Volume XIII | Issue 1 | Spring 2013
The Dillard plant in the early days of Roseburg Forest Products

Sawdust, gold dust and faerie dust

Norm Smith, the Foundation’s first president, reflects on his tenure

When I first arrived 16 years ago in Dillard, Oregon, it was winter. Everything was drab. Kenneth Ford had recently succumbed to cancer, but even as Douglas County and the state mourned his loss, his legacies were very much in evidence.

Roseburg Forest Products prodigiously processed its timber into high-quality wood products for houses, businesses and furniture;  Allyn Ford, son of Kenneth and Hallie, stepped into leadership roles; and the fledgling charitable foundation, which dated to the ‘50s, geared up under the watchful eyes of the new board of directors that Mr. Ford had hand-picked.

By April I had relocated from the urban vistas of San Francisco Bay and a senior position at AT&T to a largely empty, cavernous, second floor space at the mill’s administration building. I had been selected by The Ford Family Foundation’s board to build up the first programs, procedures and personnel in a new era of the Fords’ philanthropy. 

Photo of Norm SmithNorm Smith

Outside my new “corner office” were railroad tracks, box cars, log stacks, roiling steam plumes and three-story-and-growing piles of sawdust and wood chips. This residue of milling spilled from elevated conveyors to be recycled into particle board.

New horizon

It was my new horizon at one of the largest industrial facilities in Oregon. 

By June 1997, Donna Wolford had been hired as my assistant. She was Employee Number Two at the Foundation. 

Kathy and our son, Spencer, arrived from the Bay area when school was out, and we moved into a rental house on the ridge near Mr. Ford’s former residence. 

For the first six months I commuted down the steep hill to the Dillard offices. It was not long before my business suits gave way to attire more in tune with rural Oregon and a large mill site. As applications arrived and piles of grant checks left my desk each month, the realization dawned that Mr. Ford had provided a cache of “gold dust” to be used in perpetuity to help people and rural communities. 

Most people can think about matters three to five years in the future, perhaps plan for a child’s upbringing and education. Mr. Ford looked out decades. He built buildings and designed equipment for growth and unpredictable capacity. 

Mr. Ford’s definition of perpetuity was more literal — simply, forever. His intention was that the Foundation would be doing good things beyond the horizons that we can see today. 

That is magical. It transcends sawdust and gold dust and becomes faerie dust to be sprinkled knowingly and “planfully” where it is most needed to meet the Mission of The Ford Family Foundation, “Successful Citizens and Vital Rural Communities.”

The real stories

The former woodsman’s legacy and that of Hallie Ford achieved an important financial benchmark in 2011 when it passed the $250 million in charitable output (scholarships, and grants) with a remaining endowment of another $750 million. 

But the real stories are about the libraries, students, fellowships, artists, organizations, communities, leaders, and programs in which the Foundation has “invested” for the very long term.

Attributed to Aristotle on a wall plaque in my office is this statement: “To give away money is an easy matter and in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it, and how much, and when, and for what purpose, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter.”

It has been a privilege to work with a thoughtful board of directors; a partnering chairman, Ron Parker; the family of Ford and a committed, mission-driven staff of 22 at the Foundation for these 16 years of its infancy on the road to perpetuity. I salute the scholarship recipients, fellows and thousands of grantees, leaders, key partners, friends and mentors, who have been embraced by and joined in this legacy. 

The smell of sawdust will always be the perfume of possibilities at this philanthropy.

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