Alfred Aya ’43: 2006 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient

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Annually the alumni board selects from nominations an alumnus or alumna who demonstrates, through his or her contributions to the community, “qualities of character, intelligence, responsibility, and purpose” fostered at Catlin Gabel and its predecessor schools.

Alfred Aya ’43, a man of limitless curiosity and energy, has developed an emergency warning system able to save thousands of lives in the Cannon Beach area if a tsunami strikes the Oregon coast. The most remarkable thing about Alfred’s work is that this is his second career—one begun in his 60s after he intended to lead a quiet life of retirement by the sea. Recognizing how fully he has lived his life, and the intelligence with which he has translated his interests into meaningful realities, the Alumni Association will honor Alfred this June with the Distinguished Alumni Award. All alumni are invited to attend the dinner and celebration on June 9.

After graduating from Stanford University and serving in the Korean War, Alfred forged a long, successful career in Pacific Telephone’s corporate research department developing unique systems for analyzing operational data trends. When the Bell System was dismantled, he left Pacific Telephone, working first as a consultant and then retiring to Cannon Beach.

Simple acts can lead to bigger projects when a person as thoughtful as Alfred gets involved in study and questioning. He decided to overhaul his house, researched applicable local ordinances carefully, and as a result was appointed to the local planning commission for seven years. Concurrently, he became a director of the local fire district. He discovered that there was no system that could efficiently notify the community of an approaching tsunami. Watching two small children alone on the beach building sand castles, he resolved to remedy this potentially tragic lack of a proper warning system.

Alfred educated himself extensively about tsunamis at local libraries. He soon became known as the local expert on tsunamis—and since has come to be respected as a global expert.

He experienced firsthand the shortcomings of the coast’s emergency warning system in 1986, when a magnitude 8 Aleutian earthquake triggered a West Coast tsunami watch. Cannon Beach dispatched all its emergency personnel to warn the several thousands in and around town. This took 90 minutes—leaving no one to handle other emergencies. In response, Alfred developed the Cannon Beach Fire District’s community warning system (COWS), providing electronic siren and public address announcements and requiring only one person to operate it. Still in place today and satellite-linked to the emergency center in Alaska, it requires only 15 minutes to warn people in ocean hazard zones to evacuate. During monthly testing, the system broadcasts the sound of mooing (paying heed to its COWS name) instead of sirens, to avoid scaring the public. Alfred’s work promoting community preparedness for tsunamis earned him the 1994 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Public Service Award. He has also consulted about tsunami preparedness worldwide, been quoted in National Geographic, and appeared on Nightline after the tsunami in Asia.

Alfred has consistently exemplified the qualities that the Distinguished Alumni Award was created to honor, broadly described by Ruth Catlin in 1928. These include effective leadership, creative and resourceful problem solving, a sense of calling, a desire to serve the greater good, the ability to inspire and motivate others, and an enduring legacy. If you’re in Cannon Beach and hear some extremely loud mooing, send thanks to Alfred Aya for all he has done to make coastal communities around the world safer in the face of tsunamis.