Ralph Smiley sipped water while others toasted him with Heritage pear wine.
“In honor of the pear farmer we have pear wine,” Camille Hukari said Sunday as she filled glasses at an outdoor reception for Smiley, “the Godfather of the Hood River County Farm Bureau.”
“All these people around me are the ones who did all the work, and I just get the credit,” said Smiley, who after 50 years is stepping down from the Oregon Farm Bureau (OFB) and county farm bureau.
“Congratulations on your retirement — all 27 seconds of it,” U.S. Rep. Greg Walden told Smiley in the event on the shaded patio at The Gorge White House in Hood River.
Smiley, 91, has been asked to stay on the county bureau board during this time of transition, said interim president Randy Kiyokawa.
“I’m the one fortunate enough to follow in Ralph’s footsteps,” said Kiyokawa, a Parkdale grower and 15-year county bureau board member.
The bureau will meet in November and elect new members and a slate of officers.
“You are a mentor to me, and to many farmers you are an incredible supporter of agriculture in our state,” Walden told Smiley and the group of 50 or so friends and associates.
Smiley has been a member of the Oregon Farm Bureau Hall of Fame since 1997 and has been with the county bureau for 50 years; the last 40 as president.
The Gorge White House, surrounded by fruit orchards and fields of flowers and strawberries, was a fitting environment to honor a man whose many accomplishments in life have centered on agriculture.
“He is the heart and soul of the Hood River Farm Bureau,” said Chuck Thomsen, who in addition to being an Oregon Senator is also a Pine Grove pear grower.
“We want to thank you for all you have done,” said Barry Bushue, president of the Oregon Farm Bureau. “Everyone here has in some way either worked with Ralph or supported Ralph,” Bushue said, “or, more importantly, learned from Ralph both in terms of the value of agriculture and the industry and Farm Bureau as a whole.
“It’s hard to give a résumé or a roundup of all the things Ralph has accomplished,” Bushue said.
Smiley is “a tremendous advocate and an effective one for agriculture in this valley and the state; but he also served his country valiantly in a very difficult time of need for our nation’s future,” Walden said, referring to Smiley’s World War II service in testing and modifying combat aircraft.
“If I ever did anything, that was the best, fixing those planes so they could defend our country,” he said.
He joined the Army Air Corps in 1939, was at Hickam Field when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, and worked with a team of self-described “experimenters” during World War II to test and refine bombers and literally writing the book on tactics for air crews.
“This was a kind of warfare that had never been done before,” Smiley said.
He later went to work for Lear Corporation and in 1959 bought what would become Smiley’s Orchard; he managed his first harvest over the phone, and moved to the valley permanently in 1960. By 1962 he was on the Oregon Farm Bureau board.
Hukari and others said that, in keeping with his “godfather” moniker, Smiley mostly worked behind the scenes.
“You’d have to see Ralph in action at the House of Delegates to really understand what Ralph does for the Farm Bureau as an organization,” Hukari said, referring to the annual conference where supporting and voting members discuss, debate, and vote on OFB policy.
“It’s run just like Congress and can be as inefficient, and just as spirited,” she said.
“We call him the ‘Godfather’ because he’s always working behind the scenes,” Hukari said. “He’s counting noses and counting votes for whatever the issue is in front of the House of Delegates and always been very involved in the whole political process, and he’s always behind-the-scenes guy for agriculture issues. When Ralph speaks at House of Delegates people listen.”
“Longevity, for one,” Hukari said, “and he never takes himself too seriously.
“Some people who are issue-driven can get so involved in the issue they can’t see the big picture, and you know how they get so angry at another and you can’t have a conversation. That’s not Ralph. He has is own opinions but he’s willing to listen and work for consensus, and he does a good job of it.
“In the Farm Bureau our most contentious issue in is land use, and you get people working one way or working another, and he can line people up and get people talking and at least agree to disagree, and I respect him for it and I think most people do.”
“Ralph is interested in politics and has helped the industry as a whole,” said Barry Myrhum, director of farmer services with OFB.
“He has always been diligent about making sure agriculture is represented at all levels of government and in the process not only got Hood River Farm Bureau involved in the (political) process but also made sure the Oregon Farm Bureau was, too.”
Dave Dillon, executive director for OFB, said, “In the same way that if you’re on the Farm Bureau circuit and you need to know who’s who in Oregon, you need to see Ralph, if you’re anywhere near anyone elected to office as a Republican you better know Ralph Smiley.”
“We’re here to celebrate Ralph’s long commitment and leadership in the Farm Bureau,” said Dillon, noting that the OFB celebrates its 80th year in 2012, and Smiley served as president for “fully half” of its entire history in Oregon.
“Ralph, on behalf of the staff and others, we want to say thank you very much for your great service,” Dillon said.
With a huge cake, emblazoned with the OFB logo, waiting to be consumed, Smiley had the last word, albeit a modest ones:
“I moved from the aviation world to the fruit orchards and a group including Bob Moller and Waldo Arens, drove up and said I needed to join the farm bureau, and I said, ‘I got a bureau in my bedroom,’ and they explained to me what the Farm Bureau was, so that’s when I joined; and then I went to the first meeting and they decided that I should be on the board, so in 1962 they brought me on the county board;
“The next year made me vice president, and I was vice president and I was vice president until 1972, and then they went crazy and elected me as president in 1972; and I finally found Randy a new job to take over this year. So that’s 40 years I had all these people helping me look good. “Thank you all of you, every one of you. Now eat your cake.”