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Philanthropist, mountain climber uses foundation gifts to change lives

Bill Fix surrounds himself with mountains that inspire him.

William (Bill) Fix is glad he can help change lives through Johnston-Fix Foundation gifts of $300,000 each year—$6 million in the last seven years—to more than 30 institutions and programs.

Recipients reflect commitments he and his late wife, Harriet, have had through their lives—their schools and those of their children, their church, the arts, youth programs and outdoor programs.

The philanthropist and mountaineer does not confine his life or mind to the two rooms where he now lives in The Ridge at the South Hill Rockwood Retirement Communities.

Every morning after breakfast, Bill, who is now 91, walks eight times around the roof of the seven-story tower overlooking Spokane and surrounding mountains. Recently he said he beat his time the previous day of 2.31, by completing the rounds in 2.30.9.

On his walls and in books out on tables are photographs of many of the 60 mountains he has climbed, hiked or skied over the years.  One book is signed by Sir Edmund Hillary, the first to ascend Mt. Everest.

On occasional outings to a family lake cabin on Lake Coeur d’Alene, he still walks barefoot on the quarter-mile white sand beach and remembers waterskiing adventures.

Bill’s grade school years in Seattle were at the John Muir School, where he began and gained appreciation for hiking, skiing and camping at Mount Rainier and elsewhere in the Cascades.

Bill quoted Muir: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.  Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.  The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

In 1944, he graduated from Lakeside, a boys’ school in Seattle in a class of 32.

Bill studied civil engineering six semesters at the University of Washington and transferred in 1946 to Yale University in New Haven, Conn.  He earned a scholarship to go there, but entered on the Navy’s V-12 College Training Program, majoring in industrial engineering, which included studies on investments.

A classmate was former President George H.W. Bush.  Bill added that his pianist son, Harold—one of his four children—was a classmate of Barack Obama at Occidental. 

In 1948, after Bill graduated from Yale, he and four friends spent seven weeks on an expedition climbing 12 peaks in the Coastal Range in British Columbia.  They arranged for a plane to drop food packages along the glacier.

Bill worked in Seattle with a steel and aluminum window company, climbing mountains and skiing weekends and vacations for two years.

Not having served active duty, he was drafted for Korea.  He entered the Army Sept. 30, after he and Harriet were married on Sept. 9, 1950, at the Cathedral of St. John in Spokane, her hometown.

For two years as a corporal at Fort Ord, Calif., he taught recruits who came from the Punalu’u School in Honolulu how to protect themselves in chemical, biological and radiological warfare. Harriet and Bill lived in Monterey, where Harriet worked in publicity for the nearby Delmonte Golf Course. 

After he was discharged in June 1952, they settled in Spokane. Bill worked at Columbia Electric, a wholesale company Harriet’s father, Eric Johnston, owned.

Bill was a sales engineer contacting Spokane contractors for lighting and electrical fixtures. He also sold radios, small appliances and Columbia records to several local stores. 

After 20 years, he retired and began to use his knack at investments, which he learned from his father.  He worked two years with a brokerage company.  Then he focused on endowments for large nonprofits, including Whitworth University, the Cathedral of St. John, the Fairmount Cemetery Group and the Spokane Symphony.

Soon, he realized he could charge just two- to three-tenths of one percent, rather than the usual 1 to 1.5 percent brokerage-firm rate, and still do well when managing endowments worth tens of millions.

Over 30 years, he took Whitworth’s $1 million endowment for scholarships—when they had 1,200 students—to $130 million, helping the university grow to 2,500 students. 

Bill, who said church has been “a strong influence” in his life, took the Cathedral of St. John’s $1 million endowment over 20 years to $12 million before turning it over to U.S. Banks and a church committee 12 years ago.

He also helped build multi-million endowments for Fairmount Cemetery Group and the Spokane Symphony.

In addition, Bill used his investment skills to build the family foundation for philanthropy.  Harriet’s father had formed the Johnston Foundation in 1948 to support arts and education.  It eventually split between her and her sister, Elizabeth Hanson.

In 1988, Bill and Harriet renamed their foundation the Johnston-Fix Foundation. Bill went to classes for several years at the Salk Institute near San Diego to learn about philanthropy.

The Johnston-Fix Foundation, which now has $7.5 million, continues to grow even with giving away 5 percent a year.

Nine private higher and secondary education recipients of foundation grants include family alma maters or universities where Bill or Harriet served on boards: Lakeside, St. George’s, Occidental College in Pasadena, McAlister College in Minnesota, Whitworth University, Gonzaga University, Whitman College, Smith College and Yale University.  Each receives up to $30,000 a year. 

Other recipients include the Cathedral of St. John, the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane, the YMCA and YWCA, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Dishman Hills Conservancy, Friends of Mt. Spokane the River Forum, the Spokane Symphony and Civic Theater.

Bill recounted some of his adventures as a mountaineer.

He started climbing in high school going weekends to Snoqualmie and other mountains in the Cascades. At Yale, he was head of the Mountaineering Club.

Some of the other mountains Bill has climbed include Washington’s volcanoes, several North Cascades peaks, two of the Ten Peaks in British Columbia, and five visits to India and Nepal, where he hiked with Tenzing Norgay, who first climbed Everest with Sir Edmond Hillary.  

He followed a 250-mile trail in Nepal, around Annapurna in an area with 14 peaks over 26,000 feet high. Fifteen years later, he did the trail in the opposite direction.

Bill “accidently” did a solo climb in the Grand Tetons.  He had just started to hike up to a ridge but then went on to the top.  He was wearing boy scout moccasins with quarter-inch rubber soles and used a big branch, instead of an ice axe.  The sole fell off one moccasin as he glissaded down a snow chute.

“My feet were freezing, so I hopped onto rocks and wiggled my toes,” he said.  “At the bottom, the ranger asked why I didn’t tell him I was going up. I hadn’t intended to go.  I just followed the snow gully and went the rest of the way up the 12,300-foot mountain,” he said.

“My last good adventure was a 10-day tour around Mount Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps,” said Bill who followed trails and stayed in huts crossing six passes and seven valleys.  He went when he was 79 with a friend who was 67.  They did it for $400 each, rather than $3,500 for a guided tour.

Harriet, who died in October 2015, climbed a few mountains with him, including in 1951 climbing the 14,494-foot Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states.  Often they hiked on Tower Mountain and trails around Spokane.

Not only was he drawn to mountain climbing for adventure, but also because of “the religious feeling” he had while climbing—even in the challenge of bad weather. 

Bill experienced what Muir described as “nature’s peace” in the accomplishment of reaching summits and looking out at the mountains, valleys and sky around him—and just in being in the mountains.

Copyright © June 2017 - The Fig Tree