Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald



Doug Dean's enthusiasm is palpable as he talks about the history of the building he and his half-brother, Ron Verini, bought last year on Baker City's Main Street.

But the pair are even more excited about the future.

And in particular they're optimistic about how the Heilner Building can help supply American veterans and their families with everything from cookies in care packages sent to Afghanistan, to college scholarships for the sons and daughters of wounded soldiers.

Verini, 68, a U.S. Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam, is the chairman and president of Veteran Advocates of Ore-Ida.

He and Dean, 73, helped start the nonprofit outfit, which was incorporated in Oregon in March 2008.

The brothers, both of whom live in Ontario, wanted to create an organization that ensures veterans and their dependents have access to every service to which they're entitled.

"We're not here to compete with the local VFW, the American Legion or veterans services agencies," Verini said. "We're here to complement them. What we do is help veterans make connections with service agencies."

Although it might not be immediately apparent what role the historic Heilner Building could play in that effort, the basic idea is pretty simple.

Veteran Advocates of Ore-Ida is renovating the 122-year-old building at 1901 Main St. It's the former home of Crossroads Arts Center, which moved to the Carnegie Library, next to City Hall, more than three years ago.

When the Heilner Building is finished - the goal is May 1 - it will be available for rent for a variety of meetings and other events.

Rental fees will help the organization carry out its mission to assist veterans and their families, Verini said.

The brothers, who paid $107,000 for the 5,050-square-foot building, according to the Baker County Assessor's Office, believe the building has great potential to become a gathering place.

"What excited me so much about this building is the heritage it has here in Baker City," Dean said. "Almost every day someone stops by to talk about their memories of the place. They feel a part of the building.

"The more we engage the community the more that is going to help in supporting our mission," he said.

Veteran Advocates of Ore-Ida has hired several local contractors for the renovation.

The group's goal is to preserve the historic character - Dean is enamored of the hardwood floors, for instance - while making the building more functional with restrooms, a warming kitchen and other accoutrements.

Rather than commute from Ontario, Dean has taken an apartment in the Shoemaker Building, another historic structure just a block to the west, during the renovation.

Ann Mehaffy, who recently retired as Historic Baker City Inc. manager, said she's "thrilled" with the progress that's been made on the Heilner Building.

"It's astonishing," she said.

Mehaffy has more than a passing interest in, and knowledge of, the building.

Besides her tenure as HBC manager, Mehaffy also worked as director of Crossroads when it was housed in the Heilner Building.

Mehaffy said Dean and Verini have opened up the space on the first floor, and added bathrooms - a vital feature for a building intended for public events.

They also replaced the roof.

"The building has great bones but it just needed someone to invest the time and care," Mehaffy said.

Jane Chandler, who's Baker County's veterans services officer, said she's looking forward to Veteran Advocates of Ore-Ida re-opening the Heilner Building and expanding the group's activities in Baker County.

"The more the merrier in this area," said Chandler, who described the organization as a "referral service for veterans."

"I think they will definitely help to fulfill that role," Chandler said. "I'm counting on them to be my eyes and ears in the community."

Baker City Manager Mike Kee said he became acquainted with Veteran Advocates of Ore-Ida when he was living in Ontario, where he served as the city's police chief.

"They provide a great service, and they help a lot of veterans," Kee said.

In addition to helping veterans and their families access services from both public and private sources, Veteran Advocates of Ore-Ida runs several of its own programs.

The organization sends care packages each month to troops overseas.

Volunteers - there are no paid staff - visit veterans in local nursing homes, send handmade quilts to troops serving outside the country, and comprise a color guard that performs at sporting and other events.

Veteran Advocates of Ore-Ida also offers college scholarships to veterans and their dependents.

Although it's a relatively young organization, it has already garnered an award for its work.

The Ontario Chamber of Commerce named Veteran Advocates of Ore-Ida as the Business of the Year for 2011.

The group's biggest single fundraiser is the Treasure Valley Car and Bike Show in Ontario. The third-annual event is scheduled for July 28.

Veteran Advocates of Ore-Ida is part of the Combined Federal Campaign, by which any federal employee can contribute to the group through automatic payroll deductions.

The organization also operates a retail shop in Ontario that sells patriotic and military paraphernalia.

Its headquarters in Nyssa includes a community events center, the Joshua Brennan Memorial Hall.

The building, formerly the Masonic Hall, honors Sg. Joshua Brennan, the Ontario soldier who was killed in action in Afghanistan in October 2007.

In another part of the headquarters, volunteers assemble care packages that are shipped overseas.

Dean said his interest in Baker City was piqued several years ago when he learned, in unusual fashion, that he has a personal connection with the place.

He said he was going through some of his late father's effects when he found a postcard from the World War I era that was postmarked Baker City.

Dean visited the Baker Heritage Museum and there he learned, to his great surprise, that his father, Walter Dean, was born in Baker City in 1911, and that his grandfather, Harry Dean, had managed one of Baker City's sawmills.

But that discovery wasn't as profound as the occasion, in the early 1970s, when Dean and Verini learned they had the same mother.

Neither man had an idea, until then, that he had a half-brother.

Dean was selling art in California.

Verini was buying art.

They met, began talking, and in the process learned enough about each other's background to confirm their relationship.

"It was," Verini says in a considerable understatement, "sort of unusual."