CBC's outstanding alumnus an unlikely success story

By the Herald editorial staff

Columbia Basin College got it right the other day when it named Jim Watts its outstanding alumnus for the year.

Economically, recreationally and culturally, he has had -- and continues to have -- an under-the-radar effect on all those important aspects of Tri-City life.

On top of which, it is not an overstatement to say that he today performs some of the vital political tasks that used to be undertaken by his friend and mentor, Sam Volpentest.

Anyone living in the Tri-Cities 50 or so years ago would have been dumbfounded to hear we are talking about the same Jim Watts they knew as a member of a band of Watts brothers who raised hell and took no prisoners, a guy who was kicked out of several high schools around the Mid-Columbia.

But that was before he was corralled and tamed by Sharon Templeman, a former Columbia High homecoming queen whose strict Mormon parents must have had apoplexy when she introduced Jim Watts as her potential husband-to-be.

Watts went on to be the regional president of a 30,000-member union, who drove corporate heads crazy with his circumlocution and his habit of drawing portraits while they pontificated during union negotiating sessions.

All the time Watts was building bridges -- not just to politicians (usually of the Democratic persuasion) but also to anyone endeavoring to provide the Tri-Cities with a sound economic future.

He is one of the few union officials who held office in the Tri-City Development Council as chair of its Hanford division.

Few know that during the Hanford cutbacks of the 1990s and 2000, it was Watts who almost singlehandedly persuaded the powers-that-be at Hanford that its pension reserves were overfunded. That led to enhanced retirement packages that helped persuade older workers to retire (most stayed in the area) and kept younger workers (who would have had to move) on the job. It is estimated the move saved 750 to 900 jobs.

It's to Watts that the powerful Democrats at the state and federal levels look in the post-Volpentest era for fundraisers -- and to whom he then has links to raise such assistance as an estimated $11 million toward the Reach Interpretive Center.

A poet, author and accomplished artist, Watts understands a community does not live off bread alone and was the one who chaired the committee that brought together the divergent business, environmental and governmental interests that drafted a management plan for the Hanford Reach National Monument area and parlayed that into a group that spearheaded the idea of the interpretive center.

His company is constructing a multimillion-dollar office building on the banks of the Columbia in north Richland that will include a public park for those using the riverside trail.

Watts' involvement in the community covers two pages and ranges from the Boy Scouts, United Way, WSU Tri-Cities, Tri-City Cancer Center and Hanford Advisory Board to numerous state advisory boards.

CBC got it right when it picked Watts this year.

And Watts got it right when he stressed to those at this year's ceremony that it is educational institutions such as CBC that are the crucibles for tomorrow's leaders.