When it comes to improving health care for his community, Hartwig Vatheuer puts his energy where his heart is. But then, he always has.
Now 77 and with a long-established reputation for civic leadership, Vatheuer has served eight years as a member of the board of The Foundation at KVH, an organization that has given $1.5 million to Kittitas Valley Healthcare over the course of its 30-year history. Add to that his role as a member of the Hospital District 2 Board of Commissioners where he’s spent 15 years helping guide healthcare in the Upper County.
Both positions reflect his passion for making things better where and when he can. Consider it a philosophy forged of family tradition and shaped by early challenge.
Born in Germany in 1939 just days before the start of World War II, he was 6 when, as the war was ending, his desperate mother packed up her six children and fled several hundred miles west from their home in Pomerania (then a province of Germany, now part of Poland) in advance of Russian occupation forces. The family found refuge in a forester’s house but Russian troops soon overtook them.
Seven-plus decades later, memories of that time are still vivid for Valtheuer.
His family was among millions of Germans caught in a chapter of post-war history few in America understand. It was a time of hardship, hunger and constant fear. Food supplies were limited. “The Russians took everything,” Vatheuer says, recalling Russian soldiers with stolen wristwatches lining their forearms. When a Russian soldier demanded his mother’s wedding ring and she had trouble twisting it off, her children feared rumors they’d heard of Russians cutting off fingers to get rings might be true. Instead, she got the ring off and handed it to the soldier who examined it, tossed it to the ground and stomped on it.
Resourcefulness was born of necessity. His sisters knitted, unraveling old sweaters for yarn, then using old bicycle spokes for needles. Despite the hardships, the family celebrated Christmas, exchanging gifts they’d made themselves.
His father, who had been working as an agricultural administrator in the Ukraine during the war, wrote to Vatheuer’s mother, advising her to try to get to the British-occupied sector. Determined, she followed his advice though it took multiple attempts – and in the end required forging one word of his letter – to get the family out of the Russian sector.
In the British zone, the family was among a thousand people “re-settled” to a town of the same population. “We had a room in a castle,” Vatheuer says. “It was so cold there were two inches of ice on the window.”
In 1947, the family reunited. “Dad came,” Vatheuer recalls. “He’d been in a POW camp. He was all skin and bones.”
Vatheuer’s parents were intent on leaving Germany and, in 1953, the family came to the United States sponsored by a family in Idaho through the World Lutheran Federation. “To come you had to be in excellent health and able to work,” Vatheuer says, recalling how a sister with health issues had to remain behind.
The family eventually ended up in Wapato where they ran a truck farm and Vatheuer graduated from high school. Intent on attending college, he delayed that dream to help his family, went on to serve three years in the U.S. Army, then enrolled at Portland State University.
It was in a German class there that he met a pretty coed named Mary. She was shy. So was he – but not so shy that he didn’t walk her to her bus stop and ask to see her again.
Flash forward a few years. After a year at Portland State, Vatheuer transferred to Oregon State University where he earned a degree in forest management and went on to a 32 year career.
Married in 1969, he and Mary bought eight acres in the Cle Elum area in 1984 and built a home where their two sons grew up and where he and Mary still live. A doer by nature, Vatheuer soon became involved in the community.
South Cle Elum Way, the road that connects Cle Elum to South Cle Elum, doesn’t bear his name but maybe it should. The 70 or so Norwegian maples that line the sides of that roadway – green in spring and summer, an eruption of brilliant yellow each fall – are a Kiwanis Club project that testify in part to his trademark role: a steady, determined man, sleeves rolled up figuratively and literally, leading by example.
Armed with a grant from the Plum Creek Foundation that he helped obtain, the club planted half the trees one year, the rest a decade or so later. “I hounded them so much they made me a member of their board,” says Vatheuer who spent five or six years on the board. He figures he helped procure $140,000 for various projects in the county over the years.
At one point, when Cle Elum’s old swimming pool needed cleaning and painting, it was Vatheuer and his family who did it. And when the chamber of commerce decided to transform an old phone company building downtown into public restrooms, Vatheuer helped coordinate the project, even enlisting Mary and his boys to help hand dig the sewer line.
He’s also been involved since inception with the Kiwanis Club’s annual Christmas tree sale, a project he estimates has raised $60,000 plus over 24 years. Vatheuer has cut many of those trees. His contributions have not gone unnoticed. In 2006, he received Puget Sound Energy’s Pioneer Award, presented annually to an individual in Kittitas County who has demonstrated leadership and vision to benefit the community. Two years later, a brass plaque honoring him was placed at Flag Pole Park.
Among his admirers: Michelle Wurl, executive director of The Foundation at KVH. “He embodies the true spirit of giving back to the community,” she says. “His tireless devotion to our county and his willingness to help wherever needed is an example we all should follow.”
But Vatheuer shies away from the term “giving back.” “To me, I think what I do means being part of the community. You should be doing not just talking about it,” he says.
Once, he recalls, one of his sons asked why he does what he does. “I never really thought about it,” he says. “Basically I probably would have to say that I grew up in a Christian environment and I had many good examples in my life – especially my mother. You don’t just live for yourself but also for others.”
He’s proud of his roles on the Hospital District 2 board and as a member of the board of the Foundation at KVH. “The hospital doesn’t take in much in taxes but is financially stable,” he says. “It’s a public entity that stands on its own two feet. The foundation is a well-run operation. Without it the hospital might have to raise taxes.”
As for KVH Hospital, “I’ve been a patient several times,” he says. “It always seems efficient and the people are friendly. But the quality healthcare is the most important thing. The hospital wins all these awards. That must mean something.”