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Potato Commission founder, community leader dies at 97

There was a Capraesque quality to the life of Walter LePage, a farm boy who never finished high school, but earned a college degree and became a teacher, an airplane pilot, and a pillar of the Tri-City community.

LePage died Wednesday in Pasco. He was 97 years old, and leaves behind a legacy of decades of community service, including helping to create several area institutions and landmarks.

In the 1950s, he helped establish Franklin Fire District 3 and was a founder of the Washington State Potato Commission.

He spent 10 years on the Franklin County Parks and Recreation, from 1957-67, and helped plan and establish Chiawana Park and the Pasco Municipal Golf Course, now Sun Willows.

After that, he was a Port of Pasco commissioner from 1968 to 1973 -- the period when the port built its radar tower, a potato storage facility that could hold 10,000 tons, and the port's first 10 Tee hangars for aircraft storage rental.

"Walt was just a pioneer," said Chris Voigt, executive director of the potato commission. "He was a leader and a visionary. ... His leadership and his vision will be missed."

LePage was born Aug. 3, 1913, in Santa Ana, Calif., to the owner of a neighborhood grocery store, according to an 18-page autobiography he wrote before his death that was provided to the Herald by his family.

Shortly after his birth, the family sold the store and moved to Wyoming, starting a pattern of moves that would take the LePage clan back to California, then to Washington, Missouri, Ohio and Texas through the 1920s and 1930s.

"Life in Missouri was an education and a shock to me," LePage wrote. "The chiggers and fleas really gave me a bad time. It was an experience to hear the neighbors calling the hogs, and one farmer who didn't have a tractor hollering at his mules, 'Get yonder, Beck and Jule,' as he was plowing."

He weathered hard years during the Depression when the corn only grew to three feet high, and chinch bugs attacked their crops with no herbicides to stop them.

He never finished high school because of the family's moves, but after the LePages settled in Brownsville, Texas, for awhile in 1936, he enrolled in college at age 23 after seeing an advertisement that Brownsville Junior College would take adult students with no high school diplomas as long as they maintained a C average.

"That ad really excited me," he wrote. "I really worked to keep up that freshman year and was up until midnight studying a lot of nights ... and, yes, did come through with the C average."

In between semesters, he hitchhiked and took odd jobs -- like shoveling sand in Zapata, Mexico, for two weeks one summer.

He worked his way through Central Missouri State Teachers College -- where tuition cost $20 per quarter -- and graduated in 1940 with a bachelor of science degree, with majors in physics and chemistry and minors in math and education.

His first teaching job was in a one-room schoolhouse in Missouri.

He learned to fly airplanes before World War II broke out, and spent most of the war training pilots at a flight school near Cuero, Texas.

When the school closed in August 1944, he decided to go to Yakima to look for a teaching job even though he never had been there. He ended up getting a job at Hanford, but quit once the Hiroshima bomb was dropped and he learned what the Manhattan Project was about.

His next job was teaching at Columbia High School, but eventually the farming bug from his youth bit again and he and his wife, Ethelyn, bought some land north of Pasco for $24 per acre.

He grew wheat and red clover, and later row crops with irrigated water. He started his own company cleaning and marketing seed in 1952.

That era also marked the beginning of nearly four decades of community involvement.

In addition to the potato commission, fire district and Port of Pasco, he served on the Washington State Agriculture Stabilization and Conservation Service from 1961-67, and was appointed by U.S. Director of Agriculture under the Kennedy administration to a committee overseeing federal farm programs for the state of Washington.

From 1953-87, he was a member and officer of the Franklin County Crop Improvement Association.

Jim Toomey, executive director of the Port of Pasco, said he also was just a delightful person to be around.

"He was always jovial, thoughtful and welcome (at the port)," Toomey said. "He always had good things to say. We're going to miss him. We offer condolences from the entire port staff and commission to his family."

LePage's funeral service is at 1 p.m. Monday at Einan's Funeral Home, 915 Highway 240 Bypass, Richland. A reception will follow the service.