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Citizen of the Year: Charles Anderson, chairman, San Juan Island Community Foundation

From left, Charles Anderson, chairman of the San Juan Island Community Foundation, presents foundation- and community-raised funds to Superintendent Michael Soltman at the foundation’s Breakfast of Champions, Sept. 28, in Mullis Center.         - Journal file photo / Richard Walker
From left, Charles Anderson, chairman of the San Juan Island Community Foundation, presents foundation- and community-raised funds to Superintendent Michael Soltman at the foundation’s Breakfast of Champions, Sept. 28, in Mullis Center.
— image credit: Journal file photo / Richard Walker

Name: Charles Anderson
Age: 64
Volunteer involvement: Chairman, San Juan Island Community Foundation. Member, San Juan Community Hospital Committee
Education: Ph.D in biophysics, University of Washington
Moved here: In 1976 with his late wife, Deanna.
Career highlight: Co-founded Cogent Data Technologies in Friday Harbor. Sold to Adaptec, Inc., in 1996.
Personal: Married to Pamela Gross

Many people might look back at 2008 as the year that the wheels fell off the economy’s wagon. And we learned that the San Juan Islands are not immune to the nation’s economic downturn.

The downturn began chipping away at public and private institutions — as well as personal pocketbooks — late last year.

But the past 12 months on San Juan Island could just as easily be remembered for the extraordinary steps taken by the community to keep its institutions intact through an unprecedented gift of time, effort and money.

Islanders dug deep and came up with roughly $2 million in charitable contributions for a variety of causes. Perhaps no other cause grabbed as much attention as the $600,000 shortfall faced by the San Juan Island School District on the eve of the 2008-09 academic year.

And no other organization proved as instrumental in erasing that shortfall than the San Juan Island Community Foundation. The foundation and its board members contributed $390,000 to the “Save Our Schools” campaign, and doled out an additional $10,000 in grants to the district through its annual award process. The foundation also expanded its scholarship program and distributed a total of $101,200 in scholarships last year between five local graduating seniors.

All told, the foundation distributed more than $700,000 in donations in 2008. More than two dozen local groups, including the schools, benefitted from that largesse. That’s pretty powerful stuff for a group that just three years ago had about $125,000 at its disposal for a full year.

What’s behind the surge in the balance sheets? Ask anyone on the foundation board of directors — a 13-person panel of volunteers — and the answers point in one direction: The top.

For his dedication to the community, for the many hours of volunteer work, and for leading by example, Charles Anderson, chairman of the San Juan Island Community Foundation, is the Journal’s 2008 Citizen of the Year.

It’s an honor that Anderson — an intensely private person, according to friends and colleagues — would more likely run from rather than embrace. But it’s that preference for laboring behind the scenes and aversion to the spotlight that so many colleagues and donors find inspiring.

“He never lets his ego get in the way,” fellow board member Tom Cable said. “He’s an absolute delight to work with and as genuine a person as you ever wanted to know.”

Board secretary Barbara Cable, Tom’s wife, said that leading by example is one of Anderson’s strongest attributes.

“He’s not the least bit afraid of getting his hands dirty,” she said. “And he doesn’t expect anyone to do anything he wouldn’t, and that he does.”

It’s Anderson’s attention to the bottom line and his business-like influence upon the foundation that’s made a big impression upon fellow board member Cathaleen Cavanagh, who helped establish the foundation 14 years ago. That, and his willingness to listen to ideas of those who work in the trenches.

“He just really understands grassroots, and maybe more importantly, he respects it,” Cavanagh said. “He not only listens, but takes it quite seriously.”

Case in point, Cavanagh said, is the foundation’s new Critical Needs Task Force, which, with his wife, Pamela Gross, Anderson helped to launch. She said the task force is designed to identify ways that people’s lives can be improved — like financial education, occupational training, and other life skills training — and make resources available for them.

Anderson, who joined the board three years ago, also proved instrumental in the foundation opening an office and hiring its first employee. Cavanagh believes that move has paid dividends.

“It’s just too hard to have volunteers do everything,” she said. “It gives us much more stability and consistency.”

Creation of the task force drew praise from Hilary Canty, director of the Orcas Island Community Foundation. Canty expects community foundations, like those on Orcas and San Juan, will have to do more with less given the economic downturn. Identifying needs, rather than luxuries, will be increasingly important.

“One thing that all foundations I think are going to find is that we need a way to be able to vet the community needs that we’re funding,” Canty said. “We need to make sure we’re spending them wisely.”

Long-time islanders likely recall the wise and strategic steps taken by Anderson and his late wife, Deanna, in forming and nurturing a homegrown high-tech company into one of the island’s most successful enterprises. After moving to the island in 1976, the Andersons co-founded Cogent Data Technologies and pioneered a line of so-called fast ethernet, which speeds transmission of information through small computer networks.

At its height, Cogent had nearly 30 employees before it was acquired by Adaptec, Inc., for $68 million in stock, in 1996.

Cavanagh said Anderson, who earned a Ph.D. in biophysics at the University of Washington, brings to the foundation the same type of inquisitiveness, energy and dogged attention to detail that he did to Cogent. He’s in constant search of a means to improve on an idea or a product, she said.

“He’s gotta be doing something new,” Cavanagh said. “That’s what made Cogent tick. He’s like an inventor or an entrepreneur. He has to stay up with things.”

For a time, according to Tom Cable, staying up with things proved difficult for Anderson following Deanna’s death six years ago. However, he believes their fight against her colon cancer prompted Anderson to help form the San Juan Community Hospital Committee, which, through a partnership with Peace Health and in conjunction with the San Juan Island Hospital District, is exploring what it will take to have a “critical access hospital” on the island.

In addition to his role as foundation chairman, Anderson, along with Cable, is a member of the hospital committee.

Cable said Anderson’s affinity for negotiations and contracts, such as the one with Peace Health, has proved invaluable to the cause.

Cable, a former venture capitalist, added that Anderson’s willingness to work on the details allows him to focus on big-picture issues.

“We ended up with a wonderful long-term contract with a terrific health-care provider,” Cable said. “It’s been a lot of teamwork. Charlie loves to negotiate, which is great, because I just seem to fall asleep when it gets down to that level of detail.”

Dr. J. Michael Edwards, a member of the hospital committee and a hospital district commissioner, said it’s Anderson’s depth of personal commitment that separates him from the pack.

“First of all, he’s brilliant. Second, he has a heart of gold, and third, he has a lot of energy,” Edwards said. “Put them all in one basket and you’ve got a pretty powerful force on your side.”

Earlier honorees
Journal Citizens of the Year since 1999:
— 2007: Dave Dehlendorf and Lori Stokes, San Juan Anti-Litter Initiative.
— 2006: Don Galt, developer of the Carter Avenue sports fields.
— 2005: San Juan County Board of Freeholders.
— 2004: Joyce Sobel, director of the San Juan Island Family Resource Center.
— 2003: Lovel Pratt, director of the San Juan Home Trust.
— 2002: Friday Harbor and San Juan Island District 3 firefighters.
— 2001: Kathy Guy, administrator of Inter-Island Medical Center.
— 2000: Thomas Forester, director of the Lopez Community Land Trust.
— 1999: Robert Moran, founder of Moran State Park (Citizen of the Century).

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