The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Ken Austin Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Mike Dicianna and Chris Petersen.

March 24, 2015


George Kenneth Austin, Jr. was born in 1931 in Missoula, Montana. An only child, Ken was raised by his parents on a family farm in Newberg, Oregon. As a boy, Austin was very interested in airplanes and during World War II he helped to organize air watches, reporting on aircraft seen flying overhead. Although he also raised cows and became very involved in 4-H and the Boy Scouts, much of his childhood was spent tinkering with engines and machine parts laying around the farm. As a high school student he opened his first business, "The Rod Shop," specializing in car repair, welding and custom metal work, which he carried out for friends and neighbors. At Newberg High School, Austin also participated in the school council and ran track all four years.

Austin arrived at Oregon State College in 1949, where he competed on the track team and joined the Delta Tau Delta fraternity his sophomore year. Austin also continued to play with and explore machines throughout college, sometimes to the detriment of his academics: innovative and hands-on, he spent more time working on his projects than reading.

While an undergraduate, Austin was also quite involved with campus activities, particularly through his fraternity. Most notably, Ken Austin is the first student to have dressed and performed as Benny Beaver at an Oregon State sporting event. In 1952, having lost the competition for campus Yell King, Austin designed and built his own Benny Beaver costume, equipping it with a pistol filled with blanks and modeling his antics after rodeo clowns that he had seen as a boy. That same year, Ken met and began dating Joan Zemke, whom he would marry in 1953.

Austin graduated from OSC in 1953 with a B.S. in Industrial Engineering. While at Oregon State, Austin had been enrolled in Air Force ROTC and following his graduation he served as a second lieutenant in the Air Force. As a serviceman he held multiple jobs, including work as a pilot, radar controller, supervisor of a repair crew working on generators, and an aircraft maintenance officer. He left the Air Force in 1958.

His military career concluded, Austin went through eight jobs in the next eight years, including stints at Tektronix, Power Break Equipment Company, and the Densco dental equipment supply company. It was from his work at Densco in Colorado that Austin gained the inspiration to create his own company, Austin Dental Equipment Company, or A-dec.

A-dec was co-founded by Ken and Joan Austin in 1964, after the couple had moved back to Newberg, Oregon. There, Austin created a small, air-operated saliva evacuator for dentists, the Air Vacuum System, which proved incredibly popular. In 1965 Austin designed both a miniature control unit for sit-down dentistry and a tray cart to give dentist's assistants a workspace. The Tri-Flower syringe came next and the company quickly became a leader in three-way syringes. Not long after, A-dec created the first all-air modular hand piece control system in the world. In 1969 A-dec put all the pieces together and began selling a sit-down dental unit on the market. In innovating machinery to enable and build upon the idea of sit-down dentistry, A-dec quickly grew to become the largest manufacturer of dental equipment in the U.S. and the second largest in the world.

In 1981 Austin was honored as Oregon Industries Business Leader of the Year. Soon after, he was named by the Portland chapter of the American Marketing Association as the International Marketer of the Year. In 2000, he received the E.B. Lemon Distinguished Alumni Award from OSU and in 2003 he and Joan were inducted into the OSU College of Business Hall of Fame. In 2007, Austin handed over the Presidency of A-dec to his son-in-law, Scott Parrish.

As philanthropists, the Austin family has made a significant impact at OSU and across Oregon. Gifts from the Austins facilitated the renovation of Weatherford Hall as well as the creation of the Austin Family Business Program and the Austin Entrepreneurship Program. Perhaps most notably, a $10 million lead gift propelled the construction and opening of a new home for OSU's College of Business. Austin Hall was dedicated in Fall 2014.