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Harold Heath. File photo by Marcy Stamper

By Marcy Stamper

Harold Heath was known for his philanthropy, his dedication to work, and his high-quality beef, which he marketed with the tagline, “Happy critters make great beef.” But on the personal side, he had an ever-present sense of humor and a remarkable spirit of resiliency.

“He was always good natured, always optimistic. He was either in the middle of or planning a work project, and truly believed he could do anything he set out to do,” said Tina Heath, his wife of 48 years.

When Harold died earlier this month at 91, he left a legacy that extends from four-year scholarships for young adults in the Methow to a program that helps people across the state get established after serving a prison term. He supported health-related causes from Aero Methow Rescue Service in Twisp to Swedish Hospital in Seattle.

Over his long career as a machinist and entrepreneur, Harold had significant financial successes, but he also knew what it was like to struggle. Growing up during the Depression, he came from a poor family and did not receive a formal education, said Tina.

From an early age, Harold had a love of work and a tenacity that served him well. When he was still too young to be hired for a paper route, he sold newspapers on the street corner until the publishers were so impressed by his success that they assigned him his own route anyway, said Tina.

“One thing I find interesting about Harold is that he learned life lessons when very young and didn’t forget them,” said Tina. “He learned that when you work hard and do what people ask, things go well.”

Harold learned to be a machinist when he needed a job as the country was emerging from the Depression. “I noticed there were people making parts and I thought that looked fun, so I asked the foreman, ‘How do you learn to do that?’” said Harold in a 2005 interview. “He was a crotchety old bird and said, ‘You get an apprenticeship just like I did.’ So I signed up. And they cut my pay, from, I think, $1 down to 33 cents an hour. It was probably the best job I ever had.”

Harold later apprenticed with Boeing but was soon drafted into World War II, where he used his skills as a machinist to repair damaged airplanes in England and France.

After the war, Harold returned to Boeing, and ultimately bought his first machine shop for $1,700. He said he was fortunate that the first product they made was the Stripeonizer, Dairy Queen’s initial effort to create a ribbon of soft ice cream.

Boeing had a policy to work with former apprentices. “They kind of laughed because my shop was small and antiquated, but they gave me a small job and the company [Heath Tecna] grew,” said Harold. “I ended up with 14 divisions, 2,500 people, and doing $70 million a year.” 

Many of the company’s contracts involved fabricating airplane parts for Boeing. It made the internal struts that supported the wings of aircraft, slide-in units for the food-service equipment, and the accordion-pleated runway through which passengers board the plane, said Tina.

With Harold’s boundless energy for work, it was more of a challenge to get him to play, said Tina. “When we got married, I thought he needed to play—to ski, sail and dance,” she said.

Tina succeeded in getting Harold to incorporate these activities into his busy life. The family would often have dinner on their sailboat in Puget Sound after Harold got off work. They took up downhill skiing and learned cross country skiing when they first came to the Methow in the 1960s.

Nevertheless, Harold’s idea of leisure was somewhat unconventional. He loved landscaping, which he learned working for a neighbor in the mornings after he finished the late shift at Boeing (a shift he chose because he could earn an extra 5 cents an hour). He planted all the trees and shrubs at his property in the Methow and enjoyed helping others with their landscaping projects.

Harold particularly loved raising cattle. When he was still in business, he used to read farm journals during his lunch hour, said Tina.

In the early 1980s, after he had retired to the Methow, Harold determined, “‘I’m going to go own a ranch—that’s what I’ve always wanted to do.’ I’d been reading books on cattle for years and thought I knew how to do it, so I bought 900 steers at one time and I lost money for five years in a row and thought, ‘I’m not smart enough to do this.’” He switched to raising a dozen steers each year for meat.

Harold believed he had a special rapport with cattle. “I’ve got a heart valve—it’s bovine, so I get to talk to my cattle on a very personal basis,” he said. He would tell them, “Gather ’round guys, I want to tell you how it is,” and the cows would flock to his side.

Making ripples through giving

In his philanthropy, Harold believed in giving quietly and urging others to follow his example. If someone tried to repay him, Harold would tell the person to pass it on to someone else instead, said Tina.

“I try and do something good for somebody that they don’t know about—or don’t expect—every single day,” said Harold.

At one time, Harold was on more than 30 boards in Seattle, said Tina. He was particularly enthusiastic about Pioneer Human Services, an organization that helps people with housing and job training after they have been released from prison or completed a rehabilitation program for chemical dependency.

The Methow Valley Education Foundation, one of the charities Harold was most involved with in the Methow, supports about 40 young people each year, paying for four years of schooling. “It’s a real neat deal to sit and talk to these kids about what they’d like to do and why. A lot of them are kids that are the first person in their family that has decided to go off to college, and they’re breaking the mold, stepping out,” said Harold.

Harold bought his first property in the Methow in 1963. “Tina and I named it the Golden Doe,” he said. “We were thinking of a name and she said, ‘For all the money you’re putting into it, how about the Golden Doe?’ because we had a lot of deer.”

“Our idea of fun was to thin the aspen forest there,” said Tina. They had a little cabin with no electricity or running water. “It was really fun and primitive,” she said. Plans for a larger house with a unique copper roof that would blend into the hillside had to be abandoned when they ran out of money, said Harold. They later settled near Big Valley, north of Winthrop.

“Life with Harold was never boring,” said Tina.