing to their needs.
In college he seemed to always be around people who were significant in sports, John said. “And he saw what it did for kids.”
Custer grew up in Southern California, a self-described average athlete. He was a 128-pound blocking back in high school football, ran cross-country and boxed, John said. It is no surprise that John and his brother Mike carved out successful football careers of their own at Central Valley.
During World War II he attended pre-flight training at St. Mary’s College and was the first to solo. But a case of boils forced him to wash out and he went on to serve as a submarine quartermaster in the Pacific theater.
“The horrors of war impacted them,” John said, “What impacted Dad was seeing guys from the Bataan Death March.”
That’s why, he contends, people like his dad went for the gusto and took risks when they returned. It stood them in good stead when it came to promoting the Spokane Valley.
Following the war he attended University of Southern California, majored in accounting and met Beverly, his wife of 64 years. Not many years later they moved to the Valley, where they raised three children – daughter Annette and sons John and Mike.
“Joe had a way of making Vera seem larger than life,” said Gibson. “I came from the private sector with no background in public utilities. I got a liberal education from him about the (public) power and water industries.”
Although she arrived in the last few years of his career, she understood why he felt an obligation to serve the interest of his customers.
“He would not back down if he felt he was right,” she said. “And what blows you away is there was not a shred or thread of greed in Joe. He was all about others.”
His son said that Custer and his contemporaries understood democracy in a way that people might not today.
“It was a special place and special time that he kind of fit,” John said. “It was not all work. All those men had a blast and loved each other’s company.”
His dad told John that he deserved no more recognition than they.
Humility, hard work, education and community service was what Joe Custer believed in.
“He made a significant difference in my life just meeting him,” Gibson said.