Harry Magnuson, who provided support for the preservation of the Cataldo Mission in North Idaho and kept Gonzaga University from financial collapse, has died at age 85.
SPOKANE — Harry Magnuson was a legend in North Idaho and Spokane, where his financial support and tenacity preserved the Cataldo Mission, kept the interstate freeway from running through downtown Wallace, and helped save Gonzaga University from financial collapse.
But at home, among his children and grandchildren, Magnuson was just Dad and Grandpa, his son, John Magnuson, said in a eulogy at his father’s funeral Thursday.
“We know our father was an icon, the stuff of legend,” John Magnuson said. He added, “He had a heart the size of Idaho. If there was a Mount Rushmore in Idaho, Harry Magnuson would be on it.”
Magnuson died Saturday at 85. His Mass of Christian burial was celebrated Thursday at Gonzaga University’s St. Aloysius Church, after a vigil Wednesday in his beloved hometown of Wallace. At Thursday night’s home game, Gonzaga basketball fans paid tribute to Magnuson with a moment of silence before tipoff.
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Everyone at the packed funeral service seemed to have a Harry Magnuson story.
His son, John, told this one: Every Dec. 29, Magnuson told his children about the day he met their mother, on that date in 1947. Colleen Burns had walked into a Wallace bar with a friend to buy some Cokes and caught Magnuson’s eye. He asked the bartender for her name, and the bartender brought him the $2 check she’d written.
His father kept that check under lock and key until the day he died, John Magnuson said. The couple were married almost 59 years.
Magnuson was born and raised in Wallace and returned to his hometown after serving in the Navy during World War II and completing his master’s degree in business administration at Harvard University. He set up a business as a public accountant but quickly branched out into mining and real estate. His company’s investments grew to include banks, hotels and shopping malls throughout the Inland Northwest.
Magnuson received numerous awards and honorary degrees recognizing his contributions to historic preservation, community service and business and industry. He was one of the first three lay trustees appointed to the governing body at Gonzaga. He served as a trustee for 41 years and as chairman of the board from 1970 to 1975.
Magnuson was described as an eternal optimist, a protector, and generous to a fault. He was called a giant among men whose big heart was sometimes overlooked. A devout lifelong Catholic, Magnuson’s efforts were far-reaching, influential and — as evidenced at the service — inclusive. Representatives from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Indians draped Magnuson’s casket with a tribal blanket, a custom in their tradition, former tribal Chairman Ernie Stensgar said.
Magnuson was a great friend to the tribe, Stensgar said, helping preserve the tribe’s Cataldo Mission, helping Indian youth attend Gonzaga, and using his political clout to support tribal causes.
Years ago, before the tribe built the casino that would secure its finances, Magnuson offered the tribe the opportunity to buy a large piece of undeveloped land on the west side of Lake Coeur d’Alene, at 16-to-1 Bay. Stensgar was certain Magnuson had received more lucrative offers.
“He made a deal so we could afford to purchase that land,” Stensgar said. “He gave so much to the tribe.”
Almost two dozen priests assisted with Magnuson’s service, including Bishop Michael Patrick Driscoll, of the Diocese of Boise, who presided.
Joe Peak, owner of Silver Valley’s Enaville Resort, said his son, the Rev. Jimmy Peak, was the youngest priest at the altar. His son wanted to become a priest but couldn’t afford to attend Gonzaga, Peak said. Somehow the grants and financial assistance he needed came through. Peak said he always suspected Magnuson’s hand.
“I know Mr. Magnuson knew about that. Mr. Magnuson, in his very subtle way, he never talked about it, he never bragged about it. It was just one of those things. He was a consummate giver,” Peak said. “Only God and Harry will know how much giving he did and how many people he reached.”
The Rev. Bernard Coughlin, a former Gonzaga president, said he met Magnuson 35 years ago when he invited Coughlin to become the school’s president. Coughlin said Magnuson took over the board’s leadership at a time the school was grossly in debt and bankers were walking away.
“He personally guaranteed the university’s debt,” Coughlin said, and continued to serve on the board until he died. “He was a giant, but I think many missed the heart of the giant.”
Gonzaga’s current president, the Rev. Robert Spitzer, said he researched the meaning of the word Magnuson.
“The word literally means ‘the great one.’ I’m not kidding,” Spitzer said. “(Magnuson) was a great one because of his successes, but also because of his great love.
“He really was a good shepherd. Harry was a protector. He was a sheepdog. He was protecting Gonzaga. He was protecting his family. He was protecting the Cataldo Mission. He was protecting Wallace.
“Harry’s relentless optimism always won the day,” Spitzer said.
Several speakers Thursday mentioned Magnuson’s “memos” — notes he’d write with clippings or other reference materials attached. After the service, former state Sen. Mary Lou Reed said she was among those who received the notes.
“He kept track of an incredible number of issues and people,” Reed said. “It was an impressive multilayered life that he led.”
Reed said: “He was a leader in so many different ways. But he was really a very modest man. He was always just a very nice person. Harry Magnuson really, to many of us, is Idaho.”