Soundings: A Greener with shrewd fiscal, political sense

March 23, 2014 

It might come as a surprise to some that a graduate of The Evergreen State College led the nation’s largest public pension fund out of the Great Recession.

The typical list of famous Evergreen attendees includes people of celebrity in the world of arts and entertainment. Simpson’s creator Matt Groening, Portlandia’s Carrie Brownstein and Seinfeld’s Michael Richards come to mind.

But look a little closer and you’ll find Joe Dear, Class of 1977 and as good a goodwill ambassador as the liberal arts college in the woods west of Olympia has ever had.

“I would argue that he’s Evergreen’s most distinguished graduate,” suggested Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., and a 1973 Evergreen grad.

Dear’s many accomplishments, including a successful stint as chief investment officer of the California Public Employees Retirement System, will be recognized by family and friends at a public memorial service from 2-3:30 p.m. April 5 in the Evergreen library lobby. He died Feb. 26 in Sacramento after a long battle with prostate cancer.

“Evergreen started him on his public service career,” noted Leslie Owen, his former wife and also an Evergreen grad. “It was his springboard into the community and into the political world.”

In a video filmed for the college’s 40th anniversary, Dear shared some thoughts about his Evergreen education:

“I think the most important part of the Evergreen experience is learning how to learn,” he said. “It sets you up for life … incredibly powerful and invaluable.” He also credited the interdisciplinary approach to learning at Evergreen for serving him well in difficult jobs throughout his life.

An East Coast transplant, Dear arrived on campus in the summer of 1974, a young man in his 20s who, after graduating from high school in Bethesda, Md., had spent time attending community college and traveling. In 1974, he worked blue collar jobs at Arcosanti, the experimental town in the central Arizona desert developed by the Italian-American architect Paolo Soleri. While there, he learned about the fledgling alternative college in the Northwest, the one that shunned grades and embraced an interdisciplinary approach to learning.

He gravitated north and enrolled in TESC professor Oscar Soule’s 1974 summer class titled “Ecology of the Northwest.” The class featured field trips to the varied ecological settings of the state, including the Nisqually Glacier on Mount Rainier, home to an algae that turns red when you put pressure on it. The red algae fascinated Dear, Soule recalled. Dear fell in love with the college and the natural wonders of the Northwest.

“He was a serious student, an engaged student and a leader,” Soule recalled.

Dear studied under then-TESC professor Russ Lidman as he pursued a bachelor’s degree with a focus on political economics.

“He was one of those people who ruins teaching for you,” Lidman explained. “You know you’re never going to have a better student.”

Following a Greener tradition, Dear created his own first job after graduating — co-founder of the Olympia-based nonprofit called People for Fair Taxes. In 1980, he joined the Washington state Labor Council and served as a research director. He later went to work for the state Department of Labor & Industries, rising to agency director in 1987 at a time when workers’ compensation rates were soaring, and labor and business interests were at each other’s throats.

“Dear quickly sized up the problems and brought warring parties to the table,” recalled Don Brunell, former president of the Association of Washington Business. “Things changed.”

Dear went to the “other Washington” in 1993 to serve in the Clinton administration as head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In 1997, he returned to Olympia to become chief of staff to Gov. Gary Locke, leaving in 2000 for a short private sector stint with Russell Investments. He returned to the public sector as executive director of the Washington State Investment Board.

In March of 2009, at the request of then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, he became chief investment officer of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. The system’s pension fund had plunged from $253 billion to $165 billion in the year just before Dear took the job.

He helped rebuild the fund responsible for paying benefits to 1.7 million public employees, retirees and their families. At the time of his death, the fund stood at $283.5 billion.

Theresa Whitmarsh, executive director of the Washington State Investment Fund, worked with Dear off and on for 24 years. She viewed him as a sponsor, someone who gives employees opportunity to do their jobs.

“He was less concerned about someone’s background and more concerned about their talent,” she said. “He had a knack for assembling smart, talented teams.”

A lifelong advocate for Evergreen, Dear endowed a scholarship and served on the college’s board of governors from 2002 to 2008. In lieu of flowers, the Dear family requests contributions be made to the Joseph A. Dear Scholarship Endowment.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444

The Olympian is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service