George Wolfe Ettelson ’42: 2007 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.

On June 9, the Catlin Gabel alumni board presented the 2007 Distinguished Alumni Award to George Wolfe Ettelson ’42. His wife of 43 years, Helene, accepted the award on his behalf. George died in January 2007 at age 81 after a struggle with leukemia. The following article about George appeared in the spring 2007 issue of the Caller.

To those who knew George well he was, in the words of his lifelong friend and Gabel schoolmate Phillip Hawley ’43, “a special, special human being.”

“He was the finest person I ever knew,” Helene Ettelson says simply.

Those who did not know him so well, or even at all, often felt the same. As a Catlin Gabel student, a recipient of one of the three endowed scholarships George supported, wrote to George and Helene last year, “You’ve enabled me to reach my full potential, and for that, I cannot thank you enough.”

Helping others to reach their full potential was George’s passion. His legacy of fully engaged, hands-on philanthropy ultimately compelled the members of the alumni board to honor him with this year’s Distinguished Alumni Award. Helene says his impulse to give was born out of a profound sense of empathy: “It was important to George to serve communities with special needs and make a difference. He opened his heart to the needs of others and felt a deep connection with them.”

Giving also runs in the family. George’s grandfather, Adolphe Wolfe, provided the model by establishing a fund in memory of his son, Getz Wolfe, and supporting a variety of Portland nonprofits. George’s father, a prominent Portland physician, was also active in the community.

George’s daughter Diane Ettelson Lowenstein says that, in turn, George and Helene guided their children, Diane and her brother William, toward philanthropy as a practice: “Mom and Dad taught us that we have an obligation to give back to the community in a meaningful way and that doing so would be gratifying for us and make us more empathetic individuals, in addition to making a difference in the lives of those less fortunate. It was as though being an active, engaged member of the community was a way of life in the Ettelson household.”

The Ettelsons’ immediate community was the San Francisco Bay Area, where George settled after graduating from Yale and Harvard Business School, and serving in the Navy in the South Pacific during World War II. He became manager of the Macy’s store in Hillsdale and went on to a vital career in business before retiring as president of Dyno Industries, an office supply company.

In San Francisco, George served on a variety of corporate and nonprofit boards, including that of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Helene, whom he met in 1952 and married in 1964, volunteers at the Information Desk and Emergency Room of the California Pacific Medical Center, where she serves on the Guild Board.

Yet, as his daughter Diane points out, Portland – and Portland people – remained central to George’s thoughts throughout his 50 or so years in San Francisco.

“One truism with Dad is that ‘You can take the boy out of Oregon, but you can’t take Oregon out of the boy.’ Even though he left Portland at a relatively young age, he never forgot his roots and always maintained a true affinity for the community and organizations, such as Catlin, that influenced him so profoundly as a boy and prepared him for the rigors of Andover, Yale, Harvard Business School, and the Navy.”

In Portland, the Ettelsons support St. Vincent’s Hospital, Oregon Health and Science University, and Reed College. George served on the Catlin Gabel board and co-chaired the Endowment Committee with Nani Warren ’42. For him, education was an essential right and an important goal.

Diane says, “He used to tell me, ‘Get a good education. It’s the one thing no one can ever take away from you.’ My education is one of the greatest gifts he could ever give me.”

It is telling that the best birthday gift Helene could give George was to establish an endowed scholarship in his name at Catlin Gabel.

“I created [the George Ettelson Endowed Scholarship Fund] as a surprise for George’s 80th birthday in 2005,” Helene says. “The look on George’s face of joy and disbelief when Lark Palma announced this at an alumni gathering in San Francisco was pure delight! It gave him great pleasure.”

With the establishment of that fund, George became the first donor in Catlin Gabel history with three separate endowed scholarships to his credit. He and his sister Ruth established the Jean Ettelson Salz scholarship fund in memory of their sister, and then George endowed the Ruth Ettelson Wurzweiler scholarship in Ruth’s name when she died. Both Ruth and Jean had attended Miss Catlin’s. His aim with each of the funds was to expand access to Catlin Gabel for a more economically and socially diverse group of students. The funds exemplified his commitment to Catlin Gabel, Helene says. “He wanted to give something back to the school, and what better way that with a scholarship for a youngster who couldn’t afford it but was certainly qualified to attend Catlin Gabel.”

Each year, George looked forward to meeting the recipients of his family’s scholarships in person or by letter. “It meant a lot to him to get those letters,” Helene says. In reading the letters, one gets the sense that George was deeply interested in the students as people; he wanted to know what they were studying, what their families were like, what their personal interests were.

Personal connection was vital to George. “He always remembered to call on our anniversary and on Roger’s birthday,” says Laura Meier, whose late husband Roger Meier ’43, a fellow Distinguished Alumni Award honoree, was a longtime friend of George’s (George was an usher in the Meiers’ wedding).

Catlin Gabel was vital to him as well. Phil Hawley describes a conversation he and George had last fall, in what would turn out to be their last visit together. “We began reminiscing, swapping stories,” Phil says, “and George spent a substantial amount of time talking about Gabel.”

According to Phil, Catlin Gabel was “one of the center points of George’s mind” throughout his life. This Alumni Weekend, George will be the center point of our minds, as he so often has been. We are proud and honored to be able to call him a Distinguished Alumnus of this school.