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A meticulously engineered life

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by AMY MARTINEZ STARKE
The Oregonian

Alvin Batiste always read the instructions first. As a child, he had an interest in how things worked, and he soon had his own set of tools. But fixing things took a long time, because Alvin had to collect all the data and analyze them.

As a youth, he was studious, but the Jim Crow South was no place for an African American man with ambition. Alvin’s potential was noted by a wealthy, elderly white Catholic woman named Mrs. Weaver. She hired him to read to her and to do errands. More important, she sponsored him through Howard University.

That act of charity was one of the reasons Alvin, raised Southern Baptist, later became a Catholic.

Alvin also went on to become an engineer for the Bonneville Power Administration and a community leader in Portland. He was one of the few African American men of his era who shaped policy at the city, state and national level. A “process” man, he employed a scientific approach to most things and never took on a challenge without plenty of documentation.

Alvin, who died April 18, 2008, at 85, was born poor in San Antonio. His ancestors included an Indian scout and Buffalo Soldiers. His father died when he was young. As the second of four children, he was raised in an extended family that sharecropped, trapped, hunted, fished, rounded up and branded cattle, picked cotton and did dry cleaning.

Alvin didn’t get to finish college at Howard University. The war started, and he enlisted in the Navy on May 12, 1943, and served on a ship as an equipment handler. In 1946, when his ship docked at Bremerton, Wash., he headed to Portland. He and the other African American sailors had heard about Portland’s thriving black community and that the hotels and railroad were hiring.

Bill McCoy, who later became a state senator, and Alvin became friends. Bill set Alvin up with 19-year-old Rosalie Thomas for a first meeting that took place in a drugstore on North Mississippi Avenue. The couple married in Holy Rosary Catholic Church in 1948. The first of their nine children was born in 1949.

As a young father, Alvin got a chemistry degree at the University of Portland in 1949, and he went to work for the BPA as a metallurgist and forensic engineer — one of the first African American BPA employees. Alvin often felt he had to be better than the white employees. He moved beyond discrimination and the hurts because he loved his job.

Alvin made sure there was money for two big expenses: Catholic school tuition for all nine children and insurance checks to Metropolitan Life.

What did he ask from his children in return? That they follow the instructions: maintain the three R’s, which were respect yourself, respect others, and take responsibility; value education and grow in faith; finish what you start; lead, not follow; and meet your potential.

“What you are to be, you’re now becoming,” he often said. And a standard graduation day lecture included: “Take no shortcuts.” It’s not who you know, “It’s who you know and what they know about you.”

Raising nine children and working full time might have been enough, but Alvin took on community work too. He and Rosalie volunteered to test equal opportunity laws at restaurants and at rentals. He protested cuts in bus service and advocated for bus shelters. He was involved with the Blanchet House, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Catholic Charities and Albertina Kerr. He ran unsuccessfully for the Portland School Board.

When his father-in-law was ill, Alvin took over his two janitorial jobs.

In 1969, he left the BPA to become executive director of the Model Cities Program in Portland. It was a hard job at a difficult time, and he was glad to go back to the BPA. In 1978, Alvin was appointed to the State Board of Higher Education, became chairman in 1985, then retired from the board in 1986.

Needless to say, Alvin was hardly ever home.

He retired from the BPA in 1980, and then came a rough time: He and Rosalie divorced. Alvin started a chemical waste consultant business in the Tri-Cities area, but after a few years, he came back to Portland, marrying Cecilia Enriquez in 1997. Cecilia had a stroke shortly after they wed, and Alvin slowly started backing out of community work to become her caretaker. It was then, also, that he started his journey inward.

He read everything, from politics to the history of African civilizations, and could pull out a quote from Shakespeare, Machiavelli or Locke. He pondered Asian philosophies and Greek mythology. He did calligraphy and wrote poetry.

True to his analytical bent, he used time while exercising to solve problems. Because he had to gather data before making a decision, he gathered information for others, too — large quantities of it.

And he still enjoyed fixing things, like oil furnaces, or car brakes, but the process wasn’t necessarily a quick one. He had to follow the instructions.

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