By Lars Larson
My best friend died Sunday night.
On the last day of his life Harry Merlo grabbed my hand. Harry wasn’t speaking much by that point, or even opening his eyes for long, but even after 9 decades and change, that grip informed you in no uncertain terms that it had held its share of Orange Stihl saws, and double bit axes. The public knows of the multi billion dollar forest industry deals inked by that hand but Harry gave me the pleasure of knowing, for a couple of those decades, the man who wanted to wrap those strong hands around the actual wood fiber that was the reason for those deals. Harry must have told me a hundred times of his disgust at timber deals made by those who merely flew over a forest in a helicopter. Harry knew you only got to know a forest when you walked it, and cut it, and smelled the fir or the redwood with your own nose.
He lived and breathed woodpiles to the last day of his life.
Harry Merlo mounted his first wood pile in Sterling City, east of Chico at the age of three…and learned the business as a teen doing the unforgiving work on the green chain of California lumber mills.
And he made fists of those tough hands to win the Light Heavyweight title for the United States Marine Corps 70 years ago
A man who loved to tell you how a certain Italian Tenor mistook the LP on the tail of Harry’s jet for a special appellation in honor of Luciano…
Or the man who made sure the great coach Clive Charles never wanted for a paycheck.
Or the man who brought the Davis cup to Portland.
And whose name graces the Soccer stadium here at the University of Portland.
All of that and the rewards that come from building a Fortune 500 company, Louisiana Pacific.
He liked to pile wood.
One day just a couple of years ago, both of us had elk hanging in the cooler and while our friends hunted, Harry invited me to help him make burn piles in his Forest near LaGrande. What a workout! Harry was three decades older and it was impossible to keep up with him.
But he wanted that forest of his to be perfect.
He found markets for the logs previous owners left to rot on the forest floor…and turned them into pulp that made products we’ve all used.
He bought specialized machines to mulch the mess of debris on the ground into something that would hold the moisture to let new trees get started.
And other technology to carefully thin the forest…to let the best trees grow and remove the rest.
Harry was the best of cutting edge and old school.
And like the deer and elk harry loved to hunt he never let a single part of a tree go to waste…pulp for paper, chips to heat the school at Enterprise replacing oil, timber that became dimensional lumber to build the houses we live in and the oriented strand board he pioneered in America. And planting. Always planting. Hundreds of thousands of seedlings planted in that forest …not because he HAD to but because he could see beyond his time on this mortal coil.
Fifty or a hundred years from now, some logger will cut down one of Harry’s trees and send it off to a mill, where boards will be cut that will make the houses and windows and furniture that the great grandchildren of the people in this room will enjoy without even knowing it was Harry’s hands that put it in the ground.
Yesterday I spoke with our good friend Kerry Kymchuk about Harry. Listen to our conversation below.