President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for Secretary of Defense is widely known as a Marine’s Marine, uncommonly concerned with the welfare of men and women in the ranks.
Gen. James Mattis, retired, is equally known for his common touch at home in the Tri-Cities.
Mattis was born in Eastern Washington and grew up in Richland. He was 16 when his family moved into one of Richland’s Alphabet Houses, not far from the Columbia River.
Since retiring in 2013, the tidy residence with roses by the front door has been his legal residence.
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Mattis travels widely for speeches and other commitments, but he regularly makes time for local affairs. He served on the Tri-Cities Food Bank board for three years, speaks regularly at local service clubs and has shown a personal interest in local veterans and veteran affairs.
Until he stepped down last week after being identified as a candidate for Secretary of Defense, Mattis was an active participant in food bank activities.
He walked through all three food bank facilities and always responded to monthly reports by Executive Director Bill Kitchen.
“For him to have that large of an interest (in the food bank), with him being as busy as he is, says a lot about his character,” Kitchen said.
“We’re going to see a whole bunch of stuff in the papers about him — some good, some bad — but we, in the food bank, have seen his true character, and that’s the man that I would like to see in that position, secretary of defense,” he added.
V.J. Meadows, the board’s president, noted that after Mattis famously reported for jury duty in Benton County just before Thanksgiving, he reported to the food bank, where he helped distribute food for the holidays.
He will be missed, Meadows said.
“It’s definitely a loss to us. We’re very, very proud to see him take this step and to call him a friend.”
Mattis graduated from Columbia High School, now Richland, in 1968, and went on to Central Washington University.
When he retired in 2013, he was head of U.S. Central Command, overseeing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has since joined the Hoover Institution, a public policy think tank at Stanford University in California.
Franklin County Commissioner Brad Peck, another Central graduate who retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel, introduced himself to Mattis at a business event to talk about a plan to establish a military “tattoo” ceremonial program in Pasco to honor service members.
Four-star generals, even retired ones, tend to be busy people. So Peck was surprised when Mattis emailed a few days later, expressing interest in the idea and asking Peck to stay in touch.
The retired general is “revered” for his reputation for getting out in the field, including firefights, to talk to Marines, Peck said.
On a personal level, he described Mattis as an unassuming person who is easy to talk to.
“I would be delighted if he were secretary of defense,” Peck said. “I don’t think I could think of anyone in the ranks today or recently retired who would look after the interests of soldiers.”
Tri-Citians have shared similar stories about their encounters with Mattis over the years.
Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg was introduced to Mattis when the late Tom McMillin of Richland was showing Mattis the veterans monument in Columbia Park.
Hohenberg later received a letter from Mattis, telling him he didn’t think there could be a more dignified, better-designed and located memorial.
“(Tom) was wonderfully gregarious, an open-hearted and kind man,” Mattis wrote at the time. “Plus, he was a hard-charger, as evidenced by the beautiful Veterans Memorial he and his wife helped create. Those beautiful cut granite columns will stand in Columbia Park as quiet testimony to his persistence.”
In August, Mattis reunited with his elementary school physical education teacher, Rex Davis, during a visit to Washington State University in Pullman.
The two men recalled rope climbing, jumping jacks and kickball.
“I remember how you used to blow that whistle,” the general told Davis, now 84. For his part, the retired educator remembered his long-ago student well.
“I still remember how well (Mattis) could climb those ropes,” he said afterward.
In 2010, Mike Steckline, of Richland, a former Richland High classmate and longtime Mattis friend, told the Herald that the Tri-Cities should be proud to have Mattis defending the country.
“He’s just a beautiful person, ” Steckline said. “We grew up together. It’s hard to put enough words in place for him because he’s a great friend.”
Steckline called Mattis a lifelong team player and someone whose energy and determination led him to believe Mattis would accomplish great things.
“When he was younger, he had so much drive — incredible amounts of drive,” Steckline said. “Well, look at him now.”