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Fred Fields elected chair of board of trustees

October 08, 2001

  • Fred W. Fields, newly elected chair of the Lewis & Clark Board of Trustees, combined dedicati...
    Fred W. Fields, newly elected chair of the Lewis & Clark Board of Trustees, combined dedication, hard work and progressive thinking to catapult Coe Manufacturing Co. into a world leader.

Fred W. Fields, newly elected chair of the Lewis & Clark Board of Trustees, joined the board in 1985, helped create the Morgan S. Odell Professorship in the Humanities in 1990 and financed construction of the Fred W. Fields Center for the Visual Arts in 1993.

“Fred is an innovator, a progressive thinker, a world-class leader, and a committed and generous friend of the College,” says Michael Mooney, president of Lewis & Clark College. “He is a man of keen vision and decisive action. Through his leadership, the College will continue to grow in quality.”

A man who prefers to keep a low profile, Fields credits team sports—football, basketball and track—for teaching him “to work collaboratively with others, to set high standards and to strive for superior performance.”

He combined those skills with dedication, hard work and progressive thinking to become an outstanding athlete and then to catapult Coe Manufacturing Co. into a world leader in the forest products industry. Coe, established in 1852, designs and manufactures machinery for producing lumber, veneer, plywood, composition board, plasterboard, ceiling tile and rubber products.

As a tribute to its prestige and international reputation, Coe was selected in 1979 by the U.S. government as one of the first American companies to demonstrate manufacturing technology to senior representatives from China.

Fields retired from Coe in 2000 after a 53-year career—23 of those were spent as president and chief executive officer.

He enjoyed the challenges he faced on the job each day, but he particularly enjoyed developing new technology. Either personally or with his colleagues at Coe, Fields estimates he recorded more than 100 patents on projects related to wood products machinery.

“It’s very satisfying to know how people accomplish things today and to develop an idea that enables them to do their jobs more efficiently,” Fields says. “I enjoy seeing ideas evolve and become useful. You can design a wheel, but if it’s not useful, how much have you really accomplished?”

“Fred has seized every opportunity that’s presented itself and has turned it into something constructive,” noted John Hampton, chair of the World Forestry Center Executive Board when Fields was inducted into the center’s Memorial Chest with a Living Memorial in 2000.


Seeds of success

Fields grew up during the Depression on an Indiana farm. At age 10, along with his 12-year-old brother, he learned to farm 100 acres with five horses while his father worked at General Motors.

“It was difficult,” Fields remembers. “We had a modest home with no indoor plumbing or electricity. Crops had so little value that in winter we burned corn in the stove to keep the house warm.”

After high school, Fields attended Ball State University and Indiana University before being drafted into the U.S. Air Force during World War II. Over the next 40 months, he attended Oklahoma A&M, Rhode Island State College and several special Air Force training centers while perfecting his ability to teach celestial and instrument navigation to U.S. pilots.

After the war, Fields completed his engineering studies at Purdue University.

During the summer of 1947, he took a job as a surveying engineer with a construction firm that was building a gypsum plant in Indiana. He spent much of his time working with Coe engineers who were installing equipment for the project.

The project turned into an opportunity for Fields. When the assistant superintendent, who was considered to be something of a “wild guy,” began showing up drunk on the job, the project manager fired him and offered the position to Fields.

Fields’ performance on the gypsum project earned him a full-time job offer from Coe. The offer was a springboard to a long and challenging career.

“All I wanted was a job,” he says with a chuckle. “In those days, it was heaven to do something that people appreciated and paid well for. I felt so fortunate to have a job that paid me $350 a month. I was probably the highest-paid kid in the county.”

Fields’ initial job was in the engineering group, but he soon advanced to field and sales engineering.

When customers ordered machinery from Coe, the company shipped it in bulk and assembled it at the respective plants. Many machines could consist of 50 or more rail-car loads. Coe provided a team of engineers and technicians to work closely with plant engineers to erect the machinery and to provide whatever modifications the customers needed. This intensive field support built long-lasting customer relationships.

Coe developed new machinery, which led Fields to assignments in Mexico, Canada, Europe and Africa. As company agents in Portland required more and more assistance, Fields moved to Portland in 1951.

He left Coe briefly in 1951 to work for Conway & Fields, a Coe agent. Coe then bought the company out in 1959, and Fields returned to Coe as its West Coast manager.

Thanks to urging from Fields, in 1960 the company built a plant in Tigard—its first plant outside of Painesville, Ohio. With six expansions in the last 30 years, the Tigard facility is one of four Coe plants in North America. The others are in Painesville, Ohio; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Toronto. Coe also maintains sales and service offices in New York and Atlanta and works with agents around the world.

Fields became Coe’s vice president in 1962, then he bought the company in 1976 and became its president in 1977.

Coe employs a team of 750 multi-disciplinary mechanical, electrical and electronic engineers; computer scientists; and supporting mathematicians and physicists.

Fields is proud of the company’s 150-year history, aggressive expansion and diversification.

When Fields joined the Portland office in 1951, he was one of four employees there. Today, the Tigard plant employs 250 people.

In recent years, the company has produced major equipment for wood products plants in Australia, Chile, China, France, Indonesia, New Zealand, Russia, Netherlands, Canada, Mexico and South Africa.

Coe has met increasing demands for better recovery of raw materials through design improvements and, since 1976, by acquiring 15 companies that have special expertise in new areas of technology. The changes, many employing computer technology, helped Coe to increase its yield from lumber and plywood products by more than 35 percent.

Much of the computer-controlled automation in today’s plywood and lumber business stems from Coe’s early innovations, developed with laser and other camera-scanning apparatus along with computer controls, the World Forestry Center notes.


Goals for the College

“Success or failure is measured in many different ways,” Fields says. “I have always thought it was important to have high expectations of yourself. You can’t expect to attain exceptional results unless you apply yourself effectively.”

His goals for the College include making more effective use of the College’s recently acquired south campus and raising additional funds “to maintain, construct and equip facilities for the future.

“All facilities require maintenance, whether they are old or new,” he comments. “By improving the efficiency of the facilities, we help students gain the most from the educational process.

“The College provides a stimulus for people like myself to improve the education of young people who may become our employees or the employees of others,” Fields says. “Education prepares and stimulates students for innovation and for developing ideas through people. We can buy all sorts of tools and buildings, but it takes people to put them to the most effective use.

“We all know the higher the level of education, the better the opportunities for improving everyone’s standard of living and for creating a better world,” he says. “Now is the time to encourage growth, to strengthen faculty and facilities, and to encourage young people to take advantage of the opportunities offered here at this fine institution.”

Fields is a trustee of Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and the Columbia River Maritime Museum and has served on the Advisory Committee for the Wood Materials and Engineering Laboratory at Washington State University. He also served on the Advisory Committee for the President of Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio, and as a board member of Associated Oregon Industries. His wife, Sue, is a trustee of the University of Portland.

“It seems that Fred decided a long time ago that he was going to get the maximum amount of use out of the time he has on earth,” Hampton says.

Fortunately for Lewis & Clark, Fields is sharing his time with the College.

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