As a teenager, Ralph Wyatt knew what he didn’t want to do in life when he graduated from Neah-Kah-Nie High School in 1957.
“I didn’t want to work with my hands,” Wyatt said. “I didn’t want to be a fisherman, work in lumber mills or on a dairy farm.”
And although he didn’t do any of those things, his two 28-year-careers — first as a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and then as the administrative officer for Linn County — required extensive hands-on skills, even though he wasn’t pulling fishing nets or firing up chainsaws on a daily basis.
Wyatt was an only child and his father was a log truck driver, who moved his young family from Oregon to California and back, landing on the Oregon coast. His mother was from Oregon and his father from California. They met on a farm near Corvallis. Wyatt was born in Oregon City.
Wyatt, who turns 81 Monday, plans to start yet another career Friday — retirement — although his last day in the office will be Thursday.
“I like working with people,” Wyatt said of why he kept working long after others usually retire. “And this has been a very good organization to be associated with.”
It has been, he admits, a very good life that took him around the world many times, often on top-secret missions as a navigator on C-130 reconnaissance planes during the Vietnam War. His path to the Air Force began with the Air Force ROTC program at Oregon State.
After graduating from high school with 32 other students — they were the first freshman class to enter the community’s new high school — Wyatt enrolled at Oregon State to study mechanical engineering, but his ultimate goal was to become a pilot.
ROTC was a requirement for all freshmen and sophomore males at land grant schools like OSU in the 1950s. Wyatt committed to Air Force ROTC his junior and senior years as well, which meant he would be required to serve in the Air Force after graduation.
While living at Reed Lodge, Wyatt had a roommate who had graduated from Jefferson High School in Portland and was dating a girl from there as well.
That’s how he met his future wife, Claudia. She completed her teaching degree at Oregon College of Education in Monmouth in three years.
They were married before Wyatt’s senior year, and Claudia began her teaching career at Crowfoot Elementary School in the Lebanon School District.
Career in the air
Wyatt’s dream of becoming a pilot ended in the summer of 1960 when he was attending an ROTC summer camp near Spokane, Washington. A doctor told him he would likely be nearsighted by the time he was 40 years old and, therefore, pilot training was off the table.
“So I became a navigator,” said Wyatt, who racked up almost 6,500 flight hours in the position.
Upon receiving his commission and completing navigator’s training, Wyatt was assigned to Yokota Air Base in western Japan, where he served on C-130 reconnaissance planes that flew from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska to Singapore, monitoring possible Chinese and Russian involvement in the Vietnam War.
“We often would look out the window and see a Russian MiG-17 beside us and another one behind us,” Wyatt said.
He was away from home for long stretches of time, which was trying for his young bride, and the couple considered moving back to the U.S. and entering civilian life.
“That was from 1963 to 1967,” Wyatt said. “I had been away so much that I decided to resign, and we were going to move to Seattle and find work with my mechanical engineering degree.”
Wyatt said that after careful review, at a time when Seattle and Boeing were struggling, he and Claudia decided it would be prudent for him to stay in the service.
He transferred to McChord Air Base in Tacoma, where he served aboard C-141 cargo planes that uploaded supplies to Japan to service units in Vietnam.
Even though he was stateside, the workload didn’t decrease.
“I was gone 28 days of every month,” Wyatt said. “We hauled all kinds of things, including being certified to haul nuclear weapons to Europe. We even hauled cargo to New Zealand for shipment to Antarctica.”
Wyatt got his first taste of developing a budget while serving at Yokota when he was assigned “additional duties.” It was a skill that would serve him well in life.
His career took his family — which grew to include three children — to Langley, Virginia, and to New Mexico.
“Langley is an old base and it’s right on the tidewater, so it is a beautiful area,” Wyatt said.
He rose to the rank of colonel, having been commander of the 833rd Civil Engineering Squadron at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, director of programs at Langley and assistant deputy chief of staff for engineering and service at Langley.
He was in charge of more than 500 civilian and Air Force staff at times.
In 1990, Wyatt retired and the family moved to the Portland area, where Claudia’s family still lived, and in 1991, Wyatt began applying for civilian jobs.
“I applied for a job with a deepwater towing company, Troutdale Public Works and with Washington state,” Wyatt said. “I also applied for this job in Linn County.”
He was hired in January 1992 and moved his family to Corvallis a few months later. He was familiar with the area from his time at Oregon State and also worked locally during the summer months.
It has been a good fit.
“This is a very good organization,” Wyatt said of county government. “Most folks are dedicated to provide excellent service, not just talking about it.”
Influence in county
He has guided more than 700 county employees at times, with the average number hovering in the mid-600s over the years. The recently approved 2020-21 budget is for $177 million to meet the needs of 129,000 Linn County residents.
He has served on numerous statewide boards, including the Association of Oregon Counties, the Oregon Workers Compensation Rating System Review and Advisory Committee, the Public Employees Retirement System Employer Advisory Group and the board of directors for the Samaritan InterCommunity Health Network Coordinated Care Organization
“It’s a lot of people, but truthfully, you really get to know just about everyone, and for sure they know who I am,” he said. “I have liked my work and the people I work with.”
Wyatt said the fact many employees make long careers with the county is evidence there is a good work atmosphere.
Wyatt said his job started shortly after a bond was passed to build the new Linn County Fair & Expo Center.
“We took a $20 million project and paid for it with a $6 million bond,” Wyatt said. “That’s pretty darn good.”
Wyatt said the city of Albany donated land for the complex, which was a major plus.
The county has also completed numerous other capital projects under Wyatt’s leadership, including turning the former Willamette Industries/Weyerhaeuser office complex into a public health complex; renovating a former bank building for mental health services; adding offices in Lebanon and Sweet Home; adding sheriff’s substations in Lebanon and Tangent; acquiring and remodeling the 4-H and Extension Service building in Tangent; acquiring the National Guard armory and remodeling the Albany Police Department building into a state parole and probation office; and acquiring the Reddaway building for storage near the sheriff’s office and jail, which was expanded by 90 beds.
A crowning jewel, Wyatt said, was the construction of the Edward C. Allworth Veterans' Home in Lebanon and Samaritan Health Services' development of a medical campus that includes the COMP-Northwest medical college and Linn-Benton Community College’s school of nursing.
Many projects were accomplished because the county commissioners and staff had prudently managed road funds over the years.
The county has funded several projects by borrowing from that fund and, in turn, the county pays an interest rate greater than the fund receives from the state program.
Another major accomplishment was the county’s leadership in a class action lawsuit that resulted in a $1.1 billion judgment against the state of Oregon and the Oregon Department of Forestry for breach of contract.
Class members charged that the state has not lived up to decades-old contracts to provide counties with the greatest financial value to from state forests.
And soon, a $25 million intermodal transportation facility will be developed in Millersburg, a project spearheaded by the Linn County Board of Commissioners.
“Work is like a river,” Wyatt said. “You work on things as it flows by and more stuff just keeps coming. I think that my background in the Air Force gave me a different perspective on management. You have to take care of your people. That’s my job.”
At one assignment, when he was in charge of base facilities, he learned how events impact people in different ways.
“We had a gas leak at on-base housing on Thanksgiving, so we shut off the main gas line,” Wyatt said. “A young woman came up to me and she was the angriest I had seen anyone because her family’s turkey was not going to be cooked on time.”
That’s when Wyatt learned about perspective and personal service, no matter how difficult the task at hand.
Wyatt said his crew got the problem fixed as quickly as possible.
In addition to his degree in mechanical engineering, Wyatt has an MBA in research and development management from the University of Southern California.
Wyatt said he doesn’t have any hobbies, but there is a large garage overflowing with stuff that he plans to sort through.
“I have a lot of family stuff to go through,” Wyatt said.
Wyatt has three grown children. Son Christopher lives and works in Lebanon. Daughter Kirsten Wyatt and her husband and children live in Saudi Arabia, but also own a home in Corvallis. Daughter Maren Wyatt lives in Portland.
Wyatt’s wife, Claudia, died in 2014. In 2016, Wyatt married Lianne Thompson, a Clatsop County commissioner who has two years left on her current term of office.
They have a home on the coast and a home in Corvallis.
“I guess I don’t like looking for a job,” Wyatt joked about his two long careers. “I’m glad they kept me this long. I’ve had a lot of enjoyment from my work and the people with whom I work.”
Although Wyatt dislikes talking about himself, others are very willing to heap accolades on him.
Wyatt’s wife, Lianne, calls him “one of the kindest, wisest, sharpest people I know. He embodies the definition of power: Power is force unused.”
She added, “He cares deeply and thoughtfully for those around him, always looking to get the best result by bringing out the best and dealing with the worst in those around him. He’s a joy to be in relationship with, professional and personal.”
Those who know
Numerous people with whom Wyatt works said he is a modest person who does not like to be in the spotlight.
Linn County Board of Commissioners Chairman Roger Nyquist said Wyatt is the “type of person who makes everybody he works with better. We’re all better because we’ve been around him.”
“An example of how Ralph thinks is the intermodal facility that is going to be built in Millersburg,” Nyquist said. “There were a thousand moving parts, and we didn’t want to buy the property. But Ralph spoke up and said that the only way to make it work was for the county to buy it. It was definitely the right thing to do.”
Nyquist added, “His judgment and insights are great, but his integrity and the thoughtfulness he puts into his decisions is fantastic. It goes without saying that operating an organization with seven elected officials, you have to have everyone’s trust.”
Commissioner Will Tucker calls Wyatt a “steady rock who does not become emotionally invested in the crisis before us.”
Tucker said Wyatt “takes on an issue with a calm confidence. He brings to bear his military experience, where a crisis could be a life-changing event, and makes sure we put the crisis in proper perspective.”
Wyatt also “cares deeply for the people we serve. He plays a role in many citizen complaints and with every union grievance and personnel issue. He respects the varied opinions and works hard to close the issue with the best interests of the county, general public and community member involved.”
“Ralph is a solid person, filled with strengths we all wish we had,” Tucker said. “He is a leader of character who has guided Linn County for many years.”
Retired Linn County Public Health Administrator Frank Moore called Wyatt the “consummate negotiator and budget balancer.”
“His mentoring blessed the last half of my career,” Moore said. “The county Health Department benefitted greatly during my tenure from his understanding and willingness to learn as we transited to the Oregon health transformation system. We are a better county from his guidance and steady approach.”
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