Making a Lifetime Impact

Dr. Herbert and Shirley Semler are on a mission to help people live longer, healthier lives; a recent and very generous gift of $1M to Special Olympics Oregon will make great strides towards that goal. With so many choices and causes needing support, why did the Semler’s choose Special Olympics Oregon?

“Our missions match,” said Dr. Semler, “heart attacks are the number one cause of death, and Special Olympic Oregon athletes are at higher risk. We want to educate and help prevent heart disease and are fortunate enough to raise money towards this goal.” Keeping the magnanimous donation in Oregon means a bigger local impact.

Dr. Semler had a milestone birthday this year, and as he looks back at this life and what he is most proud of, he said “my five children and 15 grandchildren.”  He and Shirley worked together not only to raise an amazing family but also in their non-profit work. What makes their marriage so strong? “It just comes naturally,” he said, “Shirley is the reason I was successful with all my businesses. She helped me make hard decisions. It comes with respect for one another, and commitment; I was true to her, she was true to me.”

Dr. Semler grew up the son of a dentist in Portland during the depression and was guided into the medical field due to a traumatic incident. “It was a Sunday morning, and we heard a big crash,” he said, “we lived across the street from a doctor. My dad said to me, ‘Herbie you need to go up to the corner to ask for help’ so I did, and when I knocked on our neighbor’s door to ask for help for the victim, he slammed the door in my face saying, ‘they are not my patient’, I never forgot that.”

The incident made Semler passionate for the future of helping others. “My dad said to me ‘Herbie, you can be anything you want to be, as long as you’re a doctor. A real doctor.’” He applied for medical school at 19 and funded studies through scholarship. He went on to earn a Masters of Science in Pharmacology and became Chief of Medicine for both the Air Force and St. Vincent Hospital. He credits his lifetime of good work to mentors who inspired him, and he and Shirley started a foundation in 1967 for the Mayo Clinic, with scholarships going to deserving students needing financial assistance, a way to pay his good fortune forward.

Dr. Semler also donates every year to Special Olympics Oregon’s biggest fundraiser, the Polar Plunge, which takes place every February in Portland, Salem, Corvallis, Eugene, Bend and Medford.

His advice from the past 95 years? “Have a sense of humor. Never give up; I have a piece of wood that says that. If you have a good idea, go for it. If you feel you are on the right track, stay on it.” He also bikes and meditates daily, as he has for 50 years, a practice he learned from a patient that underwent a sudden and successful heart surgery by “meditating the whole way through it.” Dr. Semler saved the man’s life that day as he has many others. What’s next? “It’s not over yet,” he said, “there is more to come. The reason my gift to Special Olympics Oregon spans ten years is that I want to be here for those ten years of impact.”