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Community Godfather – Excerpt


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Over the course of this long life, Sam Volpentest was called many things: “Mr. Tri-Cities,” “Mr. Sam,” or “The Man from Hanford,” and, occasionally, by far less flattering terms. Washington’s powerful senior senator, Warren Magnuson – Sam’s longtime friend since the early 1930s – struggled to pronounce his last name and invariably referred to hi as “My friend Sam” or t “The Champ.” California Congressman Chet Holifield (D—CA), the longtime chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, nicknamed him “Spunky.” Others, in both Washingtons, called him “the Godfather of the Tri-Cities.” The reference was a double-entendre, reflecting both the classic definition of an individual who is the equivalent of a benevolent baptismal sponsor, and of the Italian heritage of which Sam was so proud.

Sam just called himself “a travelling salesman who made good.”

He was an unlikely community godfather. It was not because he lacked maturity, or natural intelligence, or energy and persistence, or a deep affection for the community he sought to help. He possessed each of those in abundance. What he lacked was the formal education, the family connections, and the accumulated wealth that are normally associated with those we choose to be our leaders.

Sam was fond of saying he had “experienced” every decade of the twentieth century. He experienced the first half of the following decade as well. He was born Sam Volpentesta in Seattle on September 24, 1904, the first child of Italian immigrant parents who separately found their way to America from their Southern Italian peasant villages in 1892. On the day Sam Volpentest was born, Theodore Roosevelt was President of the United States. The Russo-Japanese War had just begun. Albert Einstein was in the final stages of developing his Theory of Relativity, and Washington had been a state for slightly more than fifteen years.

When he died on September 28, 2005—four days after his 101st birthday—George W. Bush occupied the White House, Americans had been to the moon and back several times and its astronauts were living on an international space station. Iraq had been occupied as a result of the First Gulf War, a decision that arguably changed the history of the Middle East and of America as well. Sam Volpentest “experienced” the First World War, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, the Second World War, Korea, Viet Nam, the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, 9/11, and the beginning of what has become a seemingly endless War on Terror.

Sam was born with few advantages in life. His father, already in middle age by the time Sam was born, spent much of his later life shining shoes in a Pioneer Square barber shop. His mother occasionally worked in a laundry or served as a mid-wife. Sam went to work when he was ten to help support his family. Because he was working full-time, he attended night classes for two years in order to graduate second in his class from Broadway High School in Seattle in 1922. Sam was smart and motivated. Somehow he found the time to become one of Seattle’s first Eagle Scouts. He started a radio dance band. He worked for more than twenty years as a clerk and a record-setting commission salesman for a wholesale grocery company. Still, he dreamed of the day that he could own his own business and provide his children with the college education he had been unable to afford. In the early 1930s, his favorite uncle introduced him to two aspiring young politicians, Albert Rosellini and Warren G. Magnuson, who would both play pivotal roles in Sam’s future career.

He was a natural-born salesman—absolutely fearless, and never, never intimidated by anyone or anything. Like any good salesman, he was also an optimist. He believed that he would make the sale. Gerald (Jerry) Grinstein, Senator Magnuson’s talented administrative assistant, remembered that, “Sam was a good salesman, and a good salesman has to be able to sell himself before he can sell his product. Sam just naturally sold himself.” He knew how to keep his sales pitch short and to understand others’ needs and motivations.

He was also a natural political strategist and master tactician who had an innate understanding of politics and politicians. Outwardly gruff and almost always profane, he enjoyed their gossip, their company, and their friendship. He understood the nexus of how self-interest and the better motivations of politicians could be mutually beneficial to all. Sam Volpentest was successful because he believed, and because he believed, he caused others to believe that what he wanted was not primarily for his own benefit, but for the benefit of his community as a whole.

A videotaped profile of his life produced just after his death in 2005 began with these words, “Perhaps no other individual has done so much to help shape the vibrant Tri-Cities economy of today or to position it for the future.” In 1949, on the strength of a small display ad that he read in the Seattle Times, Sam moved his family from Seattle to the new, government-owned village of Richland, Washington. It existed only to serve the needs of the top-secret Hanford Engineer Works—the massive complex where plutonium for America’s atomic bombs was being produced. The weather was hot, the workers were thirsty, and Sam opened a tavern—and then several more. Everyone in the new town was from somewhere else, eliminating that sense of class and inherited wealth that permeates more established communities and making it easier for him to become a successful businessman and community leader.

All of this was almost lost forever when, in 1957, Sam was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer of the jaw and told he might have less than a month to live. His long and painful recovery required nine operations and radiation therapy over five years. Unable to work at his taverns and deeply depressed, he was encouraged to get involved in his community. It was probably the most momentous decision of his long life. It allowed him to combine the sales skills he had learned as a young man with the friendships he had developed with some of Washington’s most powerful politicians. It became the source of his success.

For the next forty-five years Sam Volpentest was the “go-to guy” when it came to finding federal funding for the projects and missions at Hanford or in the Tri-Cities community. There is probably no accurate way of estimating how much money Sam Volpentest brought in to his adopted community. Until the public announcement was made, most of his friends and neighbors—even some of his closest associates—never knew what projects he might be working on.

Sam was controversial, even among his friends. There were those who didn’t like his politics. There were those who didn’t like his style. But even among his greatest detractors there was a grudging appreciation that he got things done.

Once a project was announced, Sam loved the recognition he received, but he rarely acted alone. More often than not, the projects and issues he was credited for began as the passion or the vision of someone else. They dreamed the dreams; they formed the visions. Sam had the contacts, the political intuition, the sales skill, and the persistence to turn their ideas—once he bought into them—into reality.