Ellsworth Culver, the Seattle-born humanitarian who helped shape the Pacific Northwest's Mercy Corps into an aid organization of global...

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Ellsworth Culver, the Seattle-born humanitarian who helped shape the Pacific Northwest’s Mercy Corps into an aid organization of global reach, died Monday at age 78 in Portland, of complications after melanoma surgery.

Mr. Culver’s international work spanned more than a half-century. In recent years he had continued a hectic pace of work and travel with a special focus on East Asia.

His death was unexpected and a shock to his friends and colleagues at Mercy Corps.

“He was just an amazing, amazing guy,” said Neal Keny-Guyer, the chief executive officer of Mercy Corps, which has a headquarters in Portland and an office in Bellevue. “Most us count ourselves in pretty good shape, but we are all struggling to keep up with him physically, spiritually and professionally.”

Mr. Culver, a Portland-area resident, joined Mercy Corps in 1982, three years after the organization was founded by Seattle resident Dan O’Neill, who sought to help during a refugee crisis in Cambodia in the late 1970s.

By then, Mr. Culver, the son of a missionary who spent much of his childhood in China, already had extensive experience in international humanitarian work. His résumé included teaching in pre-Castro Cuba, a 1958-1961 term as executive vice president of World Vision International and 1978-1981 service as the executive vice president of Food for The Hungry, International.

Mr. Culver became president of Mercy Corps in 1984 and served in that capacity until 1993. He pushed the organization to focus not only on short-term relief but on long-term development projects. After 1993 he served as senior vice president of the organization.

According to Keny-Guyer, Mr. Culver had a keen sense of geopolitics. He led the first Mercy Corps mission to Kosovo in 1993 and was thus in position to respond to the conflicts that later broke out in the region. Mercy Corps also was in Afghanistan for years before the 2001 U.S. push to overthrow the Taliban.

In 2003, Mr. Culver volunteered to go to Iraq for two months to help set up a Mercy Corps aid program.

More recently, Mr. Culver focused on Asia, where he had spent much of his youth, according to Keny-Guyer.

He was trying to assist nongovernmental aid groups to develop within China and in recent years had made more than 25 trips to North Korea, where he had made government contacts.

According to Keny-Guyer, Mr. Culver had a basic belief that goodness lies within all people: If you appealed to that goodness long enough, people would act on it.

Mr. Culver is survived by his wife, Esme Jo, of Lake Oswego, Ore.; his brother, Norman Culver; his sister, Muriel Cook; his seven children, Scott Culver, Tania Humphrey, Brenda Newman, Geoffrey Sasser, Glyn Stubbs, Amber Stubbs and Shannon Whitney; and nine grandchildren.

There will be a memorial service for Mr. Culver at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland at 1 p.m. Saturday. In lieu of flowers, Mr. Culver’s family asked that friends donate to the Ells Culver Memorial Fund at Mercy Corps, P.O. Box 2669, Portland, OR 97208.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com