Ronald and Patricia Peterson didn't set out to make one of the largest gifts to the University of Oregon in the school's history. That they did is a testimony to their success in business, commitment to community, and unswerving belief in the value of education.
Ron Peterson was 17 years old when he entered the UO in 1944, near the end of World War II. In part because of the war, only 2,500 students were on campus that fall.
After receiving his accounting degree in 1949, Ron returned to his native Portland and, like his grandfather before him, became a certified public accountant. But Ron's career took a different turn. With his wife, herself a businesswoman with a degree in economics from the University of Washington, Ron began acquiring commercial properties in Portland and found success in real estate investments.
As they approached retirement, the Petersons gradually divested themselves of their properties, until they were down to just one--the Ione Plaza, the property Ron considered a highlight of his career.
The Ione Plaza stands next to the Portland State University campus facing the Park blocks, bordered by 10th and Park, and Montgomery and Mill. Designed by Seattle architect Vic Jones and named for his wife, the fifteen-story building has a simple "X" footprint that affords all 305 apartment units a view of the city. Mushroom colored with maroon accents and awnings, the building and its terraces are beautifully landscaped. On a spring day, flowering trees are in full bloom under the budding branches of the huge trees that line Park Avenue. At street level a flower shop, beauty salon, market, and cafe bustle with activity. An outdoor coffee cart does a brisk business as residents and shoppers come and go.
Built in 1951, the Ione Plaza was owned by Ron and Patricia Peterson for more than thirty-three years. "The Ione," Ron said with affection, "was a super, super building," both as a well-designed and constructed building and as a terrific investment. Yet he almost turned down the chance to buy it.
Ron was at the "stag" table at the Arlington Club in 1969 when a real estate friend whispered into his bad ear, "Would you be interested in the Ione Plaza?"
"I misunderstood him. I thought he said another property which was okay but kind of borderline," recalled Ron, who already owned some other Portland properties. "And I said 'Oh, I don't think so.' He said, 'Did you hear what I said?'" Ron chuckled. "That's when I got my ear operation."
A meticulous businessman, Ron kept records on every unit on 3 X 5 cards. In 1969 a person could rent an apartment at the Ione for under $100 a month. Today rents start at $575. The building itself was special. "The architect threw in a little extra stuff here and there which made quite a difference," Ron said, adding that the building always had high occupancy.
In 2002, the Petersons donated the building to the UO, earmarking $4 million for Lillis Business Complex and $1 million for the Autzen Stadium expansion project. The rest of the gift was placed in a trust administered by the UO Foundation and to be divided and used within the Lundquist College of Business for three purposes: faculty, student, and program support; an endowed Presidential Scholarship established by the Petersons in 1995; and an endowment for new academic ventures determined by the UO president.
Longtime friend and attorney Norm Wiener, a retired partner with the Miller Nash law firm in Portland, admitted that the nature of the gift surprised him--"It's very unusual for a man to give away a building," he said dryly--but not the gift itself. "Ron has a history of giving to the community," Wiener said. He described Ron as a good, solid businessperson who operated mostly behind the scenes.:"He is the type of businessman who is a credit to his community."
Enthusiastic Duck fans, the Petersons "wouldn't miss a home game for anything," said Jane Cole, a family friend. An athlete himself, Ron reconnected with the UO through athletics. Dick Cole, a fellow Duck and founder of Cole, Black and Cunningham insurance brokerage, summed it up this way: "Ron loves the University of Oregon, I'll say that."
When pressed, Ron said his accounting degree and CPA credential gave him a certain advantage in the business world, and so it just made sense to give back to the school that launched him.
"Why wouldn't we support it?" Ron asked rhetorically. "It's terrific for the university and terrific for us. We've been extremely lucky and are happy to pass on our rewards."
Ultimately, though, it is their rock-solid belief in the value of education that underpins their generous gift. The Petersons' commitment to learning goes beyond the role of education in helping people achieve their personal goals.
Patricia put it best: "The world has to be educated if there's ever going to be peace."