The Unsinkable DBH

Remembering Duane Hagadone from the deck of his beloved sailing yacht, Sizzler

click to enlarge Duane Hagadone, cutting through the waters of the lake he loved. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID KILMER
Photo courtesy of David Kilmer
Duane Hagadone, cutting through the waters of the lake he loved.

Thirty years ago, I came to Idaho to work for a most extraordinary gentleman. And on Saturday, April 24, the call I didn’t want to hear reached me way down south, in an idyllic seaside village that is now my winter home, a place and a life that gentleman quite frankly made possible.

When I joined the tiny Priest River Times as a writer, photographer and chief bottle washer in the chilly fall of 1991, the owner of that paper and many others, Duane Hagadone, was already a legend. Long before I met him, his signature was evident: in the high standards we were all expected to meet, in the way my publisher, who called him DBH, spoke of him in awe and admiration, in the elegance of his hotel.

The first time he and I were face-to-face was a Christmas party at his house on the hill, something he held every year for his employees. I remember his firm handshake at the door on the way in and out of the party, his grin and his ready acknowledgement of the work in the trenches we all did for him. I will forever be grateful for that first newspaper job, which launched for me a life in stories. Working for DBH, I was encouraged by some journalism awards. And there at the Coeur d’Alene Press, I met my beautiful true love, Rebecca, the very best prize of all.

Working the night shift as a reporter, I learned I could brave anything, write anything and do it all on a deadline. And now I find myself, on a quiet Mexico morning with the early sun over the rooftops and the sea, struggling to get the words out to describe a man, and a relationship, that are indescribable.

He is famous, of course, by now for his far-reaching vision in business. For seeing things nobody else could see. A floating green where others saw only a raft of logs to be milled. When he opened the Coeur d’Alene Resort, Forbes called it Idaho’s white elephant. Why would guests come from anywhere to visit a rough-edged timber and mining town? 

But Duane Hagadone’s true gift is something far greater. And that is his vision for people. The way he saw the humanity in other people, their raw and undiscovered talent. How he encouraged and inspired their best. Lifted them up when they fell. Who truly cared and who gave his people every chance to succeed. 

So many people in Coeur d’Alene got their start with DBH. Working for him, they received a crash course in work ethic, personal habits, punctuality and professionalism. As Rick Powers, longtime food and beverage man at the Coeur d’Alene Resort, recounted to me, when Rick went in for a surgery, he realized that most of the doctors and nurses around him had gotten their start in life working at the resort. At that point, he knew he was in good hands. Those habits of excellence run deep.

Craig Brosenne, president of Hagadone Marine Group, who like me has spent the majority of his life working for DBH, said it right when he called me, his voice choked with emotion.

“We always wanted to do our best for him,” Craig said simply.

And that is the truth.

For this I am profoundly grateful, because in the second half of my career with him, I got to know the man I now call the Boss in a very personal way. He saw something in me. And he hired me to be the captain of his sailboat.

I

mpossible to believe that it was 15 summers ago when DBH launched that superb custom wood-and-carbon sailing yacht Sizzler. I will always be in Craig’s debt for recommending me as captain. I’ll never forget the interview with DBH: the clean desk, the fact that he knew everything about me and that this important man took the time and listened carefully to my proposal. We shook hands, and that was that. There was no need for a contract. Just a gentleman’s word.

Like other captains to wealth, I worked closely with the man in ways few others do. Caring for his boat better than my own; and more importantly, taking care of every one of his family members and guests as if they were my family. Trying my best to anticipate what he wanted before he wanted it. Whenever we sailed, I always safeguarded his life in my hands with a real sense of duty. 

There is no place to hide on boats, and I had an unrivaled chance to know his character up close and personal. I wish everyone could see what I have seen. Time and again, I watched this man do the right thing, whether anyone knows about it or not. I have seen his generosity. I have seen his enthusiasm, his smarts, his incredible powers of listening, observation and analysis. I have watched him shake hands with every single one of hundreds of guests who disembark from cruise boats at his house. I have seen his kindness to kids and animals. I have seen him treat everyone with respect, whether they are the billionaire or the gardener. In all my worldwide adventures, I’ve never met anyone quite like him. He exudes power, yet without ego or bravado. He simply, by his undeniable presence and his very nature, makes you want to be a better captain; a better human being. 

The wisdom goes among private captains, if you run a great boat, keep your job. If you work for a great family, keep your job. If you have both, you have found something truly special. I’m grateful every time I step on board, and every time I talk about the boat with people I meet around the world who know of this mysterious craft on a beautiful Idaho lake.

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hen Duane met the love of his life, Lola, it was a match made in heaven. Lola is a lovely person inside and out, and that was evident from their first date. They spent that summer sailing together on his Ericson 36 across Lake Coeur d’Alene, every chance they got, a wonderfully romantic season. And he always sailed and boated with his kids and grandkids, giving them amazing memory upon memory.

Over the years I would grow to love him, and to relish his punctuality, his long-legged lope across the lawn, often with his faithful German shepherd at his side, his marvelously crooked grin when he saw his sailboat gleaming in the afternoon sun, his solid handshake and words of encouragement and appreciation. His eagerness to get underway. And the way he looked when he was at the helm of his sailboat, wind in his hair, a man absolutely in his element. 

My grandad was a cowboy, and the saying “ride for the brand” holds true here. Whether I’m wearing my trademark blue Sizzler cap or my Hagadone Marine jacket, I always ride with pride. I’ve represented the Sizzler to all kinds of successful guests, and they are always impressed with her craftsmanship and innovation. I’ve been proud to play my small part in Sizzler bringing donations into this community for good causes.

From the beginning, the Boss has been very generous with his boat. One day he allowed me to take my dad out for Father’s Day, and so my mom and dad and I went for the ride of our lives across sparkling Lake Coeur d’Alene, and then mom got to walk through the magnificent gardens that DBH and Lola built at their home.

Over the seasons, because of his and his beloved Lola’s generosity, we have raised close to a million dollars for good causes in the Coeur d’Alene community with just the sailboat alone. That number is exponential in total dollars given away by DBH over the years. He always wanted the money to stay close to home; to help animals, kids, people less fortunate. He did it all quietly, with as little fanfare as possible. When a longtime colleague and business partner passed away, he hosted the service. When his longtime gardener died, he took care of that man’s family. What people think they know of DBH’s generosity is only the very tip of the iceberg. Those closest to him know many stories like this well. 

In all his success, the enthusiasm always remained. Every time I took guests sailing for a good cause, he would always ask me two things: “How much did we raise?” and “Did they have a good time?” 

Not only is my captain job the envy of all my sailing friends, but being on call in the summer allows me to pursue my parallel passion as a writer and editor. It also gives me the ability to travel in the off-season, and I have used that time to see the parts of the world that intrigue me the most. I’m very grateful that Rebecca and I sailed our little Beneteau 36 from Bellingham, around Vancouver Island and south through the Panama Canal to Belize and the Bahamas — 10 years, 12 countries and a million memories, an adventure of a lifetime made possible by my summer job on Sizzler. 

Every spring, the Boss would say, “You sure you want to do this again, young man?” The answer, with all my heart, is always YES.

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is was a deft touch on the helm and an intricate lifelong knowledge of the lake. Out here, the roles were reversed, and I took on the conservative voice of reason as he became the carefree one, almost giddy with that sublime rush that sailing brings. As we sailed his favorite shores, my captain brain was sure we were headed for the rocks. 

“Should we tack outta here?” I would ask, my voice a note higher. I knew the value of the boat beneath our feet. 

“We’re in good shape,” the Boss would calmly reply. “Let’s keep ’er sailing.”

Those sailing days across his favorite lake in the world were sublime. We would raise the sails with the push of a button and enjoy the galloping beam reach across the lake, his boat like a thoroughbred in full gallop, pure joy. And on the way home, the Boss always liked to circle past the properties, to fly by Silver Beach Marina and wave to the boat owners there, then cruise past The Terraces and the Coeur d’Alene Resort Golf Course. It was important to see that the grounds were impeccable, that the umbrellas were up, that people were out having fun.

As a little boy his first job was keeping his family’s lawn in great shape. When you understand that, it tells you a lot about why his properties always look so crisp, neat and inviting. As he liked to say, “My true calling is as a gardener.” 

If you have ever finished polishing, painting or building something and stepped back to admire it, you know a bit of the feeling the Boss would get every time we sailed that special piece of shoreline. It’s not braggadocio; it’s something far deeper — a personal satisfaction in a job well done. Then we would aim the mighty bow back home, for his own green lawns, where you could see the colorful Hobie Cat from across the lake, the mark of his early love of all things water and boats.

Out there I glimpsed a rarely seen side of the man; his tremendous sense of humor, of lightness and fun. The kind of man who could light up a place. Whose reputation is unsinkable. Whose wife looks at him with admiration most men only dream of. Those qualities to me spell true wealth. 

The last time I saw the Boss was a few days before Christmas 2020. I had spent November feverishly working on something that seemed very important to me all of a sudden, a one-man production of a thick coffee table book called DBH: A Life in Boats. That book was conceived last spring on a cold and miserable climb in the Wind River Range, a trip he was kind enough to give me the time to take. For some reason I had a burning urge to make the thing. And now I’m so glad I did. 

Over the years I tried to convince him that I should write his biography, but he was too modest of a man for that. Therein was the challenge. He didn’t talk about himself. I thought about asking for his advice, for the secrets to his phenomenal success. But he was not given to handing out advice. Instead, I realized he devised a code of honor for himself, and that he impeccably conducted himself according to that code. So to examine what made up that code, that signature, those character traits, it was necessary to talk to those who know him most. I interviewed many family members, friends and employees about the man. World-class, one-of-a-kind, larger-than-life… these words describe not only every project in this man’s wake, but the very man himself. In compiling my book, people echoed these sentiments a hundredfold. 

Of all the many, many amazing things people said about the Boss, I found myself particularly moved by a simple story his former corporate pilot Al Goodwin recalled.

“In Kenya before he went on safari, Duane asked me, ‘What are you guys going to do?’ I told him our flight crew was going to hang around and wait. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Talk to the concierge, and find a trip, and put it on your expense tab. I didn’t bring you all the way to Africa not to see the animals.’” 

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y labor-of-love book arrived in a snowstorm, in a moving van commandeered by DHL, just in the nick of time to get it to the Boss for Christmas. 

True to form, he met me at his door. True to form, he was wearing blue shoes, polished to perfection. As always, he was gracious with his time. And as always, you felt like you were in the presence of greatness.

He showed obvious love and pride in Lola, as he toured me around pointing out all the ways she had decorated their marvelous lake home for Christmas. We went to his office, and I had the singular pleasure of watching him look over every page, reaching out and touching the faces there that meant so much to him. His office is filled with awards and accolades, but those people in his life are what really mattered. That hour together now means the world.

Today I am getting messages of condolence and admiration from near and far. Today the sound of that collective mourning can almost be heard from my Mexico rooftop where I write, still blinking through the tears.

I think of his remarkable family, who it’s been such a pleasure to get to know so deeply. He was a wonderful family man. 

I think of all of the people who played such a big role in his life, too many of them already gone before him.

I think of a beautiful German shepherd pacing the floor, waiting for her master.

I think of what I can do to honor his life, his legacy and his unique unstoppable essence, and here’s all I can think of:

Get up early before anyone else.

Exercise every morning. Read, study and plan. 

Surround yourself with great people.

Listen more than you talk.

Always give people the benefit of the doubt.

Always give people a second chance.

Show great love to animals and kids. 

Have a process for everything. 

Always try to build a better mousetrap.

Never, ever say it can’t be done.

Perfect is good enough.

Eat a big salad for lunch.

Mow in straight lines.

Keep the grass bright green and the flowers bright red.

Water your garden.

Give to kids. Give to animals, to the arts, to the women’s shelter, to schools, to all the worthy causes you possibly can.

Try to improve something around you, every single day.

Care deeply about your community.

Be a person of your word.

Do something impressive with your life. 

Keep everything spic and span. In daily life, in business, in personal affairs, don’t leave any messes behind.

Be a loyal friend.

Be a great parent, a great spouse, a great boss. 

Enjoy the finer things.

Sip a vodka tonic at happy hour, along with some roasted peanuts and fresh-popped popcorn.

Know how to crack a good joke and tell a great story.

Have a true love who looks at you with absolute love in their eyes. Give them reasons to do so, every day. 

Command respect.

Be larger than life.

And take a moment, now and then, to stand back and squint at your work. To sail by and make sure the grounds are groomed, the umbrellas are up, that people are having fun.

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any people know that DBH was only 26 when he lost his father and best friend. What many do not know is that as his dad was dying, he handed him a piece of paper, a list of things the young man needed to accomplish. Duane Hagadone carried that list with him all his life. 

Only two men know exactly what that list said, and now both of them are gone. But it had to do with excelling in business, at helping the fledgling city of Coeur d’Alene grow and succeed, but most importantly, at taking care of the young family that Burl Hagadone was leaving behind. 

He did it all, and so much more. That list his father gave him has been met and exceeded many times over. The business empire built beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. His work and his family cared for in a way that would make Dad mighty proud. All those geraniums that would make his mother smile. Sweet echoes of time spent together boating with his kids, and of that romantic summer sailing the lake with his true love. The lake he loved so fiercely. The sun on his face and the wind in his hair. After all the places he’s been in the world, no place as sweet as home.

“We’re in good shape. Let’s keep ’er sailing.”

David Kilmer worked for Duane Hagadone for 30 years, beginning as a reporter at the Priest River Times in 1991; for the past 15 summers, he captained Hagadone’s 60-foot sailing yacht, Sizzler, on Lake Coeur d’Alene.

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