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Building bonds

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Articles - February 2014
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
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Complementary career paths and interests are among the recurring themes in the story of the “two Bobs.” So is a common will to succeed and a commitment to public service. As the two men tell it, their friendship was based on several factors: a driving ambition, the fusion of different skill sets, and a shared passion for the music of their generation — the Beatles, Jackson Browne, Simon & Garfunkel.

Although Thompson and Van Brocklin met in high school, their friendship didn’t blossom until they were undergraduates at the University of Oregon, where they roomed together for three years. Theirs is not a tale of youthful debauchery, at least not in the version Van Brocklin, ever the lawyer, admits to “sanitizing” on occasion. Thompson is less diplomatic, noting he was “in trouble half the time” in high school and that he is neither “deep or intellectual.”

Regardless, for 18-year-old kids, the two Bobs come across as remarkably focused and dedicated. “We had this unspoken pact between the two of us to get the most we could out of college and set ourselves up for a good life going forward,” Van Brocklin recalls. During their freshman year, the friends put a sofa in front of a west-facing window, where they would gather most evenings, looking out at the Coast Range and talking about the future. “Where we really coalesced is we were going to work hard and we were going to be the best we could be,” says Van Brocklin. Several mutual interests bound the friends together, Thompson says. “But ultimately, it was like this deep drive to want to succeed.”

0214 TWOBOBS3
Montana, 1974

What they were going to succeed at was very different. Hands-on and creative, Thompson had always excelled in the art of painting and drawing; from an early age, he knew he wanted to be an architect. Intellectually curious and academic, a young Van Brocklin had decided by middle school he would become a lawyer, a profession that provided an outlet for his interest in policy and government.

Where Thompson had a deep passion for a single field, Van Brocklin’s interests were eclectic; a voracious reader, he pursued art and music with equal zeal, with a future attorney’s appreciation for the analytical frameworks explaining human endeavor. “I had a pretty good construct for how literature evolved from the epic to drama to the novel, and how music evolved from Bach to Beethoven to Mozart.”

While the two were playing off each other’s knowledge — Van Brocklin majoring in political science, Thompson fashioning architectural models out of popsicle sticks, — the city of Portland was also evolving, earning a national reputation as an urban pioneer. In 1974, a few years before Thompson and Van Brocklin graduated, Portland made history by voting against the construction of the Mount Hood Freeway, an eight-lane highway that would have carved its way through Southeast Portland. Four years later, the Portland transit mall opened; with streets dedicated specifically for buses, the mall became the focus for downtown redevelopment. And in 1981, the city decided to shelve plans for a 10-floor parking garage in favor of Pioneer Courthouse Square — Portland’s signature urban public space.

These kinds of projects, and the green development ethos they set in motion, helped inform the two Bobs’ career accomplishments. Thompson was involved in the design of Director Park, another public plaza, as well as the master plan for South Waterfront; Van Brocklin’s government work also helped grow a new generation of downtown buildings and transportation projects.  

If the city became a guiding force and inspiration, Van Brocklin and Thompson’s families provided another foundation. “We both came from very strong families; that was a driver,” says Thompson. Both men also adopted each other’s parents, he adds. “Van’s mom and dad were as interested in me as my own parents, and vice versa.” For his part, Van Brocklin says he is “not totally self-congratulatory“ about his success. “I’ve been very lucky to come out of a great family, to have had a good education because of them.”

About those youthful hijinks: “There were some wild times,” says Thompson, referring in particular to a couple of Christmas breaks spent near Livingston, Montana, bartending in a cowboy bar owned by an acquaintance of Van Brocklin’s. “We didn’t know what the hell we were doing.”

In 1976 Thompson and Van Brocklin traveled around the United States, followed by a four-month trip to Europe, the latter undertaken in a $400 VW Microbus the two men purchased in Amsterdam. These were “real road shows,” says Thompson, but with a clear objective: to visit key architectural and historical sites reflecting the accomplishments of the great men (the gendered noun seems appropriate here) who inspired them. Stops on the tours included Frank Lloyd Wright’s residence in Spring Green, Wisconsin; the British underground headquarters from which Churchill communicated during WWII; and the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in the French town of Ronchamp, designed by Le Corbusier. 

0214 TWOBOBS2
Holland, 1976

“We wanted to see things by people who had achieved at a high level,” says Van Brocklin, “because we had ambitions to do something at the highest level we were capable of.” Visions of grandeur notwithstanding, the two Bobs did allow for spontaneous side trips, although even in their chance encounters, the young men seemed to attract people who were leaving a mark. A serendipitous meeting at a bar in southern Holland turned into a one-month stay on a farm with one Anton Lohuis, a Dutch inventor of the miniature light bulb who eventually sold the patent to Philips. Lohuis paid Thompson to design an office in his on-site barn and engaged Van Brocklin in nightly chess tournaments. The visit culminated in a birthday party for Lohuis, with hundreds of guests attending.

Says Van Brocklin: “I remember Bob and I sitting on the roof of the barn at 6 o’clock in the morning, and the party was still going on.”

Inevitably, after college the form of the two Bobs’ friendship changed. Van Brocklin headed to Washington, D.C., where he served as a staff lawyer to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation before returning to Portland to first work for the city and then Stoel Rives. He is married to Sue Van Brocklin, public relations director for Coates Kokes; the couple has three daughters. Thompson opened TVA in 1984; today the firm employs 40. He and his wife have three children.



 

Comments   

 
Guest
0 #1 VanessaGuest 2014-01-31 22:48:47
Such a cool story four decades in the making between two men who have shaped Portland's skyline and civic landscape. Hope they pull up a westward facing seat together when Park Avenue West is complete and celebrate their respective accomplishments !
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Guest
0 #2 RE: Building bondsGuest 2014-02-04 17:48:49
Bob,
Glad I ran into this. Inspiring story I would like my son to read.
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