When E.H. “Van” Van Blaricom died at the age of 96 this month, Wallowa County not only lost a man who was an outspoken community leader for many year, but also lost one of its last survivors of World War II.
Van as he was widely known was a rancher, conservative voice, conservationist, bird watcher, avid outdoorsman, Wallowa County Chieftain columnist and KWVR radio commentator.
He considered his war experience the defining time in his life.
“I was tested and I passed,” he said in a Chieftain interview when he was 89.
He was 20 when he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, fueled by patriotism that only grew stronger with his war experience, which he described as “short but violent.”
He survived combat in three major battles in the Pacific before being seriously wounded by a grenade on Guadalcanal in December 1942.
He didn’t let losing much of his right hand in combat slow him down in his long and productive life. He felt very fortunate to come home to marry Betty, the sweetheart he had left behind. She preceded him in death in 2014 after 71 years of marriage.
They had already raised their four daughters when they moved from a dairy farming operation in Pasco, Wash., to Wallowa County, where he rapidly carved a deep niche for himself as a cattle rancher on an upper Prairie Creek ranch.
Janie Tippett of Lower Prairie Creek knew Van and Betty Van Blaricom well for many years.
“Van was very kind, a good guy. He had ideas that not everyone agreed with, but he practiced what he preached and was a true American,” she said.
She remembered the time 30 or so years ago when she was taking her 4-H club snow camping on the east moraine, and Van volunteered to haul all their gear over waist deep snow to their camping spot in his snowmobile. By morning, it was raining, and Van got stuck in the snow trying to retrieve the group and burned out his snowmobile motor.
“He loved the outdoors, hiking, the wilderness. He loved birds, and he had a zest for life,” Tippett said.
In recent years when she visited Van at Alpine House, he was always on his typewriter surrounded by books. He gave his final radio commentary the week before his death.
“He was intensely interested in the world, and said he was never going to quit writing, learning or living life no matter how old he was,” Tippett said. “He was quite a guy.”
Van’s list of accomplishments was long and deep. He was a past president of the Wallowa County Stockgrowers, past chairman of the Wallowa County Republican Party, past president of the Wallowa County Rotary Club, past president of the Wallowa County Farm Bureau.
In 1990 Van was named Agriculture Leader of the Year by the Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce. Other honors through the year included being named Grassman of the Year by the Stockgrowers and Rotarian of the Year.
Van helped spearhead the Prairie Creek Riparian Project along Highway 82 just east of Enterprise, which earned the International Rotary Preserve Planet Earth Award.
Years earlier Van was active in a local “adopt a stream” program and had earned accolades for organizing a habitat development project at a Zumwalt area pond.
One of the reasons Van moved to Wallowa County was his love of fishing, hunting and mountain climbing. Among his achievements was finding an 87-foot circumference whitebark pine tree up McCully Basin, designated the state’s largest.
On his 80th birthday, he climbed the Matterhorn, one of the Wallowa’s highest peaks.
In his popular long-time Chieftain column “The Nature of Things,” and later in his radio commentary, “Think About It,” Van said he tried to be the voice of the Depression-era babies of Wallowa County. He made no apologies about being a conservative, but also claimed equal rights as a conservationist.
His last columns for the Chieftain, which he wrote until about a year ago, “Bird Watching,” was focused on birds and their habits.
During a 2010 interview with the Chieftain, Van pointed out that WWII veterans were then dying at the rate of 1,000 a day and it was important to remember the sacrifices they made to preserve freedom.
“I was a young man when the last Civil War veteran died, and in a few years, all of us World War II veterans will be gone,” he said.
Van Van Blaricom outlived most of his WWII comrades and left an indelible mark on Wallowa County.