When Norm Paulson was a teenager growing up in Washougal, he remembers getting pulled over by a police officer who gave him two options: The officer could write him a ticket or Paulson could tell his father what had happened.
At the time, Washougal had a population of just a few thousand people. Everybody, literally, knew everybody.
“He knew telling my father would be the harder thing for me to do,” Paulson said. “And he knew my dad, so he could check to make sure I had told.”
While this kind of experience might deter most people from wanting to spend the rest of their lives in a small town, for Paulson it only served to support the idea that Washougal was exactly where he wanted to be.
“My dad told me, ‘Just don’t think you can get away with anything, because I know everybody.’ His network reported back to him,” Paulson recalled with a smile. “That was the environment I wanted to raise my kids in. I wanted to know what my kids were doing.”
Paulson followed through on that desire, and in the process has made a name for himself in his hometown communities through his leadership, professionalism and philanthropic efforts. He was recently named the 2013 Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year.
After graduating from Washougal High School, Paulson went on to attend Clark College. Initially, he pursued a degree in engineering, but a class in differential calculus changed his mind pretty quickly.
“When my instructor told me that everything I built could collapse and kill people, I was done,” he said.
That blunt and brutal comment from his teacher actually turned out to be fortuitous, and would put his life on a new path.
Paulson went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Portland, and a master’s in taxation from Portland State University. He worked for a couple of large accounting firms — including one of the “big four,” Coopers & Lybrand — but neither seemed to be exactly the right fit.
“Being a small part of a big process, I didn’t find that as rewarding,” he said.
He then joined the small downtown Camas accounting firm owned by Gary Douglass in 1991, and became a partner three years later. Debbi Lessard joined the practice as a partner in 2004, when Douglass retired. The business is now known as Paulson & Lessard Certified Public Accountants.
“I wanted to be able to get back to working with my clients and making a difference in their lives,” he said of the decision he made more than 20 years ago. “Now I can come here and be a trusted advisor with my clients. I don’t consider myself a success unless they are successful. It’s very rewarding.”
Paulson has lent his professional accounting skills to a number of local non-profit organizations including the Washougal Schools Foundation, Rotary Foundation, Camas-Washougal Historical Society, Concerned Citizens in Action as well as other organizations. He also served on the Washougal School District Finance Advisory Committee.
Jennifer McDaniel, who was also part of the advisory committee, witnessed Paulson’s commitment to local schools.
“We were tasked with learning the intricacies of the district’s budget, comparing it to other districts, evaluating current policies, and making recommendations to the board regarding potential cost savings,” she said. “Norm’s financial background and insight were invaluable to our committee.”
Paulson was also one of the founding members of the WSF — a non-profit organization that raises funds to support grants and scholarships awarded to educators in the Washougal School District. The organization was formed 12 years ago when he and several other determined community leaders joined forces to create a new funding stream for local schools.
“We had watched Camas continue to flourish with the Camas Educational Foundation, and decided that by gosh, if they could do it we could do it,” he said.
Ten donors contributed a total of $50,000 to get the WSF off of the ground.
“It has just blossomed from there,” he said, adding that today a total of XXX in grants have been doled out, and an endowment fund has reached nearly $500,000.
“It’s rewarding to know that the endowment will be around I hope for a long time, and continue to benefit the kids,” said Paulson, who remains an active WSF board member.
Paulson and his family, including wife Lisa and son Will, have also been involved in the American Field Service international student exchange. They have hosted a total of seven exchange students from a variety of countries including England, Japan, Argentina, Thailand, Switzerland and Mexico.
“The language barrier is always the hardest thing,” Paulson said. “But the key that we found is just treating them like part of the family.”
And the students really do become an extension of the family.
“The exchange program was a way to grow our family,” he said. “It gave our son an awareness that what we do and how we do it is not always how it’s done everywhere.”
Roger Daniels, another WSF founding board member, has known Paulson for more than 40 years. Daniels described him as “one of the most giving people in Camas-Washougal.
“There is hardly an organization that he has not touched in some way,” Daniels said. “Whether it be the Washougal Schools Foundation, Two Rivers Museum, C-W Little League, or the C-W Rotary Club. Norm has supported each of these organizations through activities, fundraising, fiscal management and leadership. In my view, Norm Paulson is one of the pillars in our community.”
Paulson said the concept of giving back to the community was ingrained in him as a child by his mom and dad, Dolly and Fred Paulson.
“I have to attribute my sense of community to my parents,” he said. “I think you learn by example.”
His dad, now retired from the Camas paper mill and living in Washougal, was active with the Shriner’s and the Masonic Lodge. His mom, who passed away in October 2011, grew a garden and gave most of the bounty away to people in need.
“Community service is just something our family has always done.”