"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

More than retiring, Rich Watson reframed his life

By on October 25, 2017 in Articles with 0 Comments

Rich Watson said of the Chelan Community Roundtable: “Civic concern and social consciousness multiplied the efforts and the number of volunteers.”

By Nancy Warner

People often say that when you love your work it is not work. And one of the things I love about my work with IRIS, the Initiative for Rural Innovation & Stewardship, is our process of finding people’s success stories to highlight in our NCW Community Success Summit each year.

It’s the best kind of hunt — challenging, fun and rewarding — enabled by the beautiful landscape, many positive people we meet, and the diverse and interesting stories they share.

We highlight stories from all corners of our region about how people are contributing to the health of our lands, waters, and communities. And we harvest these stories in a sustainable way — not too many from any one place in a given year, just like huckleberries, and share them with others so they’ll be inspired to grow their own successes.

This year the Success Summit is being held in the Chelan Valley, a community defined by the lake and known around the region for its long history of success in trade, agriculture and tourism.

It’s also a place that is increasingly known for the locals’ ability to work together to resolve community problems, in part, because of the work of Rich Watson and the informal leadership group he started in 2007 known as the Chelan Community Roundtable.

A generator of success in the Chelan Valley, the Roundtable provides a model for addressing community needs across the region. It has already been replicated in Twisp in the Methow Valley.


You can hear it in his voice.

A soft-spoken man with a gentle easy laugh, Rich Watson claims attention when he begins to talk about his community.

The passion he feels for his Chelan Valley neighbors, for their right to share in the life of a caring community, comes across so strong it can drown out the obnoxiously loud hiss of the espresso machines in the coffee shops where we often meet.

So when I hear that passion rise in his voice, I lean in and listen. I know I’m going to learn something.

While I have understood it was his passion for engaging others in envisioning a better community helped draw many people to participate in the Chelan Community Roundtable, I wanted to know more about what fed that flame over the years.

I also wanted to know more about how we, as a community, could replicate and nurture Rich’s brand of leadership in other parts of the region to create a whole system of community roundtables. So we sat down this fall to record an interview about his background and experiences that contributed to his community service work.

Born in Havre, Montana in 1945 along the Great Northern Railroad where his dad worked as a brakeman, Rich grew up with a love of history and an appreciation for rural communities.

He earned a degree in education and history from Northern Montana College where he had his first exposure to community service via the College Kiwanis Club. “We worked at the rodeos, Red Cross blood drives and other college events,” he remembered. “I credit that as the catalyst for what started me down this road,” Rich said about his passion for working with people to make a difference in their lives.

Prompted by one of his professors, Rich joined the Peace Corps after graduation and moved to eastern Africa. He worked for two years in Ethiopia teaching Ethiopian, African and world history, training new Peace Corps volunteers and developing a resource center for local teachers that made good use of local resources.

He also began his lifelong practice of bringing home lessons from many far-flung places that he and his wife Mary would travel to over the years.

Returning from the Peace Corps in 1969, Rich settled in Seattle where he began working in the banking industry; soon thereafter he and Mary got married and began raising their family.

By 1992 Rich left his job with the large multi-national bank where he had been working, moved his family to Manson, and began working for a community bank in Chelan. He joined the Chelan Rotary Club and became increasingly active in the community in the years before retiring in 2001.

Not ready to sit back and put his feet up, Rich began reframing his life and directing his skills and experience to benefit the community. He joined the board of the NCW Business Loan Fund, a non-profit that works to pair capital with non-traditional small business clients.

After a few months on the Loan Fund board Rich had a chance to reframe again when they recruited him to serve as their Executive Director, largely focusing on the diverse cultures and communities of Okanogan, Chelan and Douglas counties.

“We’re very fortunate to live in a community of mixed cultures,” Rich noted, “but when there were early signs of the economic downturn in 2007-2008 I wondered how that would impact the more vulnerable members of our valley,” he remembered.

He felt strongly that there was a need to open up the discussion in the community. So after seeking advice from many he convened the first Chelan Community Roundtable bringing together more than 40 people from churches, schools, service clubs and other groups to talk about what they could do to ensure that their neighbors would be able to find the help they needed to stay in the community.

“We were only going to do it for one time to raise awareness,” Rich said with a chuckle, “but we ended up doing it for years gradually moving away from the question of people in need to talking about a lot of other issues and opportunities.”

He said it was great to have a forum where people could learn about what was going on in the community, emphasizing how they could “talk about what they were most passionate about and just have the freedom to listen.”

To him, one of the best outcomes of the Roundtable was the number of times people told him how they felt compelled to get involved after having a chance to learn about the needs and how they could help resolve them. “Civic concern and social consciousness multiplied the efforts and the number of volunteers,” he said reflecting on those days.

The monthly meetings of the Chelan Community Roundtable continued for seven years with a mix of regular and occasional participants coming to the table.

As each need or area of concern was discussed, organizations began to form such as Chelan Valley Hope, a one-stop resource for people in need where they could find help and hope; Refuge, an outreach to at-risk-school kids; and the Bridges team, which connected schools to the community.

These groups, plus many more, began raising awareness of issues, creating solutions and involving a greater segment of the community.

“My role,” Rich said, “was to facilitate the discussion and to make sure that everyone felt welcome and could share their ideas and projects. And I have to tell you it was fun, probably one of the most fun things I’ve done.”

After a three-year hiatus, talk is bubbling up in the Chelan Valley about bringing back the Chelan Community Roundtable to generate more needed projects. As he retires from the NCW Community Loan Fund later this year, Rich plans to reframe again, focusing this time on developing a forum for emerging leaders and millennials. One wonders if it might be called Chelan Community Roundtable Two.

The NCW Community Success Summit will be held on Wednesday November 8 in Chelan. Register by November 3 at www.irisncw.org.

Nancy Warner serves as the coordinator for IRIS, a position she has held for 10 years. A communitarian by nature, she seeks to connect people and their stories about success across NCW. She also serves on the “Thinking Like a Community” Legacy Project, a multi-platform book that IRIS aims to release in 2020.

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