Up Close and Personal: Dorothy and John Fenner

By George P. Edmonston Jr.

Editor's note: This story celebrates the lives of two of the most extraordinary individuals to ever graduate from OSU. Since their student days at Oregon State College in the late 1930s and early 1940s, John and Dorothy Fenner have become synonymous with what it means to offer exemplary volunteer service to the Alumni Association and to OSU. In the Corvallis community and among the university family, they were truly an extraordinary couple, a distinction earned by a level of devotion that will always be deeply moving. Sadly, John passed away in 2013.

Dorothy Harstad Fenner was born on Sept. 9, 1917, in Tacoma, Wash. Her grandfather, Bjug Harstad, founded Pacific Lutheran University. Her father, Oscar Theander Harstad, was a professional baseball player who pitched for the Cleveland Indians from 1914 to 1916 before becoming a dentist. He established a very successful practice in Milton-Freewater, Ore., where Dorothy was raised and where she attended and graduated from McLoughlin-Union High School in 1935.

Setting her sights on a degree in home economics while still in school, Dorothy chose to attend what she considered to be the best college in the West for such training ... Oregon State College ... and graduated with a B.S. in home economics education in 1939.

At OSC, Dorothy lived in Snell Hall and was very active in campus activities, with memberships in Delta Delta Delta sorority, the OSU choir, Omicron Nu Home Economics Honorary, and Oregon State's most prestigious honorary society, Phi Kappa Phi.

Let us also not forget the piano. Her life-long devotion to the instrument was given an early boost in college, while studying with the well-known Lillian Petri and while playing for numerous student sing-alongs and other popular campus activities, especially the "Red Stocking Reviews" that were Assistance League fund-raisers in Corvallis.


Dorothy doesn't just play the piano but instead has used her gift to become an accomplished pianist. From Alumni Association board meetings to class and Golden Jubilee reunions, thousands of Oregon Staters over the years have been the recipient of her wonderful talent to make music ... especially in her role as the official accompanist at alumni gatherings for the singing of the OSU Alma Mater and other period favorites.

Indeed, for alumni who remember the now departed "Dean" Dan Poling, it's still easy to picture Dan at a Golden Jubilee Reunion directing the group in the singing of our Alma Mater, with Dorothy at his side delivering her always perfect rendition of Homer Maris' famous song.

In addition to her talents as a musician, Dorothy has made valuable contributions to music and the performing arts at OSU and in the city of Corvallis, as a founding member of the Corvallis Symphony Society and through contributions of time and resources to the OSU School of Music.

For Dorothy, two early events stand apart as chief reasons why she has devoted so much of her life to OSU.

The first is centered on her sister, Helen Harstad.

Dorothy still enjoys talking about how involved her sister was in school activities during their time together as OSC students in the early 1940s. Helen seemed to be a part of everything, and Dorothy found Helen's energy for the college both inspiring and exciting.

The second event occurred on a train ride from Portland to Corvallis. As the train left the station heading south, she suddenly found herself seated across from a young man who seemed, at that time, to be ... in her own words ... "acting a little fresh."

As fate would have it, the young man was on the train because his car ride back to campus had fallen through. Dorothy would learn soon enough that his name was John Fenner.

Their first date in January 1938, was a "tea dance" at the Benton Hotel in downtown Corvallis, dancing to the music of the then popular Jimmy Whippo Band. John gave Dorothy his SAE pin Feb. 25, 1938. Married in 1940, Dorothy's first connection to our Association came during the war years when she bought her husband, John, a life membership.

After World War II, in January 1946, John was named executive secretary of the Association, so Dorothy's involvement and volunteer service became more direct. As she remembers, when John had a job to do for the Association, she was always there to help ... "two for the price of one," she says with a smile.

As members of our country's "Greatest Generation," that is, the men and women who lived through and served our nation during World War II, John and Dorothy are a bit out of the ordinary, if by ordinary we mean the husband going off to war while the wife stays at home driving with rationed gasoline and eating vegetables grown in a "Victory Garden."

After John's enlistment in the Army as an infantry second lieutenant, Dorothy passed the time by first enrolling in graduate school at Oregon State in home economics, graduating with a Master of Science degree in 1942, then joined the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, or "WACs", in 1943.

Completing her basic training, Dorothy became a "Code Breaker," assigned to what is now the historic Two Rock Ranch Station 12 miles west of Petaluma, Calif.

Inside the station's 876 acres, its "ranch" like appearance disguised its primary mission, the interception of Japanese telegraph code, which Dorothy performed with great proficiency, playing a vital role in helping America finally win the war. Even today, at age 85, she still remembers Morse Code and delights in saying her name in the familiar dots and dashes of Samuel Morse's now archaic method for electronic communication.

In the late 1950s, she would further use her two Oregon State degrees as a part-time faculty member in the OSC College of Home Economics.

John Benjamin Fenner was born in New York City on June 18, 1918. His parents, Ben and Bess Fenner, met at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., where they were students.

In 1930, when John was in the 8th grade and the country entering into the Depression years, Ben and Bess moved the family to Oregon and Corvallis at the encouragement of family members already here who said the West might offer more opportunity for John's father .

The Fenner home in Corvallis was located on ground that is today known to the OSU community as the "People's Park." Next door lived the family of a young woman who would one day become Mrs. Martin Kelley.

After graduating from Corvallis High School, John enrolled at Oregon State in secretarial science. Like Dorothy, John was most active as a college student and held membership in Blue Key, a service honorary, was manager of the Beaver Yearbook in 1939 and 1940, and was a member of Sigma Delta Psi athletic honorary, Alpha Delta Sigma advertising honorary, and Sigma Alpha Epsilon social fraternity.

When a late 1930s reorganization of higher education in the state moved many OSC business programs to the University of Oregon, John had his first opportunity to show his devotion to Oregon State.

Instead of following many of his classmates to Eugene, John opted to stay at OSC, using the credits he had already earned to complete one of the few business-related programs allowed to remain in Corvallis ... that of secretarial science. He even won the Gregg Shorthand Award before graduating ... turning in a performance of 140 words a minute to merit the prize.

One year before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, John entered the Army to serve his country. An early highlight of his service "career" took place in 1942 when his unit was sent to Hollywood to do public relations for the USO among some of the movie industry's best-known stars. One of John's assignments was to demonstrate the various uses of a jeep to none other than Clark Gable. Some of John's most prized possessions are the black and white photos he has kept all these years that show a young John Fenner riding in the passenger seat of an Army jeep, top down, with Clark Gable doing the driving. Other USO publicity assignments were photos with Lana Turner and Rosalind Russell for national distribution.

He both supervised the production of and wrote articles for the Oregon Stater and sponsored one of the most historic reunions in our Association's history, the "Reunion After Tokyo," which shortly after and in subsequent years became known simply as the "Alumni Barbecue." Held at Homecoming, the Alumni Barbecue was discontinued in 1996, the year before the opening of our Alumni Center.

Resigning in 1948, John and Dorothy moved to Stanford University where, in 1951, he was granted a law degree from the Stanford Law School and immediately became a member of the California and Oregon Bar Associations.

From 1951to 1954, John practiced law in Portland with the firm of Freed and Failing. In 1954, the Fenners returned to Corvallis where they have been ever since. In 1971, he helped found the firm of Fenner-Barnhisel, since expanded to Fenner, Barnhisel, Willis, Barlow and Stephens from which he retired on Dec. 31, 1998.

His practice, by choice, has always been limited to estates, wills, trusts, foundations, and corporate and real estate work. He is a past member of the Board of Governors of the Oregon State Bar and past president of the Benton County Bar Association. From 1967 to 1971, he was district attorney for Benton County. For over 30 years he has represented the OSU Foundation in all its legal work relating to charitable giving and charitable remainder trusts. He is listed in Who's Who in American Law.

The services he has provided to the community of Corvallis and to OSU would fill a book and are legend among the many people who know him.

For the OSU Foundation, he has held the positions of trustee, president, chairman of the board, vice president, and legal counsel. He was named the Foundation's Volunteer of the Year in 1988 and the Foundation's Heart of Gold Award in 1997.

For the City of Corvallis, John has provided faithful service as president of United Way, chairman of the Library Board, board member of the Chamber of Commerce and member of the Civic Music Board. He also chaired the fund-raising campaign for the Majestic Theater. Active in the First Presbyterian Church, he has served as an elder and has been chairman of his church's board of trustees.

In his volunteer service to OSUAA, John has served as both secretary and president of the Association, the latter appointment coming in 1960. It is a point of historical fact that John was Association president when the name Oregon State College was changed to Oregon State University.

In 1989 John was honored with the Dan Poling Award for outstanding service to OSU.

Let us not forget, let us never forget, that it was John Fenner, aided by John Irving and the Foundation Executive Committee, who was instrumental in securing from the Foundation the $1.5 million dollars our Association needed five years ago to complete the construction of the CH2M HILL Alumni Center. In a very real sense, without John, there might not be a CH2M HILL Alumni Center and all that alumni and visitors enjoy from its use.

John and Dorothy have three children, each of whom has accomplished much success. Barbara Fenner Sjostrom is a Stanford graduate and social worker living in Rockford, Ill. Thomas Fenner is employed at his alma mater, also Stanford, where he serves as deputy general counsel for the university. David Fenner is head of the Foreign Studies Program at the University of Washington.