Spencer Ehrman '35: 2004 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient

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Gabel School alumnus Spencer Ehrman '35 died peacefully in April 2004 after a short illness. Spencer had a long and important relationship with Catlin Gabel. We are pleased that he learned of his Distinguished Alumni Award before his death.

When Spencer Ehrman became chair of the Gabel Country Day School’s board, he didn’t imagine that he would soon preside over its merger with the Catlin-Hillside School to become Catlin Gabel.

In February 1957, as chair of the Gabel Country Day School’s board, Spencer delivered a persuasive speech to Gabel parents about the proposed merger with Catlin. Both schools were in dire financial straits, and he had headed the committee charged with exploring a unification of the two. The governance structures of the schools differed— while Catlin’s board would make the decision, all Gabel parents had a vote. His key points covered the schools’ similar cultures and traditions, prospective economies of scale, impending property issues, and fundraising challenges in the Portland community. Facing a rebellion among parents (some were outraged that merger news had first come in the paper, and upset about how the administrative positions would be allocated among the schools’ current staff), he meticulously countered every objection, and the merger won by a single vote.

The School is a four-generation family tradition for Spencer. His father graduated from Gabel’s predecessor, the Portland Academy, in 1907. He started at Gabel in 1926, eventually skipping three grades and becoming its first high school graduate in 1935. Too young to go to college, Spencer spent a year at Lincoln High School in Portland, and a year at Andover Academy in Massachusetts before attending Yale University, thus graduating from three different high schools. Spencer’s sister, Alayne, graduated in 1940 from Miss Catlin’s School. His children, Spencer, Jr. ’68, Debbie ’73, and Susan ’75 were “lifers” at Catlin Gabel. Two of his grandchildren, Mason Kaye ’04 and Rob Kaye ’07 are current students.

Spencer’s first wife, the late Pat Ehrman, led many volunteer efforts at Catlin Gabel, chairing the Rummage Sale twice in the 1960s and serving on the board of trustees. The school’s annual citizenship award honoring seniors bears her name. For many years Spencer played a key role in the Rummage Sale, serving as its unofficial “financial advisor” and money-counter.

Beyond the profound mark he and his family have made on Catlin Gabel, Spencer Ehrman’s career included decades of community service and business expertise. From 1942 to 1946 he served in the U.S. Navy as a communications officer. Aboard the U.S.S. San Diego he became the first American ashore in Tokyo Bay at the end of World War II. He served as a principal in Mason, Ehrman & Company, and later Schuss Wholesale and S.E. Rykoff, all businesses involved in wholesale or institutional food distribution. He was known for his ability to solve complex problems and bring diverse philosophies together.

Throughout his long career he has continued to serve the community. As president of the Deschutes Club for 14 years, he brokered successful cooperation between the club, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, the Bureau of Land Management, the River Guides Association, local cattlemen, and the State of Oregon, preserving the lower Deschutes River for multiple conservation-based uses. He also served on the boards of numerous other local organizations where he contributed his hard work, winning personality, and sound judgment.

A lifelong Portlander, Spencer’s passions include reading, fly fishing, and bridge. Recently, he generously supported our School’s diversity program, serving on the board’s Diversity Committee and underwriting the 1999 Symposium on Race and Class.

As Karen Atiyeh (Gabel ’43) said in nominating Spencer for the Distinguished Alumni Award, “He has continued his commitment to the growth of Portland and the State of Oregon with dedication and enthusiasm in the fields of business, education, civic and cultural activities, and environmental leadership.” Spencer will be fondly remembered for his many contributions to the School, the city of Portland, and the state of Oregon.