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Friday, February 26, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Othello, Tied Intrinsically To Taggares, Says Goodbye

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

OTHELLO, Adams County - Pete Taggares would have hated his funeral. He would have detested the accolades. Abhorred the attention. Absolutely not been able to sit through two hours of blathering on about what a great guy he was.

And he would have thought it phony that people would eulogize him by substituting "bleeps" for the profanity he normally used.

Pete Taggares would have absolutely loved the reception after his funeral yesterday. Mexican bands. Tequila, wine and beer. Chinese and Mexican food and folks of all races and economic backgrounds gathered at the Adams County Fairgrounds, telling Pete Taggares stories the way they were meant to be told.

"I've got a thousand good stories I could tell, but they're all too raunchy to tell," said Dave Wigen, who worked for Mr. Taggares for more than 30 years.

Peter John Taggares Sr., 67, died on his couch Sunday afternoon, just after saying to his wife, Janet, "Mom, do you like Cabo (San Lucas)? I like it, too."

The ever-present cigar, which he never lit, fell from his lips and a short time later a doctor pronounced him dead of a heart attack.

When people die, newspapers routinely turn to their libraries to see what their lives were about. In Mr. Taggares' case, what is captured there are a few run-ins with the law - business deals gone bad and a dust-up with the state's Public Disclosure Commission, which in 1997 fined him $52,500 for illegally contributing money to political candidates, much of it in the names of his employees.

What isn't mentioned in those articles is how much Mr. Taggares, a farmer worth half a billion dollars, meant to this community. Or how irrigated potato farming in arid Eastern Washington, Oregon and Idaho contributes to problems in the Snake and Columbia rivers.

The western half of the United States is full of small farming communities where most of the land is owned by people who live elsewhere. Othello isn't one of them. The Taggares' 3,500-acre farm sits northeast of town, easily identified by the telephone poles Mr. Taggares had painted white the first six feet up from the ground, every single one of them for miles.

Pete Taggares' obsession with order and neatness didn't stop there. His corporate jet is white. His tractors are painted white. The trucks that carry his potatoes are all white. His Mercedes and Cadillacs are white, as is the yacht anchored in the San Juans.

The extent of Mr. Taggares' influence on the community is hard to measure. Mayor E.R. Kelly estimates that Mr. Taggares was responsible for bringing 500 jobs to a town of 5,415.

Without allowing his name to be attached to any of it, Mr. Taggares gave $800 to $1,200 a month to cover the cost of meals to needy senior citizens. He contributed heavily to the school district and Othello Community Hospital, not to mention the University of Washington. He built a subdivision for his employees when housing was in short supply and he thought lenders were ripping off his workers.

"If he hadn't been here, Othello wouldn't be what it is today," Kelly said. "Now that he's gone, I think we're going to have to grow up and develop our own vision, make our own decisions. We can't depend on him anymore."

At his funeral, more than 1,200 people - from farmworkers to former Gov. Booth Gardner to University of Washington President Richard McCormick - showed up at Othello High School to pay their respects to a man whose life was a series of contradictions.

At 10, Mr. Taggares so hated school he would sneak out to work on his father's farm in Prosser, Benton County. Despite his poor grades and lack of education, Mr. Taggares routinely put together multimillion-dollar deals on the back of a napkin.

Mr. Taggares hated government's inability to make a decision, yet he courted politicians, loaning them his plane and giving them money, sometimes in amounts that violated the law.

He would relocate ponds and reshape the land without giving a thought to whether it would damage a stream, yet he loved to hunt and fish.

He fancied himself a disciple of free enterprise, yet the cheap water his farms got from federal projects made him one of the most heavily subsidized people in the state.

He was gruff and profane, yet on a cold winter day he would pick up hitchhikers and offer them jobs.

He was boisterous and sure of himself, starting off conversations with the words, "Here's the deal," yet he couldn't speak in crowds and refused to show up to receive his Citizen of the Year award from the Rotary.

Steve Sackmann, one of his attorneys, said Mr. Taggares was the best negotiator he'd ever seen.

"He never held anything back. He put it all out on the table . . ." - a trait, Sackman said, that didn't help in litigation.

"When he got in trouble, he always wanted to be put on the stand so he could tell his story. He could be persuasive, but it didn't help much when he had broken the law."

By last night, as the beer and tequila set in and people began leaving the reception, the extent of the loss of Mr. Taggares was sinking in. Though his wife, Janet, and son, Peter Jr., will continue to run things, a bigger-than-life person had left the world, and had left this community more uncertain of its future.

"He was a legend in this community, and absolutely irreplaceable," said Stephen Felice, who moved here 18 years ago. "It's hard to portray the loss, but I haven't felt this kind of loss since my dad died. I took my kids to the services today because I want them to know what kind of man he was and what he meant to this town."

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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