"I always thought I would die laughing at my own jokes," said JC Milne, but it was the combined effects of living to 95 that took him Dec. 21, 2020. He died at home and peaceful in bed as the solstice began Monday morning.
Jim was a vibrant man who engaged with a huge network of people throughout Portland and with his business and family across the country and the world. Born and raised in Glasgow, Scotland, he founded and ran the Milne Construction Company in Portland, Ore., which completed buildings nationwide and abroad. At Glasgow University he trained as an engineer and then to serve as an officer at the Royal Naval Engineering College. In a lucky moment, in what he thought of as a lucky life, he graduated just as WWII ended. He left war-torn Britain at 22 sponsored by cousins John and Rose Alexander who owned the Cold Spring Granite Company in Minnesota. From there he looked for an engineering job by sending out 50 letters to firms all over the country, and Hoffman Construction in Portland offered him a job.
In about 1951 JC struck out on his own, and one of his first customers was Rose City Cemetery. For Rose City he and his team figured out how to build a community mausoleum. This involved custom concrete molds with rubber releases and eventually two other patented elements.
He took this construction system to other cemeteries in Oregon, then New Orleans, and throughout North America and Australia. In addition to specialized techniques, the Milne Construction Company also offered sales support for the cemetery manager. When the construction and the selling worked together it was a very low cost to the cemetery which was a good long term business model for both parties. The mausolea built for these cemeteries were built to last for hundreds of years.
Milne Construction Company built community mausolea for Greenwood in Brooklyn, and Pinelawn Memorial Park and Arboretum on Long Island, some of the most prominent cemeteries on the East Coast. His firm's work is also evident throughout Portland, where they performed most of their non-cemetery work. Milne Construction buildings in Portland include the KGW building supervised by Bill Weller, with its tremendous cast concrete eyebrows, and the parking structure at S.W. 4th and Clay.
He was a long observer of all sides of the Portland business community. In 2017 while driving around town he saw a beer truck making a delivery. "I remember when Widmer Bros. was a plumbing company…they seem to have made much more money once they changed effluent." On a more serious level, he was proud to serve on corporate boards, of Benson Industries and of Standard Insurance, of which he often said with amused pride that he and Sam Naito were the only immigrant members.
He loved business. To his daughter he soberly said: "Victoria, this is my deathbed wish: Never undercharge." While he liked to joke about himself as a cutthroat businessman, (and he would indeed refine a contract to death), he was actually very generous to local causes. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Lake Grove Presbyterian Church, George Fox University, Outside In and Family Reading Partnership, among others. In addition to giving his own money he dedicated himself to fundraising, saying "I feel I'm doing people a service when I give them a chance to participate in something bigger than themselves."
The love of business is a love of getting things done, and he brought the same drive and satisfaction to philanthropy. For over 10 years he was on the board of the San Francisco Theological Seminary, and then was a supporter of the Princeton Theological Seminary. He was central to the creation of the Oregon Corporation for Affordable Housing, which in a five-year span built $67 million of housing in Portland.
This philanthropy was connected to his Presbyterian faith, which was an enormous part of his life. He threw himself in to the fundraising, to the community, and into the outreach. Most of his decades in Portland were spent at First Presbyterian Church, though he transferred to Lake Grove Presbyterian church in later years. At First Presbyterian he was instrumental in several substantial real estate projects.
His most ambitious project for the church had a 20-year arc. In the 1980s the Danmore Hotel, which occupied the south half of the church block, came up for sale. The church Session voted against buying the property, but Jim saw the long term value of the church owning it. So he, Julian Cheatham and Peg Paulbach purchased the property and held it for a number of years before eventually donating it to the church. In order to replace the low-income housing that would be lost with the demolition of the Danmore, Jim was instrumental in the effort to design, fund and construct a six story affordable housing complex called The Alder House on church-owned property on 13th Avenue. A plaque in their library commemorates this work. Several years after the completion of the Alder House, Jim was intimately involved with fundraising, design, and implementation of the construction of a landscaped green outdoor plaza and three-story underground parking garage on the former Danmore site.
A phrase he relied on was "Never suppress a generous gesture." He had many of these gestures in the church in particular where he had a personal mission: in the very large congregation, over many generations, he visited every newborn with the gift of a Bible and new sheepskin. Another personal commitment was to regular Bible study. For many decades he had three sessions each week; one before the Sunday service, one on Tuesdays at First Presbyterian, and one on Thursdays with fellow members of the Arlington Club. His Bible study groups were like the rest of his life: he was close friends with captains of industry, and he engaged equally deeply with church members who were janitors or experiencing homelessness.
Many who worked with him look back to appreciate lessons from him in work discipline, personal frugality, and orderly processes. To his godson Andrew Rein, "He was a profound influence on who I became. He was someone who gave me moral lessons that I remember to this day. His lessons removed all doubt from my mind that any sort of dishonesty would ever be acceptable in my life."
A particularly influential financial principle he encouraged was to "save a tenth, give a tenth, and understand compound interest." And his business cards (which are to be given to the same person 17 times, he said) included a quote from his fellow Scotsman Andrew Carnegie: "As I grow older, I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do."
Those who lived or worked closely with him found among all these traits also spectacular stubbornness over large and small points. An example was the absolute primacy of a steno book. Meetings were cancelled when employees showed up without this specific notetaking format. Probably very few days in his 95 years passed without JC recording something in his numbered and dated steno book. Now many linear feet of sequentially archived books track the progress of construction projects, church projects, calls with family, and things to do.
The other side of the stubbornness however, was a Scottish sense of merriment. A famous insult he enjoyed from his childhood was from his Latin teacher Ninian Jimeson from Hutchie Grammar School in Glasgow, when young Jim had been impudent: "Milne, if you had any more wit you would be a nit-wit!"
He was a man of conservative habits: he did not drink alcohol or swear, he never watched television (actually, never), he wore a white business shirt with a tie every day, he attended church every Sunday, he worked ½ day every Saturday, he swam three days a week, he was meticulous on how documents should be prepared - but he joked, played cards, golf (two holes-in-one at Waverly Country Club), and snooker with enthusiasm and fun. "Come weak 3!" is this gentleman's trash talk from the Pitch table (now part of the vocabulary in a circle of new players in New York). In Bridge he warned that "There's many a man who spent the rest of his life walking the banks of the Thames broke and penniless for failing to lead out trump!"
James Cairndaie Milne, often called JC or Jim, was named for a farm 12 miles west of Aberdeen. Milnes had farmed Cairndaie for five generations, though it was owned by an English family. As a boy James – or Hamish – had been sent from Glasgow to work on his uncle's farm. Throughout his life he remembered the long rows of potatoes and the greatest challenge: picking sheep's wool off the barbed wire fences, "A penny a pound and no dung!"
Through his life he celebrated his Scottish roots and was awarded the Peter McDonald Scottish Heritage Award by the St. Andrews Society of Oregon in 2013. His education at home and in school included memorization of poetry and literature, and in his middle age he committed the 200+ lines of Robert Burns' poem Tam O'Shanter to memory, performing it for friends. And he stayed a British citizen until becoming naturalized in a ceremony with Mark Hatfield in 1996.
His first marriage was to Gretchen Blaesing, later called Forest, a Portland native whose grandfather had started Rose City Cemetery. They built and designed a midcentury home together in Dunthorpe. He is survived by his children, William Milne, with granddaughter, Scarlett; Liz Nakazawa, and grandson, Andre; and Mary Milne with children, Freida and Owen. His second marriage was to Eleanor Elizabeth Staehli, another Portland native, whose grandfather was the sculptor of many Portland landmarks. He is survived by his daughter, Victoria Milne from this marriage. His surviving stepchildren from Eleanor's prior marriage are Paige Lambert and George Cornwall. Step-grand and great-grandchildren on this side are Dr. Emily McCobb, with children, Elidh, Jamey and Torin; Dr. Amanda Cornwall; Melanii Lambert with children Cody and Fiona Byrne; Juliet Lambert; In Amsterdam, Henjo Hielkema with son Jonathan; Ellen Hielkema with daughter Sally; and Morgan Hielkema with daughter Doutzen. His deceased sister, Dr. Mary Milne Buchanan's children all reside in Great Britain; Dr. Neil Buchanan in Winchester, Frances Orr in Brentwood, Morag Davidson in Edinburgh and Sheenah Fletcher on the Isle of Arran, with nine grandnieces and nephews and six great-grandnieces and nephews between the four.
In his life with Eleanor the pair traveled widely, from Machu Picchu to Mongolia and across Russia, though he preferred comfort more than she. At one point they took a boat from Chile to the south pole. As they disembarked and ice water sloshed into his rubber boots, he dunned his wife: "Eleanor, two bridge cruises for this!"
He was very interested in the story of people he met. That story might be the basis on which he would connect people with each other in business or in personal life. But this overall curiosity led to a wide range of friends and a genuine interest in people of all backgrounds and circumstances. He was particularly interested in immigrants. He developed a unique closeness with a Vietnamese-American family, the Trans. Not only did he share family celebrations with them in his later years but he encouraged them in their life decisions.
Because of this interest in people's story, he also had a tremendous capacity to be direct about the real situation in people's lives. This would more often be seen in handwritten notes, which he persisted with throughout his life. He had an ability to talk about the actual issues of the death, or the promotion, or the sadness or the happiness that was incisive, and so, meaningful.
He would want to be known for his buildings, his business, his generosity and his commitment to the church. But it is possible that his relationships with people gave him the most gratification. He loved, and often recited, a revised quotation from Hamlet which he practiced and took to heart. "Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, bind them to thine heart with hoops of steel."
The family will organize a memorial service when gathering is healthy in 2021.
To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of James Cairndaie Milne, please visit our floral store.