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Desert retirees bring zeal of their business roles to their non-profit involvements

A visit to the desert inevitably provides the sunshine Seattleites crave. But sometimes the sunshine takes a more personal form, shining from the satisfactions of those whose desert retirement has brought commitments to causes far different than the business world where many made substantial marks.

So it was recently, during a week of relaxation with Betsy at the home of life-long friends Steve and Dolores Kent in the Coachella Valley, that I took time for visits with Stuart and Helen Anderson of Black Angus fame and Roger Eigsti, chairman and CEO during the '90s of one of Seattle's largest public companies.  

Helen and Stuart Anderson 

They were among half a dozen Northwest folks I met with for lunch or coffee while in the desert, but Helen and Roger provided particularly memorable visits because they are involved, with the same intensity they brought to business, in causes I hadn't been familiar with before.

I have visited with Helen and Stu Anderson each of the last several years after getting to know them at an event for Northwest Snowbirds that I put on for the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership, which they attended.  

Roger Eigsti 

Stuart Anderson is now 92 and seeking to find more ways to sell his book, Corporate Cowboy, which he decided to write after "I woke up following my 90th birthday bash and asked myself, 'what do I do now?'"

Helen's special cause, Umbrella Ministries, receives part of the proceeds from sales of the book, which details his successes and mistakes from the launch of his first Stuart Anderson's Black Angus restaurant in Seattle on April 1, 1964, through its dramatic growth and national recognition over the following quarter century.

Umbrella Ministries, a Palm Springs-based non-denominational ministry "with the sole mission to offer comfort, hope, and encouragement to mothers who have suffered the loss of a child," has been Helen Anderson's full-time focus since she joined the board in 2003 and helped move the ministry from a church tie-in to 501c3 status.

Eigsti's community commitment is with a most unusual "community" and represents one of two key investments that Eigsti, who stepped down as chairman and CEO of Safeco Corp. at the end of 2000, tends to in his Palm Springs, area retirement.

One of Eigsti's investments, Kirkland-based traffic data company Inrix with rapidly growing prospects relating to traffic-control technologies and innovations, is traditional and he serves as both a key investor and a board member. Time is Eigsti's key investment in his other focus: a prison ministries organization called Kairos.

The Florida-based 501c3 brings volunteers into a Christian-based process of connecting with inmates with the key involvement being three-day weekend interactions between the volunteers and the inmates. Kairos operates in more than 300 prisons internationally, including in 33 states.

But none of the prisons is a stiffer test than Calipatria State Prison, a 90-minute bus ride for Eigsti and other volunteers from the Coachella Valley. Eigsti explained that Calipatria is a level 4prison, the highest-security facility in the state, with most of its inmates serving life sentences, most frequently for murder.

"The crime for which they are sent to Calipatria usually occurs while they are still teenagers and they pay for it the rest of their lives," said Eigsti, who began volunteering about a year ago. "Very few ever get paroled and if they do at some point, there are no jobs for them, since very few have graduated from high school."

"Most of these men had no father or other male role models to follow," he said. "Many haven't received a letter in years, if ever, and some have never had a visitor come to see them."

"To see the smiles on their faces and be on the end of hardy hugs from the prisoners makes my day. It's so rewarding," he added.

For Helen and her involvement with Umbrella Ministries, her special contribution is unique sterling silver bracelets for the 50-60 new moms who come to the organization each year.

"My bracelets are my special project," she said. "If I get a sponsor, and so far God has sent us one each year, we buy each child's name, with individual sterling silver pieces for each letter in the name. Then we can let the moms design their own bracelet."

The ministry has done more for me than I can ever do for the organization," she said.

Helen, 15 years younger than Stuart, went to work in 1973 as Anderson's administrative assistant at a time when the chain encompassed 13 restaurants and had recently been acquired by Saga Foods, which kept Stuart on as CEO. They married nine years later and she helped guide the growth of the company until it was acquired by Marriott in 1987 and the Anderson's departed to ranching in the Ellensburg, Wa.,area.

And as for Stuart's book, among many recollections are when John Wayne came calling at Anderson's camper in the Baja one day because the actor wanted to look around for ideas for his movie-set trailer. Anderson recalls that they learned both were from Iowa and both had gone to USC.

"I asked him to teach me his walk, which always made him laugh," Anderson recalls. "But he somehow knew I was the steak man."

But Anderson was also a ranch man and the book details how he built his sprawling cattle ranch West of Ellensburg, ending up with 2,600 deeded acres and 22,000 leased acres on which to grow the cattle to provide steaks to satisfy the needs of his restaurants. But he notes that "the scope of the need for beef quickly became too large" so the ranch became a visitor venue and an outside supplier provide the beef.

In four of the last five years before his retirement, USA Today'sand Restaurant & Institutions' selected Stuart Anderson's Black Angus restaurants as the nation's number one full-service restaurant chain.

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