By Kevin Miller
They warned me about people like Al and Pat Reser before I took this job.
Beware the big donors, I heard from friends who wondered why I wanted to edit an alumni magazine. Watch out for the ones whose names are on the buildings.
Then, as I met many of OSU’s major philanthropists – including the couple with the biggest name on the biggest building on campus – I realized those warnings were silly.
In five years at the Stater, I’ve never heard a hint of Al or Pat Reser asking for anything in return for their incredibly generous donations of money, time and spirit.
Certainly Pat, a co-chair of The Campaign for OSU, didn’t pressure me to plug her late husband’s memoir, No Small Potatoes: How a Family Potato Salad Recipe is Fast Becoming a Billion Dollar Business.
It was at my request, not hers, that we talked about the book on the afternoon of Halloween. She was preparing to spend the evening with her grandchildren, one of many first-time-without-Al moments the Reser family has faced since he died on April 12.
No Small Potatoes is essentially a Reser family and business history, authored by Al and writer Kerry Tymchuk. A modest little book, it’s a great read.
“I’m really pleased that the story is out there,” Pat said. She noted that her husband succeeded in life and business – and became one of OSU’s most generous and honored graduates – despite meager beginnings. He didn’t learn to read until the fifth grade and spent part of his youth in a county labor camp.
“I used to be a special ed teacher,” she said. “I worked with mildly handicapped students, and I think some of them wrote themselves off far too early. Al’s story is one of those that shows that we should never write ourselves off.”
The book is full of great anecdotes, including one about painfully shy, 16-year-old Al making his first face-to-face sales pitch:
My mother and I pulled up outside a small grocery store in the community of Oregon City. She turned the engine off, but instead of getting out, she just sat in the driver’s seat.
“Are you going in?” I asked her. “No,” she replied. “You are.” … Any thought I had that she might be bluffing was set aside when she pulled out a book from her purse and began to read. “The store doesn’t close for a few more hours,” she said with a smile. … I finally opened the door and stepped outside … located the manager, offered him a taste of our salads, and almost hugged him when he said that he would buy twelve containers of potato salad and six containers of macaroni salad at thirty cents a container. I have made countless sales calls since then – some worth millions of dollars – but no sale stands out in my memory more than that $5.40 sale in Oregon City!
There are stories of how Pat and Al met (and how many dates it took for him to decide he’d made an important discovery); of how OSU scientists helped the company; of Al’s battle against a persistent and well-funded hostile takeover attempt; of how and why Parker Stadium became Reser Stadium; and of course, the entire “AL-phabet,” including “C is for customers. If you don’t take care of them, somebody else will.”
Pat said she still misses her partner of 53 years but she knows he wouldn’t want anyone moping around in his absence. She’s continuing her work for OSU and also taking care to make sure Al’s legacy of integrity and generosity gets passed down to younger Resers, who will play a key role in the newly established Reser Family Foundation.
She said one of the most surprising aspects of being a well-known widow of a much-loved man is that she spends a fair amount of time comforting others who miss him.
That’s why she got herself up to the family skybox in Reser Stadium an hour earlier than usual before the first home football game this season. Al loved game days so much, she said. She knew the first game without him would be tough on everybody. So she arrived early and got her own emotions in check before it was time to comfort friends and family.
Profits from Al’s book go to two of his favorite local charities: the Washington County Museum and the Virginia Garcia Memorial Foundation, which runs health clinics and is named for a little girl who lived, like Al once did, in a Hillsboro-area labor camp. She died for lack of appropriate medical care.
After I finished talking to Pat that day, I thought of her standing alone up in that skybox, getting herself together so she could help host her guests. And I thought of how great it would be for her to hear one day soon that the first printing of No Small Potatoes had sold out.
It’s available for $19.95 at www.resers.com, elsewhere online and in stores.
— Kevin Miller, ’78
Editor, Oregon Stater