Published: Friday, September 13, 2013 at 7:37 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 13, 2013 at 7:37 p.m.
Seafarer, inventor, entrepreneur, world hunger foe, Ernest Hemingway look-alike contestant, grower of monster pumpkins — Ian Allison did so much until his death at 93 at his Santa Rosa home that it might save words to describe what relative little he didn't do.
Stepson and business partner Fred Austin of Windsor said Allison would launch a project, grow it and then tire of it. “He got bored with the everyday running of it and he wanted to move on to the next challenge,” Austin said.
Allison, who died Aug. 29, was at various times an accountant, a sawmill operator, a land investor, a creator and wholesaler of Halloween merchandise, a lender to logging and milling operations, a winery owner, an African big-game hunter, a championship trap shooter and a partner, with late actor Eddie Albert, in a global charity that gave away enormous quantities amounts of vegetable seeds to undernourished people.
Allison also stubbornly pursued a mission to right what he perceived as an injustice to a group of men who served America at great peril and loss of life in World War II: members of the Merchant Marine.
The former mariner took a national role in pressing Congress to compensate the civilians who volunteered to crew the ships that transported fuel, troops and supplies, and that suffered tremendous casualties. The families of merchant seamen who died in the war did not receive the benefits extended to survivors of servicemen, and returning mariners were not granted G.I. Bill benefits.
“Over 9,000 of my fellow merchant mariners were lost at sea with no tombstone to account for their life and service to their country during World War II,” Allison said in 2005. “It's unthinkable that even the merchant mariners that survived and returned home never received any benefits for their great personal sacrifices.”
Though surviving WWII merchant seamen were bestowed veteran status in 1988, it was a constant source of disappointment to Allison that Congress has not made cash payments to ex-mariners that would “at least rectify some of the thousands of dollars we could have earned if the government paid for us to attend college under the G.I. Bill.”
Charlie Schelter belongs to the North Bay Chapter of American Merchant Marine Veterans, which Allison founded. He said Allison “worked very vigorously for what they call 'just compensation.'
“I don't suppose we're ever going to get anything,” Schelter said.
Allison was born in Vancouver, Canada, to Scottish immigrants who brought him and his sister and brother to San Francisco when they were young. For most of his childhood he lived in the Oakland Hills/Piedmont area.
The son of a banker, he was just out of high school when he took a job as a teller and bookkeeper with Bank of America in order to learn more about finance.
At 23, he joined the Merchant Marine as an electrician.
“His maritime career took him all over the world, including time on T-2 tankers carrying high-octane plane fuel into the South Pacific war zone,” said his stepson, Austin.
Following the war, Allison built and operated a sawmill in Del Norte County. Many other enterprises followed, among them a multi-office Certified Public Accountant practice and Lumberman's Acceptance Corp, which made loans to timber and mill operations.
Allison settled in Santa Rosa in 1948 with his first of four wives, the former Ruth “Toni” Austin, Fred Austin's mother. They built a home on Acacia Lane in Rincon Valley.
Allison and his stepson worked together for more than 30 years. Among their enterprises was a firm that purchased and subdivided land, and a manufacturing company specializing in Halloween merchandise — that for years now has been carried by Wal-Mart.
Fred Austin said income from that business allowed his stepfather to pursue a passion to help resolve hunger worldwide by providing people free seed. “Green Acres” actor Alpert shared that vision, and in the 1980s they created “Seed Corps.”
“They shipped seeds to over 53 countries worldwide and became close friends,” Austin said.
Allison's fascination with self-grown food prompted him also to create a huge garden at his home on southeastern Santa Rosa's Mount Taylor, overlooking Bennett Valley. And he entered giant pumpkins in the contest at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair. Several times in the Eighties, he won.
In addition to his big-game hunting in Africa, Allison fished often for marlin, hoping to reel in a 1,000-pounder. He was 92 and his health was seriously failing when he carried that goal to Baja California to try again.
The largest fish he landed came nowhere close to weighing a half ton, but the old sportsman's final trip turned out to be a pretty good time.
His stepson is planning a celebration of his life for later this fall.