Eugene G. Hansen was born June 9, 1920, in Upland, Nebraska to James and Ruth Keim Hansen. After living through the dust bowl years—when dust could come through closed windows to settle a quarter-inch thick on every possible surface of the house, and wire fences were electrified by the force of the flying dust particles—Gene’s parents went bankrupt in 1931.
Helen Epley Hansen was born in Nora, Nebraska, on December 6, 1923. Her parents, Albert and Marie Epley, moved west after the drought of the dust bowl era drove her family off the farm. Her father got a job in a paper mill in Camas, Washington, in 1935. The move was a rude awakening for Helen, who went from having seven children in the entire school to an elementary school of two hundred. In high school, Helen took a secretarial course, the second part of which involved writing letters to local businesses offering to work for free in exchange for gaining experience. The Camas Post Record, a weekly newspaper where Helen had been working inserting newspapers, gave her the additional secretarial tasks. During her senior year, when the full-time secretary left unexpectedly, Helen was offered the job. One of her most difficult responsibilities was interviewing the families of men who were killed in World War II.
In the summer of 1940, with jobs scarce in his home state, Gene traveled west with some of his baseball buddies, hoping to find work in Washington. During their travels, the boys stopped in Camas, Washington to visit a family friend who had moved west in 1935. It was during this visit that Helen Epley caught Gene’s eye.
While working to build a dairy barn west of Vancouver, Gene learned that the National Guard was planning to mobilize in September and become a full Army division. He decided to join the National Guard, and on September 16th became a member of the 41st Infantry Division, 218th Field Artillery, Battery C. In 1998, Gene was honored by being inducted into the 41st Infantry Brigades Hall of Honor.
Gene left the Philippines on the 19th of June, 1945, after 39 months of overseas duty, among the first group of GIs to head home after the war. The night before he left, one of the officers he played baseball with called him over and told Gene to go to college at Oregon State College, and then he handed Gene letters to give to the OSC baseball and football coaches.
On August 15, 1945, Gene took the officer’s advice and went ;to Corvallis, but not before reuniting with Helen Epley, who had faithfully written to Gene almost every day while he was in the service, on scented paper that was a big hit with the Army guys. Gene and Helen were married December 18, 1945, lived in a one-room basement apartment before buying their first home. Helen worked at the Gazette Times, then located on the corner of Fourth and Jefferson. Their first son, Robert, was born in November 1946, then Eric was born April 1949 and Gary was born April 1952. Daughter Karen came along in January 1960.
Gene worked summers at a sawmill, but when career guidance tests suggested he would be a natural for selling life insurance, he started on his own as an insurance agent in August 1948. The day he graduated from Oregon State in 1949, Gene had a telegram from Sears & Roebuck, offering him a job in Longview, Washington. He took the job, but after about three months on a poor wage, Gene decided he could surely earn more selling life insurance back in Corvallis–and he wouldn’t have to keep making the long drive back to play baseball each weekend in the summer. His brother-in-law had a connection at Pacific Fruit and Produce, which needed workers for the early shift. So Gene went to work at 6:00 A.M.—sometimes earlier—worked until 3:00 P.M., then changed clothes and sold life insurance in the afternoon and evening. After a year of this grueling pace, he needed to accelerate the insurance sales in order to qualify a trip to Colorado Springs. He needed one more sale, and on the evening of December 30, he sold the policy that netted a trip for two—the first of many achievements to follow. His first office was downtown, on the corner of Second and Madison, in what was then the Benton County Bank. He later moved to the Guthrie Building, across from the Courthouse, then became one of the original partners in the Bowlby Building in 1966.
In 1956, Gene qualified for the Million Dollar Round Table, having sold $1 million in life insurance in one year. This was a tremendous accomplishment at a time when a $5,000 policy was considered sizable. In 1969, Gene earned the Chartered Life Underwriter’s designation (CLU), having passed a battery of tests in accounting, government, law, math, economics, and so forth. He has served as a Trustee of the National Association of Life Underwriters, one of only four people in Oregon who have achieved this office. “I’ve always been most proud of the fact that Gene’s competitors in the insurance business often called him for advice,” Helen recalled. “That really says something.”
After more than fifty years in the business, Gene still had no plans for retirement, although he moved his office to his home and cut back on the amount of time put into insurance work so that he could devote even more time to baseball. In 1946, Gene coached the Corvallis American Legion baseball team. He has been involved in the current program since 1973, becoming the manager in August 1978. He and Helen were instrumental in organizing newspaper drives—they personally collected and hauled newspapers every two weeks for a dozen years—and other fundraising efforts to fund lighting, bleachers, rest rooms, concession stand, press box, scoreboard, and a host of other improvements to Taylor Field. Mayor Charles Vars even set aside a day to honor “Mr. Baseball”—Gene Hansen. If Gene is “Mr. Baseball,” then Helen—for more reasons than marriage—must be “Mrs. Baseball.” She worked with Gene during every inning of their twenty-seven years with American Legion baseball. She was also deeply involved in the insurance business from the beginning, serving as secretary, office manager, correspondence coordinator, and record keeper.
Gene was Legionnaire of the Year in 1990 for his contributions to American Legion baseball. Both Gene and Helen received the Rollie Truitt Award in 1990, when they served as hosts of the American Legion World Series. Truitt was the baseball announcer in Portland, and the award has been given since 1960 to honor those volunteers who have worked behind the scenes to make the most significant contribution to baseball in Oregon. In October 1999, the professional baseball scouts in the Pacific Northwest area recognized Gene for his lifelong contribution to baseball. On December 22, 1999, Gene and Helen were inducted into the Corvallis American Legion Post 11 Baseball Hall of Fame.
Not all of Gene’s honors have come from baseball. In 1971, Gene was named Corvallis First Citizen, and later was named Senior First Citizen. Gene has been involved since 1959 in the Boy Scouts of America, serving as chairman of the Benton District Boy Scouts from 1959 to 1966. In 1967, Gene was honored with the Silver Beaver Award, the highest award the Oregon Trail Council can confer. In addition, the 1987 Eagle Scout class was named the Gene Hansen Class of Eagle Scouts. On September 29, 1999, both Gene and Helen were given the Everyday Hero Award, presented by the Pacific Northwest District of Kiwanis International. In the late 1970s, Gene decided to take on another challenge: training to run a marathon. And, like all the challenges he set for himself, he made it. Gene ran the 26 miles and 385 yards of the Seaside Marathon not once but twice, in 1978 and 1979.
Gene served as president of the Corvallis Chamber of Commerce in 1973–74 and was elected to serve on the Corvallis School Board from 1976 to 1979. A member of Rotary for forty-five years, Gene served as president of Corvallis Rotary in 1983–84. He also raised funds for Boy Scouts and Beaver Athletic Scholarships at OSU.
Gene’s advice to young people today: “Learn to work hard. I was glad I was born and raised on a farm because you had to work hard every day. Learning to help is important, too. Volunteering is a lot of fun, and there’s no end of things to do.” Gene died of a heart attack on March 4, 2004 while working on Taylor Field.
Even before her children were born, Helen became involved in Boy Scouts, serving as a Den Mother for many years. She taught Sunday school for many years at the First United Methodist Church and became one of the charter members of Altrusa in 1957. In 1979, Helen was named Corvallis First Citizen for her many contributions to our community. As an Altrusan, she held all the offices and served as District Governor in 1989–91. While in the hospital following cancer surgery, Helen learned that she had been honored as the Outstanding Altrusan of District 12.
“We’ve done a lot, but there’s much that needs to be done,” Helen said. “And I think that if you’re well enough, you should get out and do it. One thing I learned with cancer, when you hit a real barrier in life, you quickly learn what’s important and what isn’t. I can’t imagine being bored in this community—there’s so much to get involved with!” Helen died in Corvallis November 30, 2011. She was 87.
Gene and Helen established this fund in 1986 to benefit the American Legion Baseball program.