Volpentest, Sam (1904-2005)

  • By C. Mark Smith
  • Posted 11/09/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22580

He was known as "Mr. Tri-Cities," the "Man from Hanford," the "Godfather of the Tri-Cities," and occasionally by less-flattering terms. For more than 60 years, just about everyone at Hanford and in the Tri-Cities knew who Sam Volpentest was, even if they didn’t understand how he was shaping their future. Born in Seattle to Italian immigrant parents, he grew up in poverty, began work at 10, and spent two decades selling groceries to downtown Seattle businesses. Along the way he became friends with some of Washington’s most powerful politicians. In 1948, he moved to the Tri-Cities to start a business of his own and benefit from the growth of the Hanford Engineer Works during the Cold War. His taverns brought him success and, surviving cancer, he dedicated the rest of his life to his community. He co-founded one of the most effective local economic development organizations in the Pacific Northwest, and for nearly 50 years used his political contacts to funnel billions of dollars into Hanford and the Tri-Cities, shaping the future of the community. He was still at it until his death at 101.

A Born Salesman

Sam Volpentest became of community leader through luck and circumstance, but his many achievements were the result of hard work, stubbornness and tenacity. Leveraging the political contacts and sales skills he had developed for decades; he became the legendary lobbyist and community "fixer" who shaped the history of Hanford and the Tri-Cities. 

He was born to poor Italian immigrants in what is now the Chinatown-International District of Seattle on September 24, 1904. Ambitious and street-smart, young Sam had a small body but big dreams. He started work at the age of 10 to help support his family but still found time to become one of Seattle’s first Eagle Scouts. Always interested in music, he started a radio dance band while he was attending Broadway High School. Volpentest found fulltime work at age 17, first as a clerk and then as a star salesman for the pioneer wholesale grocer Schwabacher Bros. & Company, selling canned goods and produce to restaurants, speakeasies, and small family-owned grocery stores on a set downtown Seattle route. He worked that route for 22 years, honing his sales skills and developing a wide range of personal contacts through the 1920s, the Great Depression, and the years leading up to World War II.

Volpentest idolized his favorite uncle, a cigar-smoking, smalltime bootlegger, gambler, and club manager who was well-known in Seattle’s private club and after-hours scene. At one point his uncle managed the Italian Club on Union Street, a favored downtown hangout for leaders of Seattle’s small Italian community. It offered fine dining and a convivial bar that attracted many of the city’s aspiring politicians, including Albert Rosellini (1910-2011), who became governor in 1956, and Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989), who served six terms in the U.S. Senate. Volpentest never forgot Magnuson’s admonition that "the closest path to a politician is through your own wallet" (Trumbo). In 1938 Sam became president of the club. Al Rosellini served as vice-chair.

In 1928, Sam married Emily Rachel Orcutt (1907-1986), and the couple had three children: William (1933-2017), Jane (b. 1937), and Sam Jr. (b. 1939). In 1942, at age 38, Sam left Schwabacher after realizing he would never break into the management of the family-owned company. He worked for a few other companies during and immediately after the war, but came to the conclusion that if he wanted to provide his children with the college education he had missed, he would have to go into business for himself. That opportunity came in 1948 when he moved his family to Eastern Washington and moved into a home in Kennewick, a short drive downriver from Richland, the government town that served as the administrative headquarters for the Hanford Engineer Works, which was created during the war to produce plutonium for the top-secret Manhattan Project.

Opportunity in Richland

Volpentest wanted to open a new grocery store in the new Uptown shopping center ― that’s where his experience was ― but had to settle for owning a tavern after he learned that the grocery store had been promised to someone else. No matter. The weather was hot, the Hanford workers were thirsty, and Sam was a good listener. He opened the Roundup Tavern in March 1949, it prospered, and he soon bought several more. Over time, however, he came to the conclusion that Richland would never reach its potential as long as it was owned and operated by the federal government. He became active in local efforts to incorporate Richland and lobby the government to sell the land and buildings to its residents.

Volpentest was a lifelong Democrat. In the mid-1950s, he became an active fundraiser for Magnuson and Rosellini, as well as Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983), Washington’s junior senator since 1953, who had taken an interest in Richland’s incorporation. Sam was picked to chair the three-day "Commencement Day" incorporation celebration in 1958.

Surviving Cancer

It was about that time that Volpentest first noticed soreness in his jaw. The doctor’s diagnosis was devastating. The 53-year-old had a rare form of cancer of the jaw; the doctor said he had less than a month to live. To recover, he endured eight painful operations between 1957 and 1963, radiation therapy, a liquid diet, and a new lower jaw fabricated with bone from his hip. No longer able to work in his taverns because of a draining wound from his jaw, he suffered severe bouts of depression. His wife, worried about his mental health, contacted the influential publisher of the Tri-City Herald and asked if he could find something for Sam to do that would get him out of the house. Already concerned about the city’s economic future and its reliance on Hanford, Volpentest was elected president of the small Richland Chamber of Commerce.

Despite his painful and prolonged recovery, Volpentest attacked his new job with his characteristic energy and salesmanship. He developed a three-point vision. His first project was to have Richland enter and win Look magazine’s prestigious "All-America City" competition. He organized the campaign and helped make the city’s presentation to the magazine’s editors. Approximately a year later, Sam’s picture appeared on the front page of the Tri-City Herald — his jaw swathed in bandages from a recent operation — pointing up to a sign that proclaimed, "Welcome to Richland: All-America City."

Volpentest next proposed that the community find the necessary funding to build a 29-mile highway across the flat Hanford site and a new bridge over the Columbia River at Vernita, then served by a six-car ferry. The new route would significantly decrease the time it took to drive from the isolated Tri-Cities to Seattle and Spokane. With the help of his old friend Rosellini, now Washington’s governor, he lobbied the state legislature and Seattle business interests ― who were then seeking funding for a new interstate highway through Seattle in time for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair ― to support a compromise allowing both projects to be built.

Stumping for a Federal Building

His third goal attracted the most attention. By 1962, as a result of greatly expanded production during the Cold War, the nation had much more weapons-grade plutonium than was needed for military requirements. Every time he travelled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for his community, he heard rumors of proposed cutbacks at Hanford. Volpentest believed that the federal government had an obligation to do something to convince the community that it would not be abandoned if the work at Hanford was curtailed.

He had something in mind — a massive new federal building — and he knew just who to ask for it. His old friend Magnuson was a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. When Volpentest approached Magnuson about his idea for a new federal building, Magnuson explained that it normally took at least 15 years for such funding to be authorized and appropriated, and that there were already 25 buildings on a list ahead of the Tri-Cities. However, Magnuson was up for reelection, and facing a particularly difficult Republican challenger. Volpentest went to work raising campaign contributions for Magnuson from local businesses, Hanford contractors, and labor unions, reminding them of the many ways Magnuson could help the community while noting his own close ties to the senator. In the middle of a hard-fought campaign, Magnuson announced that funds had somehow been found for a new seven-story, $8.2 million federal building in Richland. Volpentest later said, "I don’t know how he did it, and I didn’t ask" (Scates, 200).

Volpentest teamed up with Robert F. Philip and Glenn C. Lee, the owners of the influential Tri-City Herald, to promote other community projects, including better air service, interstate highways, and assembling land for a new post-graduate educational program for local scientists, engineers, and researchers.

Harnessing Hanford

Volpentest understood that a new federal building wouldn't save the local economy if the plutonium production at Hanford was cut back or eliminated. Their only course of action was to fight any proposed cutbacks at Hanford, or, if that failed, to delay them for as long as possible while another future mission for Hanford could be found. Jackson was sympathetic to their cause and referred them to a consultant who was familiar with helping communities diversify their economies. With no local funds available to pay for the $25,000 study, Volpentest, Philip, and Lee decided to create a new economic development organization called the Tri-Cities Nuclear Industrial Council (TCNIC). Volpentest insisted that the word "nuclear" be included in the name. Philip was named its board chairman, and Lee became its president. Volpentest, the only one of the three who was not working, became its unpaid executive. He set out to sell memberships in the new organization with all the sales skill he had acquired over the previous 40 years.

The consultant’s report was not optimistic. General Electric (GE), Hanford’s prime contractor, was unwilling to welcome other contractors to the site or share its research facilities. As a result, Jackson and TCNIC developed a plan to separate the Hanford contract into smaller components and require that each new contractor invest in non-Hanford-related local projects as the price of receiving part of the lucrative Hanford contract. These efforts were still in the talking stage when their worst fears became reality.

On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson delivered his first State of the Union Address. Tucked between his sentences honoring John F. Kennedy’s legacy, his support for civil rights, the War on Poverty, and government frugality — was a phrase that fell like a thunderclap on the Tri-Cities community: "We must not stockpile arms beyond our needs or seek an excess of military power that could be provocative as well as wasteful. It is in this spirit that in this fiscal year we are cutting back our production of enriched uranium by 25 percent. We are shutting down four plutonium piles" ("First State of the Union ...").

Johnson’s announcement was the first in a series of decisions to shut down Hanford’s eight production reactors over the next decade. The nation had much more weapons-grade plutonium than it needed, but the reactors were also a convenient target. Johnson’s primary motivation lay in his efforts to pass the long-delayed Civil Rights Act. The former senate majority leader knew that the cost of getting the conservative senate Democratic leadership to allow his civil rights legislation to come up for a vote was his promise to propose a federal budget of less than $1 billion. Cutting back on plutonium production was one way to get there.

Two weeks after Johnson’s address, GE and the Atomic Energy Commission delivered another stunning surprise. They jointly announced that GE would be leaving Hanford and that the $1.4 billion Hanford contract, as well as the $80 million in laboratory facilities it operated, would be rebid and turned over to new contractors. Many Hanford employees immediately started looking for work outside the community. Home foreclosures and business bankruptcies spiked. Volpentest later recalled that "the whole community was at risk of drying up and blowing away" (Saunders, 139). Almost daily, Volpentest bombarded Magnuson and Jackson with horror stories about what was going on in his community, his major point being: the federal government created this mess, and it needs to solve it.

The process of replacing GE began almost immediately. Magnuson was able to get some skeptical federal agencies to look at Hanford’s facilities while Jackson plied his considerable influence with the AEC and major defense contractors. When prospective contractors arrived for a visit, Volpentest gave them the red-carpet treatment. His sales pitch always included the availability of existing nuclear and research facilities at Hanford, the unparalleled pool of nuclear construction workers and trained nuclear operators, a community that embraced nuclear energy, vast amounts of inexpensive land and cheap electric power, the recreational benefits of the Columbia River, and the area’s mild climate.

He also never failed to mention his connections to the state’s powerful senators and that his influence with them might be useful in resolving any problems associated Hanford. His motivation was never personal — it was about saving his community. When one potential contractor sent him an unsolicited check to act on their behalf, he immediately sent it back.

New Hanford contractors were identified and largely in place by 1965. Their contractually mandated efforts to create non-Hanford jobs and invest in the broader community produced uneven results. Even when new projects were successful, the jobs they created rarely paid the same high wages or provided the same benefits as those Hanford jobs that had been lost. One major exception was Battelle Memorial Institute’s acquisition of the old GE research laboratories. Battelle acquired 275 acres for its new campus and spent $12 million on new buildings. By 1967, there were 2,600 Battelle scientists, engineers, and researchers working on a broad array of scientific research projects in North Richland.

The Turbulent Sixties

The slow drip of reactor closure announcements continued throughout the 1960s. Each announcement resulted in a new round of community pessimism. Each new announcement raised questions of how the jobs lost would be replaced. Volpentest came to believe that the answer lay in transforming Hanford into a vast integrated nuclear energy park with as many as 20 nuclear power reactors producing electricity that could be exported throughout the West, with the resulting profits underwriting the growth and economic diversification of the Tri-Cities. One potential solution to the closures — cleaning up the large amounts of nuclear waste that had been created over the years — was not yet considered a viable option by a community of dedicated nuclear supporters.

During the next 20 years, Volpentest focused his efforts on attracting new missions and projects to Hanford. By 1979, he was in his mid-70s, but continued to work for free on behalf of TCNIC, cutting deals in Washington, D.C., to find the money needed to keep Hanford alive. He found success in local business ventures, but remained the Tri-Cities’ indispensable lobbyist, making as many as 20 trips a year to the nation's capital, often at his own expense. His remarkable energy, art of persuasion, infallible memory, and dogged persistence were all the more effective because elected officials and their staffs knew that Sam was not being paid for his efforts.

His lobbying in Washington, D.C., became the stuff of legend. If he didn’t have an appointment, he would show up at his target’s office first thing in the morning and still be there at the end of the day, waiting patiently, his hands folded on his lap, until an exasperated staff member finally found a way to get the little old man with the white goatee in to see the boss. D.C. staffers began referring to the "Legend of Sam." Gerald Grinstein, Magnuson’s administrative assistant in the 1960s, remembered, "Sam was really extraordinary in terms of his persistence. He was always working the problem. And then he’d follow up on the telephone, again and again. He was the master of the political process" (Grinstein interview).

Volpentest’s success was the result of careful planning before and after each visit. His past career as a salesman was another factor. He developed an intuition for what others wanted or needed, and his presentations reflected his intuition. He had an exceptional memory. He knew the names and telephone numbers of the right contact at hundreds of Capitol Hill and governmental offices. Gary Petersen, who worked with Volpentest on Tri-Cities economic development issues for many years, remembered, "He’d just pick up the telephone and call them. He had all those numbers in his head, and he would almost always be put straight through" (Petersen interview).

Working closely with the Atomic Energy Commission and the state’s congressional delegation, Volpentest and TCNIC tenaciously sought new projects and missions for Hanford. The New Production Reactor, later known as the N Reactor ― designed to produce both plutonium and steam for generating electrical power ― was funded in 1958. Congress narrowly approved funding for the companion $122 million Hanford Steam Generating Plant in 1962. Volpentest convinced President Jahn F. Kennedy ― who he had first met at the Washington State Democratic Convention in 1958 ― to attend the plant’s dedication in September 1963. It was the first time that the Hanford site had been opened to the general public and 38,000 people took advantage of a beautiful fall day to hear the president. Sam sat behind him on the stage.

Successes and Failures

The new Fast Flux Test Reactor (FFTF), built at Hanford for $270 million but completed with a huge cost overrun, was a major success, but other projects were less successful. The massive $550 million fuels and materials examination facility built next to FFTF never opened. Millions were spent exploring the potential of an underground nuclear waste depository at Hanford before the project was ended in favor of Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

Volpentest believed that his dream of a large nuclear energy park at Hanford could be fulfilled by the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS), a state agency that was attempting to build five new nuclear power plants, three of them at Hanford, during the 1970s, but the dream was beyond WPPSS’s capabilities. Mismanagement, technical difficulties, labor problems, growing anti-nuclear sentiment, and a massive debt load finally led to a default on $2.25 billion worth of bonds and the layoff of more than 5,000 workers, effectively ended Sam’s dream of a nuclear energy park at Hanford.

By 1985, the times had changed. The production reactors were gone. Efforts to attract new programs and missions to Hanford had all fallen prey to politics, cost overruns, and changing national priorities. Existing programs, such as the multipurpose N Reactor and FFTF, had either reached the end of their useful life or were unable to attract ongoing support. Widely reported nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl played into the public’s growing concerns about the safety of nuclear energy. Yet Volpentest refused to give up hope. "Don’t ever be afraid to dream," he would say. "He was," as one associate remembered, "like a lead horse with blinders on" (Schwenk interview).

Downturn in the Eighties

The cumulative result was a new economic crisis in the early 1980s that was every bit as intense and painful as the one in 1963. And now both senators Magnuson and Jackson were also gone; Magnuson lost his 1980 reelection bid and Jackson died as a result of a stroke in 1983. Sam’s longtime ally, the Tri-City Herald, had been sold to new owners. The new occupants of the familiar offices on Capitol Hill were now occupied by Republicans and many Democrats, like Washington senator Brock Adams, were openly anti-nuclear and hostile to Hanford.

TCNIC’s informal management structure and top-down reliance on Hanford was no longer viable. The community had grown larger and more diverse. Local governments, the chambers of commerce, environmental groups, agribusinesses, and organized labor now all demanded a seat at the table. Volpentest believed that the real power and money in the community still rested with the Hanford contractors and labor unions and that expanding the local economic development effort would result in a blurred message being presented to Congress. "We have to speak with one voice," he had often said. Many in the community interpreted this as meaning that they had to speak with his voice.

Over his opposition, the TCNIC’s board decided to create a new, more inclusive, economic development organization that would engage in a broad spectrum of economic development and diversification activities. In May 1985, they acquired the debt, assets, and membership of the largest of the local chambers of commerce, reinventing itself as the Tri-City Industrial Development Council (TRIDEC). His objections to TRIDEC were somewhat overcome by the creation of a paid executive vice-president position that left him in sole charge of all Hanford-related activities and government lobbying, while a younger, new president was hired to handle everything else. For the first time Volpentest, now 81, would be paid for his efforts on behalf of the community.

TRIDEC’s board brought together all of the suspicions, distrusts, animosities, and competing community and economic interests that had been building in the Tri-Cities for the previous 25 years. Hanford interests, local business, agribusiness, and units of local government, themselves badly fragmented, all held widely differing views about where the organization should focus its efforts. There were complaints from other organizations that were not represented at TRIDEC’s table.

Gradually, the council’s transition problems and the health of the local economy began to improve. TRIDEC completed two successful community fundraising campaigns and expanded its services to include entrepreneurial development, business assistance, and recruitment of non-Hanford businesses to the community. With the help of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), they developed a science- and technology-focused business park in North Richland that was anchored by the laboratory, the Joint Center for Graduate Education, offices of various Hanford contractors, and some non-Hanford businesses created by the contractors. Volpentest’s longstanding interest in improving highway access and air service led to the Tri-Cities finally being included in the interstate highway system. With TRIDEC’s help, a new air terminal was built in Pasco. A branch campus of Washington State University replaced the Joint Center in North Richland.

By the late 1980s, it was clear that Hanford’s future focus would have to change from production to cleanup. After intense negotiations that lasted almost a year, the Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the State of Washington signed what became known as the Tri-Party Agreement. For the first time, milestones and time frames were set for cleaning up the site and treating the approximately 56 million gallons of nuclear waste that had been accumulating there for 40 years. It was a difficult and costly transition. If anything, the nuclear industry knew less about cleanup in the late 1980s than it did about plutonium production in the early days of World War II. DOE, its contractors, and the unions struggled to embrace a cleanup mentality and develop and acquire the necessary technology for the job.

The Tri-Party Agreement led to a number of unanticipated consequences, but the largest was the positive impact that the injection of $1 billion to $2 billion federal dollars for cleanup each year had on the still relatively small Tri-Cities economy. Volpentest remained unconvinced at first, considering cleanup jobs to be less important than the ones they were replacing. But as the federal money flowed into the community, he changed his mind. "The green stuff is just raining down from heaven. All the stuff that’s in the ground at Hanford I think of as a gold mine. The whole world has to be cleaned up, and this is where it could all start," he said (Findlay and Hevly, 258).

"Mr. Tri-Cities"

Volpentest did some of his most effective work when he was in his 90s. In 1994, he helped broker an agreement between PNNL and DOE to locate the $230 million Environmental Molecular Science Laboratory on the PNNL campus. With the help of new political allies such as Representative Norm Dicks (b. 1940) and Senator Patty Murray (b. 1950), he found $365 million to fund the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) on the Hanford site. LIGO was designed to detect gravitational waves believed to have originated hundreds of millions of light years away during the dawn of the universe. It was the largest project ever funded by the National Science Foundation. After an extensive redesign and expansion between 2010 and 2014, LIGO detected its first gravitational waves in 2015, proving Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

Volpentest’s last project was also his favorite. It resulted from his newfound belief that Hanford should be the training ground for nuclear cleanup efforts worldwide. The $30 million HAMMER (Hazardous Materials Management and Emergency Response) Education and Training Facility provided realistic training for thousands of Hanford workers who were transitioning to cleanup-related jobs. It was also one of the most difficult funding projects Volpentest ever worked on. To fund the facility, he helped forge a partnership among the federal government, national labor unions, and Hanford contractors. In return, they named the facility in his honor, a decision that was made at DOE’s highest level. After working almost daily on this project for 11 years, Volpentest finally had the pleasure of seeing the HAMMER facility dedicated in a series of ceremonies that took place in September 1997, including a reception and dinner celebrating his 93rd birthday, an event attended by more than 350 people.

By the dawn of the new century, Volpentest had become a community icon, with HAMMER, a freeway bridge over the Columbia River, the ballroom at the Richland Red Lion Hotel, and a number of local awards all named in his honor. His annual birthday parties attracted hundreds, including old friends, current and former elected officials, and agency executives from both Washingtons. When he turned 100 on September 24, 2004, more than 700 people attended his birthday celebration, which had to be moved from Richland to a larger hotel in Pasco. Among the awards he received that night was a lifetime achievement award for his work in economic development, a bottle of Jack Daniels bourbon distilled in 1904 for the St. Louis World’s Fair, and a green highway sign designating the primary highway on the Hanford Site as Volpentest Boulevard.

His next birthday party had to be cancelled because of ill health, and Volpentest died on September 28, 2005, just four days after turning 101. George Garlick, the scientist, educator, and entrepreneur who worked with Sam on many issues over the years, perhaps sized up his legacy as "Community Godfather" best:   

"He was one of kind. There was never a person I ever met who had more impact on a wide variety of areas. On one hand he was almost like the Godfather who was the enforcer. On the other, he was like the Godfather who was the father. His legacy is the legacy of the human spirit. If someone like Sam can do the million, at least I should be able to do the thousand. His legacy is for those of us who follow; whether we say it, or act it out, and who are inspired to do more because they had some interaction with Sam Volpentest" (Garlick interview).


John Trumbo, “Old Pals Are Tri-City Movers And Shakers,” The Seattle Times, November 5, 2000 (www.seattletimes.com); Shelby Scates, Warren G. Magnuson and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 200; Lyndon Baines Johnson, “First State of the Union Address,” americanrhetoric.com website accessed October 11, 2021 (http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/lbj1964stateoftheunion.htm); Brad Saunders, “The Town That Wouldn’t Die,” Pageant, February 1971, p. 139; Gerald Grinstein interview with author C. Mark Smith, October 23, 2012, transcript in possession of Mark Smith; Gary Petersen interview with author, August 12, 2012, transcript in possession of Mark Smith; Mike Schwenk interview with author, November 11, 2012, transcript in possession of Mark Smith; John M. Findlay and Bruce Hevly, Atomic Frontier Days: Hanford and the American West (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011), 258; George Garlick interview with author, June 28, 2013, transcript in possession of Mark Smith.



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