As the office at Fruitland Electric deals with the loss of founder and CEO David Koeppen, several of his now former employees opened up to The Argus Observer about their memories of the man.
Koeppen’s second-in-command John Howard has known Koeppen for 22 years. He remembers when Koeppen gave him his first assignment.
“It started when I was a third-year apprentice; I remember after about six months being here he handed me the keys to a van, said ‘It’s either sink or swim, survive or perish. You take care of it,’” Howard recalls. “I jumped out on my own and I’ve been going ever since.”
Howard said Koeppen was like a father to him, as far as the electrical trade goes.
“He treated me like his son; He would let me take any piece of equipment home and use it personally. He would bend over backwards and let you have whatever he had.”
Howard recalls Koeppen’s patience, character and trust.
“He was the type of person that … never did look over your shoulder or say ‘I wonder what he is doing.’ He just pretty much trusted that you were taking care of what he needed unless he heard from a customer a bad report. He just pretty much left you alone.”
Howard notes that Koeppen typically had his red-haired dog, Cinnamon, with him when he came into the office.
“His wife had rescued [her] from an animal shelter. He took care of [her] after she passed away.”
On the job, customer satisfaction was Koeppen’s top priority, according to Howard.
If a customer ever called and complained, Howard said Koeppen “never hesitated a moment, he would always say, ‘What can I do to make you happy?’”
In fact, Koeppen had a saying about customer satisfaction.
“He says, ‘You can’t make everybody happy, but you can make them less unhappy,’” Howard said. “We live by that quote here.”
Outside of work, Koeppen kept largely to himself.
“Dave was a pretty private person,” according to Howard. “You didn’t know a lot about what was happening in his personal life.”
However, he recalls how Koeppen would frequent the same places with his friends every week.
“He had three stops, usually every day, morning and afternoon; That’s where he hung out with his friends, at the different bars. He had been a bartender before he became an electrician. He met most of the people in those arenas.”
Howard mentioned the incident which caused Koeppent to give up alcohol.
“He wrapped his car around a pole after a night of drinking and ever since then he quit [drinking].”
Although Koeppen continued to go to bars with friends, Howard said after the accident he stuck to drinking soda.
“They [kept] a Diet Pepsi in the bars just for him and a beef steak for Cinnamon.”
Howard says Koeppen became a mellower guy in recent years.
“He used to be pretty wound up, I guess you could say. He was eighty-two when he passed away but everybody else thought he was like in his early seventies the way he moved and acted. … He didn’t show his age very much.”
Travis Patton has worked at Fruitland Electric for four years. In that time, he observed just how much Koeppen loved to eat the same thing daily.
“It kind of amazed me, ham and cheese sandwiches every day.”
Patton said how regular Koeppen could be in general.
“He was a very ‘set’ kind of guy; He had a set schedule for everything… If he wasn’t in here by 8 o’clock, it was like, ‘OK, where’s Dave?’”
John’s wife, Valerie, also shared her memories of Koeppen, having known him the same length of time as John.
“It has been the last three years that I have been helping in the office. He called himself the ‘chief agitator,’ and I was his close second. We had so much fun bantering back-and-forth with each other. Not only was he funny and fun, he had a BIG heart. He gave so much to others and to the community.”
According to Howard, Koeppen had piloted his private airplane for a weekend flight to attend his 65th year reunion for Columbia High School in Richland, Washington. He made it safely and delivered a speech at his reunion.
It was on his way back that Koeppen experienced trouble with his plane. It was when Howard noticed he hadn’t come in that he realized all was not well.
“It kind of struck me strange that he wasn’t here; I thought, ‘Well maybe he hadn’t planned on coming in on Monday morning and so he was flying on that Monday instead of coming in on Sunday,’ which he normally did. So I waited until Tuesday about noon … I actually texted him and asked him when he thought he’d show up. We got a call from… a member of the Payette Airport; they had a meeting on Tuesday morning, and he never missed a meeting... They said they couldn’t get ahold of him. I knew something wasn’t right.”
The FAA was called in to search for Koeppen. The wreck site was discovered in Union County. According to an article in the LaGrande Observer, radar data indicated that Koeppen’s plane crashed after making a rapid descent from an altitude of 6,600 feet.
It was on the morning of Sept. 11 when Howard got the call that Koeppen’s plane had been found. He was in his office.
“They let me know on Wednesday morning that they had found him. I had a pretty good idea.”
Cinnamon was on board the plane with Koeppen. They perished together.
The mood has been somber around the office since the news of the founder’s death. That said, business moves on. Koeppen left his share of the company to Howard, who is now working to take over operations.
“It’s been quite different trying to get used to him not being around.”
The consensus about Koeppen: He was a giving man.
“Even his own tractor, I’ve had it over at my house for the last three years,” admits Howard. “He said, ‘Well, I don’t really have a place to park it so you take it home and use it as long as you want. It’s never left my house in three years. He gave way more than he ever made.”
Koeppen worked for Veterans Affair and the Payette Airport for free, as well as offering apprenticeship programs.
Koeppen’s memorial service was held at Calvary Chapel in Ontario on Sept. 21.