Late chamber director remembered for ‘passion’

A wave of public grief and recognition has flooded the Lebanon community in the past month, following the death of Shelly Garrett, executive director of the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce and a longtime local community champion and organizer, on April 16.

“We’re shocked, as a community,” local minister Ed Skipper told a crowd of approximately 250 people who attended Garrett’s memorial service April 30. “Somebody we loved is suddenly gone.”

Friends and former associates remember Garrett, 65, as a stalwart cheerleader for the community in every way, an innovator, an organizer of unusual ability, who brought “boundless energy” to the table, as Mayor Paul Aziz put it.

“She was always going 100 mph and in three different directions. She played such an important part in our community. It was such a big hole she left.”

At Garrett’s memorial service, on April 30 at the River Center, where the annual Biz Expo, one of her many successes, is held each year, a parade of local leaders testified to her impact on Lebanon.

Warren Stroup, lead pastor at the church, summed her up with the word “passion.”

“Shelly was rich in passion” – for Lebanon, its people, businesses, the environment, he said.

“You couldn’t escape her enthusiasm. Her passion was infectious.”

Speakers at the service and other former colleagues recalled Garrett’s forthright honesty, her enterprise, her almost uncanny ability to predict success, her quirks, her networking ability, and her ability to spot talent.

Garrett died of complications from diabetes just over a month after directing the chamber’s Distinguished Service Awards banquet on March 5.  She had headed the chamber for nearly 10 years, during which time she was a key figure in bringing COMP-Northwest medical school, the Oregon Veterans’ Home and the Boulder Falls hotel and conference center to town.

“She didn’t just focus on her job as chamber executive director,” said Aziz. “It was about making Lebanon a better place to live.”

Garrett was born Aug. 30, 1953 in Whittier, Calif., the youngest child of Enid and Ray Sovern. She had three older brothers, who “adored her,” according to family members.

She grew up in nearby Alhambra, where she graduated from Alhambra High School. In her early 20s, she worked for the local power company, Southern California Edison, where she met Leroy Garrett, 18 years her senior, during a substation tour.

It was love at first sight and, as was typical of her modus operandi, she went all out in courting Leroy – visiting him at work to deliver a Coke. After they married in 1975, she followed him in a car while he jogged five miles because, as he said later, “she was intent on becoming acquainted with me.”

They had a son, Shawn, and when Leroy retired in 1994 after 30 years with Edison, they moved to Lebanon, which Garrett decided was a better place to raise their boy than Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

She took a job as a telemarketer at KGAL radio station for owner Charlie Eads. She climbed the ladder there as Eads taught her how to sell.

Garrett had a good radio voice and narrated her own ads. She had a license plate frame that read, “I sell air.”

A local farmer once claimed he nearly drove out of a field listening to that “sexy voice” on the radio for a Donna Bella lingerie ad.

“She did a wonderful job,” Eads said. “She developed relationships over the phone, which is not easy to do. At one point she said, ‘Hey, I want to visit with these people.’ I wasn’t going to say no. She was a people person.”

She was also heavily involved in the community, serving many years on the boards of the Boys & Girls Club of the Greater Santiam and the United Way, and as a member of the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs. She was elected in 2012 and served on the board of directors for Linn-Benton Community College, representing Lebanon for seven years.

She organized the local National Day of Prayer. She helped entertain foreign exchange students.

Garrett stayed at the radio station, working her way up to advertising sales manager, before taking the chamber job in 2009.

“She wanted to do more in the community,” Eads said.

Marty Cahill, CEO of Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital, told the crowd at Garrett’s memorial service that she was already so involved in the community, her new job wasn’t much of a change for her.

“I remember thinking, ‘She’s executive director of the chamber now. Jeepers, I thought that was already her job.”

Garrett used that “sexy radio voice” to emcee nonprofit events from the Strawberry Festival Grand Parade and Coronation, to the Soroptimist Walk for the Cause to the Runaway Pumpkin Half Marathon – even in the cold and wet and rain. Local runners remember her acknowledging them by name as they staggered across the finish line.

She was honored as Lebanon’s Woman of the Year in 2005, and was nominated in that same year for Jim Linhart First Citizen Award. She was also a recipient of the Ron Looney Leadership Award and the COMP-Northwest Heart of the Community Crystal Award.

“She was part of who we are at COMP-Northwest,” Dean Paula Krone said at the memorial service. “If we needed anything, we’d call Shelly.”

When the idea of bringing the medical school to Lebanon first surfaced, Garrett was on board and was one of a three-person team that flew down to Pomona to check things out, Krone recalled.

“I always laugh when I think of that meeting,” she said. “President (Philip) Pumerantz didn’t know what hit him.”

When COMP-Northwest became a reality, Garrett founded the Tools of the Trade Medical Bag Donation program, to welcome student doctors with a genuine black doctor’s bag for each one, in each successive class.

“Shelly came up with ways to make the students feel at home,” Krone said. “She left behind a proud legacy of community and COMP-Northwest is part of her legacy.”

Scholarships in Garrett’s name have been announced by both COMP-Northwest and LBCC, and the former CenturyTel building on 2nd Street in Lebanon, purchased by the Linn-Benton Foundation, will be named for Garrett.

As chamber director, membership and engagement boomed under Garrett’s leadership.

“Shelly spoiled chambers for me,” said Emily Mentzer, whose first job in journalism was at the Lebanon Express in 2009 and became friends with Garrett.

“To me, I walked in and that was my first chamber. I expected all chambers to be like that.”

Aziz said Garrett achieved more as chamber director “than any other I’ve ever seen.”

“The Board of Directors, they run the chamber, but Shelly was the chamber. People looked up to her and respected her for that.”

Her list of successes was lengthy.

Garrett came up with the idea of holding a business exposition for Lebanon, selling space on a map. Filling the River Center, this year’s event featured some 120 businesses and drew an estimated 1,300 people.

While on the LBCC board, she helped make the LBCC Advanced Transportation Center a reality. She worked tirelessly to advocate for the Edward C. Allworth Veterans’ Home, including campaigning to help get the levy passed that supported the home’s construction. She was a key player in establishing an urban renewal district to make the development possible.

“She changed the north side of Lebanon,” said Dr. Greg Hamann, president of LBCC. “She cared deeply about LBCC and the city. It’s no coincidence that the expansion of LBCC was a result of her matchmaking.”

Hamann said he took the helm of the college about 18 months before Garrett was elected to the Board of Trustees.

“It didn’t take me long to get a sense of what she was made of,” he told the crowd at the memorial, recounting how he felt impatience rising as the board “meandered” through a meeting.

“I guess my impatience showed through. Shelly took me aside afterwards for a talk. She let me know that she didn’t appreciate me trying to rush the meeting. It was their meeting.”

Though not a walker herself, Garrett was a fervent supporter of Build Lebanon’s Trails successful efforts to establish a trail system in Lebanon.

She worked with then-Samaritan Health President-CEO Larry Mullins on the design and building of Lebanon’s Boulder Falls Inn and Events Center.

When presented with the conference center design, she told Mullins, “We’re not building this. This won’t be big enough.” The facility’s size was doubled on her insistence.

Retired Lebanon Express Editor AK Dugan said Garrett’s commitment to the community exceeded that of many native residents: “Shelly Garrett has done more for Lebanon during her years in town than many people who have lived here for a lifetime.”

Garrett’s good-natured feuding and teasing with various public figures was legendary, particularly her verbal battles with City Councilwoman Rebecca Grizzle. The barbs flew thick and fast when the two were together at public chamber events.

“We fought a lot on Facebook,” Grizzle said at the memorial, recalling that Garrett had once told her she wanted to be the focus of a roast.

“I had a whole file of things I was going to roast her on.”

Mentzer recalled how Garrett “used to tease me relentlessly when I got to be editor” of the Express.

“I refused to buy a cellphone and she teased me publicly as often as she could about the fact that I was the only editor in Oregon without a cellphone.”

Garrett was almost impossible to say ‘no’ to, Mentzer added, “because she never asked you to do something she wouldn’t do herself.

“Once she called me on a Monday morning, on deadline, our busiest day of the week, to ask me to dress up as an elf and go with Santa to the Senior Center. I had to walk around and deliver treats and talk to little kids.”

Mentzer put on the costume and went to the Senior Center.

“Shelly was not the type of person who would ask someone to do something she wouldn’t do herself,” she said. “She was a doer, not just a director of things. She was a participant. Anything that was good for Lebanon, she was right there helping or behind the scenes.”

Cahill credited Garrett with changing Lebanon’s perspective.

“It was like she single-handedly reprogrammed the community,” he said. “Her vision stayed steady and she never wavered.

“We lost a powerhouse with her passing, but she would not tolerate us standing still. ‘You’ve got to keep going.’ She took no prisoners.”