Let me say this about that

By Gene Klare

October 4, 2002

LEO LARSEN, a retired financial secretary of Portland Carpenters Local 247, has entered the Labor Hall of Fame which is under the stewardship of the Northwest Oregon Labor Retirees Council. That council is affiliated with the Portland-based Northwest Oregon Labor Council.

Larsen, 79, who has lived in Gresham since1960, was elected as the first financial secretary of Local 247 when it was chartered in 1982 by the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. Prior to that, he had been financial secretary of Carpenters Local 226 for six years. Larsen retired in 1985.

Local 247 was formed by a merger of Portland Carpenters Locals 226, 1020 and 583. A forerunner of Local 226 was Local 50, founded in 1883. That local later merged with Local 808 to form Local 226.

HOME FOR #247 is the Carpenters Building, which it owns, at 2205 North Lombard Street on the corner of North Brandon Avenue. Local 583 had owned the hall prior to the merger that produced Local 247.

Leo Larsen was born on Jan. 26, 1923 in McHenry, North Dakota, in the state's eastern portion. He was one of six children, whose parents owned an 800-acre farm on which grain was grown and livestock raised. "There was always lots of work," Larsen recalled. "We were four miles from town and four miles from school." Larsen said he and his siblings sometimes walked to school; other times they rode horseback or in a horse-drawn bus made by their father.

Larsen lived and worked on the family farm until 1944 when he decided to go into the carpentry trade and went to Billings, Montana, where he underwent his union apprenticeship.

Three years later, because his father had suffered a stroke, he returned to North Dakota to help run the farm, but in winters he did carpentry work in the McHenry area. After his father recovered, Leo went back to Billings in 1950 and worked for a union contractor who was engaged "in all phases of construction - commercial, residential and schools." Larsen added that he "went into business on my own as a contractor in 1955, building houses and doing remodeling."

LARSEN'S MOVE to the Portland area occurred in 1960. He was drawn here because two of his sisters and a brother lived here. One of his first jobs was working on the construction of Marshall High School at 3905 SE 91st Ave. He was employed by the Ross B. Hammond Company, a general contractor. Other projects on which Larsen worked, some of them as a foreman, included the Waverly Country Club, Rockwood Plaza and the remodeling of the Medical Arts Building on SW Taylor.

He became active in Local 226 and was elected a trustee and a delegate to the Portland District Council of Carpenters. After Larsen was elected as his union's financial secretary, he expanded his sphere of activity to include the Columbia-Pacific and Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Councils, the Oregon State Council of Carpenters, the Multnomah County Labor Council (later the Northwest Oregon Labor Council), and other organizations including the Oregon Building Congress. The OBC's membership includes labor, management and governmental officials who are involved in some phase of the building industry. Larsen served as OBC's president in 1981.

WHILE LARSEN SERVED as Local 247's financial secretary he helped get the Carpenters Food Bank started in 1983 to provide boxes of food for striking Steelworkers and out-of-work Carpenters who were jobless because of the Reagan Recession. The Union Food Bank still operates in the basement of the Carpenters Building on North Lombard.

Another highlight of Larsen's career was the 1983 celebration of the centennial of the Carpenters Union in Portland. Local 247 commissioned the publication of a book "The City Builders: One Hundred Years of Union Carpentry in Portland, Oregon." Dr. Craig Wollner, a historian on the faculty of Portland State University (PSU), was retained to research and write the illustrated book. The centennial celebration also featured a month-long exhibit at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, then located in a building adjacent to the Portland Zoo overlooking SW Canyon Road. (OMSI's original home on SW Canyon was built in the 1950s by hundred of volunteer union craftsmen.) There was also a centennial program in the Local 247 Hall highlighted by the staging of a one-act play, "Builders of the Nation " by PSU's performing arts department. George Edwards, then Local 247's recording secretary, chaired the union's Centennial Committee.

LARSEN AND EDWARDS teamed up to lobby a proposed Carpenters Licensing Law at the Oregon Legislature in the 1981 session at Salem. However, it died in a Senate committee. Public service projects and events in which Larsen and other union carpenters participated included the West Women's Shelter, the Heritage Fair, Oregon State Fair, Multnomah County Fair and the Neighbor Fair in downtown Portland. Larsen said carpenters have donated thousands of hours of their skilled labor to various causes.

Larsen served on the Oregon Consumer Services Advisory Council in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the Consumer Services Division was part of the State Department of Commerce.

AN EIGHT-YEAR CIVIC PROJECT in Gresham earned Larsen a "Preservationist of the Year" award in 1986 from the Gresham Historical Society. The project involved moving Gresham's oldest standing church building from the First Baptist Church complex one block east to the Main Street City Park. The Historical Society wanted the over-100-years-old structure moved and remodeled for use as a museum and an office. Larsen was asked for his expert advice on the undertaking. He responded by taking charge of the project and enlisting the help of volunteers from his union and various other unions and also obtaining the assistance of companies including Campbell Crane.

Gresham merchants and residents made cash donations to the civic cause. Eventually, the old church was moved, restored and converted into a museum.

On the personal side of his life, 'Larsen was married in 1949 to his first wife Dona. They had two sons and two daughters and were divorced in 1972. One son, Chris, is a member of Local 247 and works as a superintendent for Reimers & Jolivette, a general contractor for whom Leo had worked. Son Wayne is a carpenter who belongs to Oregon City Local 1388. A daughter, Gwen Mathew, lives in Alaska; one of her sons has recently completed his Carpenter apprenticeship there. Daughter Janet Olsen sells real estate in Yakima, Wash. Leo has 18 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. His wife, Betty, whom he married in 1982, has a son and a daughter and five grandchildren.

REFLECTING ON HIS LIFE, Larsen said, "Carpentry runs in our family," He noted that his grandfather moved in 1900 from Iowa to Silverton, Oregon, near Salem. "He built his own house and three rental houses in Silverton and they are still standing." Leo said his father "was a real mechanic - he could fix anything." He said that in addition to being a farmer his father was a skilled blacksmith. Leo recalled that his father, traveling by freighter, once took a steam-powered threshing machine to the South American country of Chile where he set it up and showed local wheat growers how to use it. His father was working for the threshing machine's manufacturer.

Larsen stressed the importance of workers being covered by a union contract. "That means having safe working conditions, good pay and benefits, and having time to enjoy their family and to participate in community activities and events."


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