Remembering George "Bing" Sheldon

Monday, May 09, 2016

George “Bing” Sheldon was a founding board member of Central City Concern (CCC), and served on our board of directors from 1979 to 2013. Much has been written about Bing this past week—including this editorial in the Oregonian—as the City mourns his passing. Bing’s family will honor him with a public memorial from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Sunday, May 22, 2016, at Montgomery Park.

It feels nearly impossible for us to capture Bing’s many contributions to our agency, the Old Town neighborhood, other nonprofit organizations and the young professionals who he mentored. In lieu of a collective narrative about Bing’s impact on CCC, we asked a handful of people to share their personal favorite memories of him. Here are their thoughts.

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Of course I had heard of Bing Sheldon before starting my employment with Central City Concern. His fingerprints were all over the city—from prescient urban planning policies to historic building renovations that not only restored brick and mortar but also helped revitalize the city itself. And it didn't take long to understand why he had been so impactful. He understood that risks and challenges were inherent in all things worth doing and he was respectful but undeterred by them. If something needed to be done—whether it was a project that needed to be built or a service that needed to be provided or provided better—the question for him became not if, but how. And it became easy to see how his unique kind of guidance and leadership, over a period of decades, had kept a diverse and intricate organization unified and pointed toward a north star of individual and community renewal.

But Bing Sheldon is not being remembered for just his work as architect and planner—as impactful as those contributions were. Bing deeply cared about the people who live in a city—from its children to its seniors to its homeless. And he sought to better understand how this marriage of people and place can evolve to the betterment of all of a city's citizens. It was Bing who showed all of us the impact that one person can have on both a community and the people who live within it. That leadership requires not only determination and a certain fearlessness, but also compassion and understanding.

Sean Hubert, Chief Housing and Employment Officer, CCC
(Pictured here with John Gray, middle, and Bing Sheldon, right) 

My first memory of Bing was not long after I started at CCC in 2004. I had been hired as the new Quality Manager, my first management job, and had just found out that CCC was going to have an audit on our billings. George “Bing” Sheldon is a founding board member of Central City Concern, and has served on the board of directors since 1979. Richard Harris, our Executive Director at the time, and Ed Blackburn, who was my supervisor, wanted me to come to the CCC Board of Directors meeting to talk to them about the audit, how we were preparing for it, what the possible consequences might be, and what quality assurance measures I was putting in place.

I had never reported to a board of directors before, and I was feeling pretty nervous walking into the meeting. Bing was one of the first to come over and greet me. He introduced himself, and introduced me to several of the board members who were already there. He put me at ease and made me feel comfortable there, assuring me I was among friends.

All of my subsequent interactions were similar. I always found him to be kind and supportive, and his calm and confident demeanor was contagious. As my career has progressed and I’ve had the opportunity to serve on the board of other non-profit organizations, Bing is one of the people I try to model myself after as a board member.

Ted Amann, Director of Clinical Information Systems, CCC

My fondest memory of Bing was hearing him talk about the house that he and his wife built in Northwest Portland in 1971. A few years ago, he and Carolyn hosted a party at their house for us and he warned of challenging directions, tricky parking and steep hillsides. It was all true. Walking into his house was like stepping into an enormous, magical tree house! It had multiple levels that were curiously aligned with each other and virtually every space had vertical views of other rooms in the house. Every room also interacted beautifully with the outdoors. The very lowest level was clearly the kids’ space and as Bing pointed out, they had their own fort-like area yet by design, one could hear them from above—brilliant!

He told me that he had three goals building the house– finish it at a very low cost per square foot, win an award from a major Architects’ Association and use salvaged materials. He proudly shared that he had accomplished all three goals. He explained how the phone company thought he was crazy when he called to inquire about getting a dozen or so telephone poles to use for the house’s stilts. He battled a bank to allow him to use a metal roof instead of the higher fire-risk wood shingles that were customary at the time. During the party, Bing urged every attendee to check out the upstairs bathroom. “See if you can find the bathtub,” he cajoled. I finally got to it at the end of the evening. High above me, tucked into a loft space was a gorgeous claw foot bathtub painted a deep purple. It was a space of serenity and wonder all at once.

Seeing Bing’s house made me feel like I had a glimpse into his amazing and creative mind. It was a privilege. (Ed. note: You can see Bing’s house for yourself by watching this video tour.)

Kathy Pape, Senior Director of Public Affairs, CCC
(Screenshot taken from "Good Architecture is Theatre with Bing Sheldon" video)

I met Bing when I was 24 years old and was hired as the receptionist at Central City Concern. Bing addressed me with the same kind eyes and hearty greeting he had for everyone else. Over the years I moved up in the organization and eventually became CCC’s housing developer—and had a lot to learn. I got to work a lot more closely with Bing. He knew so much about buildings and about the City of Portland. But what made the biggest difference in my ability to do this work for Central City Concern was Bing’s unwavering belief and optimism. It was entirely clear to him that CCC should build a brand new building and clinic for homeless people on the North Park Blocks and that it would be a fantastic building (because of course SERA designed it!). And it was equally clear that I could and should represent CCC on the development team.

When Bing, with all of his experience and knowledge believed something was right, he radiated it with such assurance, it made you believe it too. Including believing in yourself. And that was a fantastic gift that had nothing to do with the buildings or the design or even his incredible service. It was all about who he was, his heart.

Traci Manning, CCC employee, 1993 to 2011

In the old days, say the spring of 1981, the Burnside Consortium (now CCC) Board would meet monthly on the second floor of an old building on Couch, between 3rd and 4th, I believe. No elevator, no ADA, only stairs. The Board then included founding members Sally McCracken, Bing Sheldon, Sam Naito, and others. I was a new member. Our task then was to oversee a Public Inebriate Program grant of $400,000.00 which constituted almost all of the annual budget. The four employees, Andy Raubeson, executive director, Robert Ridgway, the building manager, Richard Harris, in charge of the PIP grant, and Rene the office manager and secretary, routinely attended the board meetings.

In the early days, CCC did not do housing, medical services, or mental health services. In short, all of what is delivered now under the continuum of services is new and was developed over time in large part through the efforts of Bing Sheldon, and his professional skills. He knew every building in Old Town without consulting plans or maps. He would advise the Board about which buildings were worth fixing up and the likely cost of doing the work.

He was a risk taker; not many professionals located their offices in Old Town. Bing was the first and only vice chair of the Board until he retired in June 2013. After more than three decades of Board service, he left an agency with almost 700 employees, an annual budget around $50 million, and a national reputation of innovation and effectiveness, due in large part to his participation. I had the great privilege of serving with Bing as Board chair for 25 years after Sally retired as Chair. Remarkable times, remarkable people. It reminds me of a quote from Albert Einstein—"Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile." Bing's life was extremely worthwhile in so many ways.

Dean Gisvold, CCC board member, 1980 to 2013

Better Call Bing: In 2003 CCC was engaged in developing and building new downtown recovery housing that, when completed, provided 180 units of alcohol- and drug-free housing to homeless men and women in early recovery from addiction. We chose a site at 8th and Burnside and put together finance involving HUD, PDC, Multnomah County, the City of Portland, and low-income housing tax credits. We hired an architect who designed a substantial, twelve-story building on a quarter block. The design guidelines for the Pearl District suggested that buildings of this stature be designed to an “exuberant coherence” standard. We liked the design and thought it was responsive to the needs of occupants and the desire of the neighbors for a building of interest. However, the City of Portland Design Review Commission did not agree. After two attempts to get approval for design, the CCC Board of Directors decided we should engage a new architectural firm.

Bing was a founding and active member of the CCC Board who had devoted much time, advice, and effort to the agency projects. Still, in all the years of rehabilitating Single Room Occupancy housing in historic buildings, CCC had never hired SERA Architects. Now seemed like the time, and the Board decided to bring SERA and Bing Sheldon on as architect for the 8th and Burnside project. Incorporating elements of the exiting plans, SERA designed a new building. Bing deftly led the team through the design review process, and the building was approved. Since completion, the building has been supporting newly recovering addicts in their transition to a clean and sober life. And this is how Portland got the only building topped with an inverted Nike swoosh.

The new design was not substantially different from the design that did not get approved, but the presentation was different. It was the Bing magic. Bing had an effective, persuasive way of communicating ideas. He spoke with authority. He was never condescending to his audience. His knowledge and experience were apparent but never overbearing. He solved problems creatively and expressed his thoughts clearly.

When you had a big problem to solve, the answer was clear: better call Bing.

Richard Harris, CCC Executive Director, 1995 to 2008

When I picture Bing, I see him striding through Old Town, with his signature excellent posture and determined pace. I encountered Bing this way so many times—on his way to and from SERA Architects, Central City Concern, and all the other neighborhood locations he frequented. Walking through Old Town, Bing was surrounded by the historic buildings he helped preserve, and a revitalized neighborhood that he was instrumental in creating. Bing was walking with the full range of the neighborhood’s people, from architects and City planners, to people living on the street and in affordable housing (housing which Bing’s efforts helped create). Meeting Bing walking so purposefully, you might think him aloof or unapproachable, but if you stopped him to say hello, you also saw his kindness and humor.

E.V. Armitage, Executive Assistant, CCC