Remembering Don Haggen, beloved Bellingham fixture

Haggen, who died at 80, took over the family grocery business, built a powerhouse company, and never lost his small-town values. A friend since childhood pays tribute.

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Don Haggen

Haggen, who died at 80, took over the family grocery business, built a powerhouse company, and never lost his small-town values. A friend since childhood pays tribute.

Funeral services were held Thusday (Sept. 1) in Bellingham for Don Haggen, 80, longtime head of the Haggen's and Top Food & Drug chains in the Northwest, who had died after a six-week bout with a fast-developing cancer. 
The company had consistently been listed in recent years as the first-, second-, or third-largest private company in Washington state. It was sold to ComVest Group, a Florida firm, last February.
Haggen's, and Don Haggen personally, were very much in this region's tradition. Like Nordstrom's, which began as a shoe store in the University District, or Starbuck's, which began with a single Public Market store, Haggen's grew and prospered because of the personal leadership of its founders and the quality of its goods and services.  Don Haggen and his younger brother Rick were personally more like the quiet but influential Nordstroms than the out-front Howard Schultz of Starbuck's, who bought the company from more self-effacing founders.
I knew Don Haggen for most of our lives and, with other friends, had spent a happy day with him 24 hours before his cancer was diagnosed.   His parents, Ben and Dorothy Haggen, and Doug Clark founded Haggen & Clark's market in downtown Bellingham with a $1,100 investment in 1933.  Their White House market, at the corner of Railroad Avenue and Magnolia St., was just a half-block down the street  from the city's Public Market. The paint store where my mother worked was situated between the two markets.  My father, who became a baker after his sawmill work ran out, often stopped by the market's bakery counter to talk shop with Ben Haggen.
Don Haggen was two years ahead of me at our grade school, junior high, and high school. I first became aware of him when, as a third-grade transfer from another elementary school, I tore my trousers and cut my knee on the gravel playfield behind Washington School.  Don, a fifth-grader, came over to pick me up and ask if I was OK. 

He worked, from elementary school onward, stocking shelves and cleaning up at his parents' market.  We were Delta Upsilon fraternity brothers at college, where Don often could be found during class hours playing cards at the frat house or drinking coffee at the Commons lounge in the Business Administration building.  He was a social guy who never missed a party.  He told many jokes and laughed easily at those of others — always smiling, usually irreverent. Summers, though, he continued to work hard in the family business and, with his younger brother, to run Haggen's small outpost store in Point Roberts.
Back in Bellingham and working fulltime at Haggen's after an Air Force stint, Don seriously buckled down.  His father became ill and it fell to him to take on a lead management role, to expand Haggen's throughout the Northwest, and to define the company's character. He knew just about every employee in the company's stores in Washington and Oregon.  He visited every store every Christmas. (Over the past 10 years, I made it a practice to drop in on Haggen's stores when one was nearby and I needed a few items.  Employees always referred to Haggen as "Don" and had strong morale).

Haggen's also became the leading philanthropic force in the communities where its stories were located, supporting generously everything from ALS fundraising and the Boy Scouts to warm-coat drives in the winter.  Don became chairman of St. Joseph's Hospital in Bellingham and oversaw its expansions and was active at St. Paul's Episcopal church.  He also was a diehard University of Washington sports fan and supporter and avid fisherman.
At the services last Thursday Don's brother, one of his five sons, and a physician friend delivered eulogies. St. Paul's was overflowing, and spillover attendees watched the services closed-circuit from the reception hall next door.   Growing-up and college friends were there as well as heavy contingents of community leaders and Haggen's employees within driving distance.
Unlike many people successful in finance or business, Don Haggen did not consider himself important.  He was a big name nationally in food retailing and in regional business and philanthropy.  But over the years he remained the same nice guy who'd worked through his boyhood at the corner family market and striven to please his hardworking parents.

He was a good guy who saw beyond himself and lived a life according with our best local values.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of