Prelude to a conversation
Not far from the outskirts of Corvallis, Oregon, Hwy 99 runs through the heart of the Willamette Valley. Wheat on both sides of the roadway is knee high and gold heads curve downward in gentle arcs. Whirling dust devils resemble small tornadoes as they spiral across recently harvested fields.
Turning onto the Applegate Trail Highway, tractors bumble along as my car passes by, winding through miles of leafy corridors towards the rural towns of Elmira and Veneta.
Oregon Travel Information Council (OTIC) Member-at-Large Mike Drennan is waiting patiently at Veneta’s Our Daily Bread Restaurant. We’re about to hold a conversation about how his life’s journey has led him to a second term on the OTIC.
We sit down to chat at a window table inside the cafe’s airy structure—a church in a previous incarnation. The former nave’s floorboards creak—whispering ghosts of past spiritual reverie. There is a buzz of anticipation from various alcoves where regular patrons wait for their generous portions of home-style and locally sourced food.
Aptitude for business acumen
Mike Drennan was born in the Pacific Northwest—Yakima to be precise. From there his family migrated to Central and Eastern Oregon to keep pace with his father’s employment. In Drennan’s junior year at high school, the family settled in Corvallis.
“I was a huge Beaver fan early on,” says Drennan with a bit of an impish smile. “But… ”
Drennan’s wry disclaimer mirrors his early bent for youthful independence. He set his sights on a business degree—a desire that led to the University of Oregon (UO) and ultimately, Duck fanship.
Overseas stations beckon
In 1968, Drennan emerged from UO with a degree in Business Finance. It was a volatile period in the US and many of his friends were joining the military to fight in Vietnam. Drennan’s father was a Navy veteran, so Drennan followed suit—meeting with naval recruiters about officer candidacy.
“My eyesight prevented me from piloting air or watercraft,” says Drennan. “So I was named Supply Control Officer and assigned to shore duty in Yokosuka, Japan.”
Within a short time after arriving in Japan, Drennan found himself assigned to a US Navy Landing Ship Tank, the USS Washo County LST 1165 (pictured below).
“Our job was to pick Marines up in Okinawa and deliver them to the shores of Vietnam,” says Drennan. “On the Washo, I ran the barber shop, mess hall, and the ship’s supply and payroll departments. We would disembark in-country and I worked onshore to administer payroll to the underwater teams and SEALS stationed in the Bo De River.”
Towards the close of Drennan’s naval career, his ship was decommissioned. Following a brief period in Bremerton, Washington, Drennan was transferred to Norfolk, VA. As he prepared for discharge, Drennan met a new love interest, who just happened to have a five year old son. Following the couple’s marriage, the young family headed back to Drennan’s beloved Oregon.
“On July 4th weekend in 1972, we arrived back in the Portland area, hoping for my acceptance to a bank management training program. But just a few days after our return, the bank I planned to work at shut its management program down, and I had to figure out what to do next.”
As one opening faded, another beckoned. Drennan enrolled in management training at the First State Bank in Milwaukie, Oregon—the first of many positions leading to a lifelong banking career.
Banking on a win
From Lending Officer to Vice President of Marketing and Strategic Planning at Citizens Bank, the young Drennan followed a circuitous path—returning to his teenage home of Corvallis.
He headed north to the University of Washington for more studies in banking—and then set his sights on heading an independent bank for the US Bancorp.
“I read in the local newspaper that US Bancorp was going to open a new bank in Corvallis, so I called up the manager” Drennan says, “and told him that I wanted to be president.”
“The guy just laughed at me and said ‘Who the heck are you?’ He thanked me for my inquiry but said they would be hiring from within the organization.”
“Fortunately I met someone on their organizing board, and after we spoke, he asked me to send along my resume. And that’s how I became President of the Bank of Corvallis.”
After many successive ventures helping lead various other financial institutions, Drennan ended his 40 year career and retired from Home Federal Bank.
Other irons call his name
For twenty years, Drennan has sat on the Board of Directors of Travel Lane County, and was Chair for two years. Six years ago, the CEO of Travel Lane County happened to tell Drennan about an opening on the OTIC.
“I applied in 2008 and was appointed by the governor to a four-year term,” says Drennan. (Governor Kitzhaber approved Drennan’s second term on the OTIC two years ago.)
“I did my research and learned that OTE was responsible for highway signs and also partners with ODOT in TripCheck. I actually got in on the ground floor before OTE took on rest area management in 2010.
“I thought it was great that as a semi-independent state agency, OTE could not only assume rest area management (and make safety and cleanliness a high priority), it could also resolve any problems that came up much more nimbly.”
Oregon’s bounty and beauty
OTE worked with ODOT to assume partial rest area management in 2009, following recommendations made by the Governor’s Task Force on Tourism and Transportation. Drennan was on the Council to help the agency succeed with its new rest area model.
“It all came together,” says Drennan, “and we got the support from the Legislature for additional responsibilities (and additional rest areas) following our community success at the Baldock Rest Area. (Baldock was renamed French Prairie Rest Area in 2013.)
“I was in awe of the accomplishments of the coalition at Baldock,” adds Drennan. “The agency leadership was phenomenal in helping oversee the clean-up. I honestly didn’t think there was a peaceful solution to getting the situation (dissolving the long-time homeless encampment) resolved. However, the staff did a great job at building coalitions and helping with relocating the homeless.
“We’re going to need the Legislature’s help again—as well as a strong partnership with the Oregon Department of Transportation and Travel Oregon in order to take our rest area program to the next level. I’m pretty excited about moving things outside the Federal Highway Administration’s current limitations and finding a way to promote the local regions.
“Rest areas don’t have to just be places for a quick stop,” Drennan concludes. “They can serve as sites for a complete marketing package for the entire state if we all work together.”
Personal and business evolution
“It’s been frustrating that we have had to limit the amount of highway signs we can install, as well as the amount of logos we’re allowed to place on them,” he says thoughtfully. “Technology (possibly advancements in Traffic Sign Recognition) could help improve that situation.
“For now, we’re still able to offer our sign permits at a conservative price,” notes Drennan. “Many other states charge far more than we do for the same product. We have to remain competitive and still offer this valuable service to the businesses who depend on us to drive more customers their way.”
Although Drennan may call himself retired, his participation on the OTIC is punctuated by other volunteer work with CASA of Lane County, a six year stint on the board of Food For Lane County, and 10 years service to the Cascade Manor Board.
Anything but a laid back retirement
Near the close of our conversation, I ask Drennan for a little secret that others may not know about him. He grins happily. “Well, I love to read anything—especially spy novels, mysteries and thrillers.
“I was out at the coast some years ago on vacation and picked up a leather bound volume that was about this thick… ” Drennan illustrates the book’s immense size with his hands—a distance of some 10 inches apart. “… it was the complete works of William Shakespeare!
“I set it aside for 15 years and just recently picked it up and said to myself ‘I’m going to read the entire thing—every single play!’ So far I’m on the sixth one. It’s definitely part of my bucket list,” Drennan says with his characteristic wide smile.
As OTE and the Council sets its new strategic plan in motion, Drennan is energized by his participation in revitalizing the agency’s mission. Retirement for this powerhouse member-at-large is not a vacation—it has become a re-infused and vigorous contribution to help fulfill Oregon’s future tourism and transportation needs.
Footnotes about Our Daily Bread Restaurant
Veneta’s “premier” cafe is locally famous for their terrific food. The menu is bursting with freshly baked pastries to juicy burgers and overflowing salads. They’re open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and catering and special events. Check hours and menus on their website www.ourdailybreadrestaurant.com. Our Daily Bread (an OTE Business Highway Sign customer) is located at 88170 Territorial Rd in Veneta, Oregon.170 Territorial Road Veneta, Oregon 97487
This article is second in a series of Oregon Travel Information Council member spotlights. Read the first story about Council member Danuta Pfeiffer and her winery. More spotlights will be posted throughout 2014. You may also learn more about the full Council on their bio-page.