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Winter 2006 | Volume 29, Number 1 | Alumni

Quality Always

When It Comes to Alumni of the Year Kathi and Jerry Teel, the Vitamilk Dairy Slogan Reflects More Than a Business Philosophy

For the 30 years that Jerry Teel ran a Seattle institution, every agreement he ever made with Puget Sound farmers rested on a handshake. At one time, as many as 35 farms shipped product to his Vitamilk Dairy Inc., and every one of those relationships was secured only by the good word and reputation between two people.

Kathi and Jerry Teel thrived at Seattle Pacific College, as did two of their three daughters and all three of their sons-in-law.

Because of their personal commitment to living ethical, balanced, positive, and generous lives, Gerald “Jerry” Teel ’63 and Kathi Huddle Teel ’65 have been chosen Seattle Pacific University’s 2006 Alumni of the Year. For five generations, the Teel family has been a staunch ally of SPU. The Teels’ hospitality and philanthropy have been felt by friends, employees, and the community.

They are what Alumni Director Doug Taylor calls “all-hands-on-deck” people. “If you need help, ideas, encouragement, inspiration, or a different perspective, you call the Teels,” he says. “If you want people to get involved with your mission, you invite the Teels. Jerry and Kathi are always asking what they can do to make SPU better.”

The Teels join a small handful of recipients of the top alumni award who share the honors with a parent. Jerry’s father and the founder of Vitamilk, Edwin Teel ’36, was named 1963 Alumnus of the Year.

Seattle Pacific classmates Steve Kenagy ’64 and Cindy Reynolds Kenagy ’65 underscore Jerry’s and Kathi’s unwavering Christian faith and open-hearted approach to life. “They are the people you’d want to have with you on the proverbial desert island,” says Steve. “Their optimism, skills, energy, and commitment spill over continually.”

Those bedrock qualities were dished out in generous portions in the small agricultural community of Harrington, Washington, where Kathi Huddle grew up “down on the farm.” As a child, she loved the big family meals and busy days feeding the chickens and the milk cow while watching for the arrival of boisterous, fun-loving cousins. In high school, Jerry lived in North Seattle and worked harvests on his uncle’s farm about 20 miles from the Huddle spread. Though the two young people didn’t date, their families were acquainted, and they had met in church.

Plenty of their family members had already graduated from Seattle Pacific by the time Kathi and Jerry enrolled. The Teel family, operators of Vitamilk Dairy in Seattle, had hosted Falcon basketball teams for training dinners in their home. Kathi’s brother, Bill, was legendary Falcon Coach Les Habegger’s first basketball recruit. The Teel family met for services on campus in McKinley Hall while the present-day First Free Methodist Church was under construction.

In the summer of 1962, upperclassman Jerry often worked 16-hour days to pay for college — and a white 1960 Chevrolet Impala convertible with red interior. Convinced he didn’t have time for a social life, he nonetheless agreed to his grandparents’ request to pick up freshman Kathi one Sunday for dinner at their house. Kathi said, “Let’s put the top down,” and he did so for the first time since he’d owned the car.

Love bloomed and graduation loomed. It was the Vietnam era, and Jerry no sooner received a degree in business and economics than he was drafted into the Army for a two-year stateside stint. Kathi, with career plans to be a foreign diplomat, completed a summer quarter in Switzerland, backpacked Europe for two months, and graduated from SPU in three years with teaching credentials and a degree in English. Jerry returned home from military service knowing what he wanted: to marry Kathi and join the family business. Like everything in their subsequent 40 years of marriage, they’d treat the future as a partnership and an adventure.

Jerry’s business savvy, compassionate managerial style, and troubleshooting abilities ensured his rise within Vitamilk. From sales, he quickly worked into management, eventually overseeing production and distribution. In 1974, he was named president and general manager of the company.

“No one ever said anything bad about Jerry Teel,” says Paul Arbuthnot, an Oregon dairy past president who sat on many Northwest dairy boards and committees with Teel. “That’s because he didn’t need to cover his tracks. He was an honorable person and one of the hardest working. Nor did it end when he walked out the door at the end of the day.”

Daughter Molly Teel Oien ’93 says that the company’s “Quality Always” slogan was part of her dad’s philosophy “from cow to grocery store.” Whether he was helping Dairy Queen maintain the high standards of its soft-serve ice cream or insisting on strict adherence to systems for ordering, bottling, and loading Vitamilk’s perishable product, Jerry was both hands-on and exacting. But he never forgot the human side of the business. When annual sales reached a high of $50 million, he nonetheless treated his 150 employees in three locations with respect and concern. He ate lunch with them and wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.

Kathi stayed home when their three daughters were young, believing in the importance of giving her girls a strong start. Kim Teel Feir ’90 became a computer programmer, Molly a CPA, and Julie Teel Cain a financial advisor who is also an assistant coach for the SPU women’s soccer team. When the girls were older, Kathi coordinated Vitamilk’s grocery store demo program and presentations at the grand openings of QFC stores. She hosted meetings with farm suppliers and operated booths at food dealer trade shows. And, over the years, she threw many memorable parties for staff, often private after-hours gatherings for the entire Vitamilk family held in unique places such as aboard the Snoqualmie steam train.

Kathi says she honed her knack for hospitality at Seattle Pacific: “I audited Professor Dorothy Kreider’s course in food preparation and entertaining. She taught us how to plan a home, how to serve others graciously. Basic principles, yes, but ones that have been a part of me ever since.”

Collectively, the Teels have served SPU in a variety of ways, from leading fundraising committees to organizing class reunions. Jerry was a trustee for nine years, Kathi a member of the Alumni Board for 12 years. They helped build the SPU Library and organize the annual SPU Downtown Business Breakfast; provided endowed scholarships for women soccer players and top business students; sponsored an annual basketball tournament; and during the recent capital campaign, Kathi co-led the Endowment Initiative task force.

“Jerry and Kathi Teel have been wonderful, faithful friends to Seattle Pacific University over the years,” says SPU President Philip Eaton. “They have given their time, their talents, and their resources to support our vision. In this day and age, loyalties can be fleeting. This is not the case with the Teels. I’m so grateful for the persistent, enduring, steady commitment of this family. What a great legacy the Teels have at SPU — more than 100 years of giving, serving, and leading, beginning with Jerry’s great-grandparents.”

“Our dinner table conversations with Jerry’s parents were often about how to fund the future students of Seattle Pacific,” says Kathi. “An outstanding Christian education teaches you to be ready to seize opportunities when they come.” The Teel Charitable Foundation grew out of those table conversations and from the Teels’ personal investment in the sale of the Food Giant chain of grocery stores.

In 2003, the family chose to sell Vitamilk Dairy and begin the process of developing the property in Seattle’s Green Lake neighborhood. Plans call for a beautiful urban village with a mix of housing and retail. Jerry and Kathi enjoy their four grandchildren, one of whom lives with them this school year while attending private school.

“They are good stewards of all they have been given,” says Cindy Kenagy. “Their ‘can do’ approach has extended to the next generation.”

— BY clint kelly

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