The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Ralph Cheek Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Janice Dilg.

October 15, 2014


Ralph Lowell Cheek was born in 1930 in Spokane, Washington, where his parents worked as assistant managers at an apartment/hotel complex. Growing up, Cheek attended Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, where he lettered in basketball and was elected president of the Boy's Federation. During that time, Cheek also worked at the family's residential complex, helping to manage the front desk, acting as a bell boy, parking cars, and assisting with maintenance.

Cheek enrolled at Oregon State College in 1948 with the support of a Naval ROTC scholarship. A pledge at the OSC chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon, Cheek participated on the fraternity's intramural crew team and became house manager his senior year. He also worked as a houseboy at Delta Theta sorority for two years.

Cheek graduated from OSC in 1952 with a bachelor's degree in Business. While in Corvallis, Cheek also met his future wife, Janet Lekas, a member of Chi Omega and a student in Pharmacy. The couple met on a blind date during their senior year and married in Portland, Oregon in 1953.

After graduating, Cheek served two tours of duty in the Pacific, carrying out naval assignments near Korea and Taiwan. Following his discharge from the military in 1955, he began what would become a long career at Kaiser Aluminum. Beginning as a scrap foreman based in Trentwood, Washington, Cheek transferred to a position as chief planner at the Ravenswood (West Virginia) Rolling and Smelter Works when he was twenty-nine years old. Two years later, Cheek returned to California to open a new mobile home panel division in Anaheim, California; he later helped to start up a second plant in Elkhart, Indiana.

In 1965 the company transferred Cheek to Japan to build an aluminum rolling mill in Fukaya. His wife and three children accompanied him to the Far East and set up a household in Tokyo, from which Ralph would commute to the Fukaya plant and stay at its workers' dormitory three nights a week. The family remained in Japan for four years.

Once returned to the U.S., Cheek served as a division manager at a foil, container and can plant in Oakland, California. In 1980 Cheek and his family moved again, this time to Dusseldorf, Germany, where Cheek was promoted to Vice President of Manufacturing and Sales for Kaiser Aluminum Europe. Even after returning to the United States permanently, Cheek continued to work on the Kaiser Aluminum Europe board and he retired from the company in 1986 following the sale of Kaiser Aluminum Europe.

Shortly after leaving Kaiser, Cheek was offered a position as CEO of IMCO Recycling. He began working in this capacity that same year following a move to Tulsa, Oklahoma. At the time of his arrival, IMCO operated only one recycling plant, but during Cheek's tenure as chief executive, the company focused on building plants that specialized in converting scrap cans to molten aluminum. IMCO's expansion included new sites in the United States and Europe, and eventually the company becoming the world's largest recycler of aluminum cans. Cheek retired from the CEO position in 1994, remaining on IMCO's board until 2002.

In retirement, Cheek pursued lingering interests in family history, became active in his Cupertino, California retirement community, and traveled broadly. His wife of sixty-one years, Janet Cheek, passed away in Spring 2014. Shortly afterwards, Cheek and his family created a scholarship in Janet's honor that supports Pharmacy students at OSU.