December 11, 2009

USA: She summited Mt. Baker. Almost.

. SEATTLE, Washington / The Seattle Times / December 11, 2009 Honoring a nature lover The city of Kent is only 207 feet above sea level. Still, Mary Anderson raised a fist like she had summited Mount Rainier when she got there the other day. Anderson was visiting the headquarters of Recreational Equipment Inc., the co-op she founded with her husband, Lloyd, in 1938, to celebrate her 100th birthday. By Nicole Brodeur, Seattle Times staff columnist The city of Kent is only 207 feet above sea level. Still, Mary Anderson raised a fist like she had summited Mount Rainier when she got there the other day. Who could blame her? Anderson had made it. Not just to Kent, and the headquarters of Recreational Equipment Inc., the co-op she founded with her husband, Lloyd, in 1938. Mary Anderson Mary Anderson had made it to 100 years — and had come to REI to share the milestone, watch over an employee awards ceremony and learn that the company was establishing a $50,000 annual legacy grant in her name. "This thrills me to no end," she told the gathering of about 500 employees. "You people are carrying out Lloyd's dream." It was something to see. There was Anderson, the embodiment of the company's past, sitting in her wheelchair, beaming back at the people who would take the company further than she and her late husband ever imagined. "It was pretty profound," said Arleen Hiuga, a 35-year employee. "Because Mary started it. She and Lloyd, out of selfless desire, wanted people to have fair prices on products that would take them outdoors. "But I don't think they ever intended it to be as it is today." REI was founded in 1938, when Lloyd Anderson was searching for an ice ax at a reasonable price. He found a high-quality model in an Austrian alpine-gear catalog for $3.50 (shipping included). Word of his find spread in the mountaineering community, and the Andersons gathered 21 of their climbing friends to establish the co-op, aimed at finding — and making — more equipment at good prices. Mary Anderson sewed tents and sleeping bags. She divided 100-pound bags of powdered milk into one-pound bags and smaller. She traveled to China and Japan so she could feel material with her own hands before buying it to make jackets. From those labors grew a chain of 110 stores, 9,000 employees and 3.7 million active members. But the growth and success came with some bitterness, as the co-op was incorporated in 1956 and a board established to steer the operation. Lloyd died in 2000. Mary felt forgotten for a long time. She was brought back into the co-op's consciousness by Sally Jewell, who approached Anderson soon after being elected CEO in 2005. The two had tea, then started meeting for dinner or walks around Green Lake, Jewell listening while Anderson told stories. As a young teacher, Anderson took her students to Rainier Valley, where crews were digging up the road to put in a trolley line. There was an ancient sea floor under there, Anderson told the foreman, and she wanted her students to see it. Every kid went home with a fossil. People used to ask Anderson where she went to church. Outside, she would say. The wilderness was her cathedral. "Every time we connect, she shares a little more of herself," Jewell said. "It's a very meaningful relationship for me." At the company event the other day, Jewell gave Anderson the mike, "and she took off." She talked about hiring a cashier who gave members directions "for all over Seattle, and answered all the silly questions that people from away from here always ask." She used to figure out the annual member dividends. "The machine does that for you, now." She was proud that REI infused money into Europe as it struggled during and after World War II. "It's not the profits that you make," she said. "It's that you work together and solve problems." After Anderson blew out the candles on her birthday cake, a crowd of 30 employees stood waiting for a moment with her. "All kinds of people!" Anderson would say later. "Mostly people who didn't know that I existed. It takes some of the bitterness out of it." Chris Deveny, who started 19 years ago and now works in REI Adventures, wanted to thank Anderson for what she started. "I told her it was still fun to work here," he said. Said Hiuga: "She is definitely 100 years old. But people here are amazed at what she can do in one sitting." And what she did so that the rest of us could climb. [rc] Nicole Brodeur E-Mail: nbrodeur@seattletimes.com. Copyright © The Seattle Times Company