Olean – Erick J. Laine
After a life of Sisu, Erick J. Laine of Olean, age 87, died at home on Tuesday, December 1, 2020, after a long illness.
Erkki Johannes Komulainen was born on August 13, 1933, in Petrozavodsk in the Soviet Republic of Karelia, where his Finnish parents, Ernesti and Irma (Salminen) Komulainen, had found work during the Depression. Erkki was nine months old when the family fled Stalin’s purges by rowing across Lake Ladoga to Finland, and four years old when his parents rowed across another watery border, from the Canadian shore of the Sault Ste. Marie locks to the U.S. shore.
The family settled in Milwaukee. Erkki started kindergarten without knowing English but quickly picked it up — an early indication of his native intelligence. He took up speed skating, winning Wisconsin’s Silver Skates Championship. At age 13, he paddled the Boundary Waters of Canada for six weeks with three friends. When Erick was 16, his brother Tom was born, becoming the family’s first American citizen. He graduated from Washington High School in 1951 and was admitted to the University of Wisconsin. When the university questioned his in-state tuition because he hadn’t been born in the U.S., Erick met with university officials and explained that he’d been a student in the Wisconsin school system from kindergarten. They granted him the in-state tuition.
At the University of Wisconsin, Erick joined Sigma Phi fraternity, was a ski jumper on Wisconsin’s ski team and vice-president of his senior class. The Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) hired him right out of college. Erick started as an industrial engineer in ALCOA’s New Kensington, Pennsylvania plant after graduating in 1955 with a B.S. in Civil Engineering. He was granted U.S. citizenship in 1959.
Erick worked for ALCOA for a quarter-century, serving as chief production engineer, chief industrial engineer, director of business development, and operations manager at ALCOA plants in Chillicothe, Ohio; Davenport, Iowa; Richmond, Indiana; and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He and his first wife Nancy had four children. They were an active family, playing tennis, skiing, and sailing (Erick once earned his sailing club’s “Jonah” award for most capsizes). In 1977, ALCOA sent him to one of its subsidiaries in Olean, New York: Alcas Cutlery Corporation.
Alcas knives made in Olean had long been sold alongside ALCOA’s Wear-Ever cookware, but the parent company was moving away from consumer products. ALCOA charged Erick with assessing the company, with the expectation that it would be put up for sale. Erick, however, saw tremendous potential in the “little knife factory on State Street.” Over the next several years he assembled an executive team, mapped out a different future for the company, and in 1982 led a leveraged management buyout from ALCOA.
During this time, Erick had the good fortune to meet Marianne Letro, a daughter of Olean and graduate of St. Bonaventure University who was teaching high school English in Rochester. Marianne’s sister Toni Litzinger arranged for the handsome single dad to meet Marianne at a Wing Ski Club pancake breakfast. They married on May 5, 1979. Marianne played an important role in Alcas’s success — putting up her fur coat as collateral for early bank loans, and hosting innumerable dinners and company events during Erick’s leadership of the company — and by providing a welcoming home for Erick’s children and their families. Erick was folded into Marianne’s tight-knit family, and before long the Finn who loved blueberries and cold lakes also adored Italian food and hot sun on sandy beaches.
As president, CEO, and Chairman of Alcas (which became CUTCO in 2009), Erick oversaw the transformation of the “little knife factory” to the largest cutlery company in North America, expanding sales, work force, and the company’s global presence. Even as the company grew, Erick greeted every person who worked at Alcas by name — and asked after family members by name, as well. He retired from CUTCO on January 1, 2008.
Erick served on numerous industry, corporate, and community boards, but he was especially committed to supporting higher education. He established college scholarships for the children of employees at Alcas and funded scholarships in his parents’ names at the University of Wisconsin. He led the successful campaign to create the Cattaraugus County Campus of Jamestown Community College in Olean, served as a trustee for Alfred and St. Bonaventure universities, and with Marianne was instrumental in developing the Quick Center for the Arts at St. Bonaventure.
Most of all, Erick gave to his chosen hometown. He was a director of Olean General Hospital, Cattaraugus Economic Development Zone, and Olean Area Chamber of Commerce, which honored him with the first L.O.U.I.E. award for the person who best embodies the enterprising spirit for the greater Olean community. Over his four decades in Olean, “Erick of the generous heart” supported many people and organizations, in ways both large and small. Erick had the uncommon virtue of being an optimist. He believed in people and gave them opportunities.
Throughout his life, Erick was proud of his Finnish heritage. Through Erick’s efforts, family ties were re-established between Finland and the United States. For several years he made it possible for St. Bonaventure’s tennis program to bring Finnish players to the university. When Erick and Marianne bought a cottage on Cuba Lake, he added a log boathouse and sauna. Visitors surprised to see steaming bodies running from the sauna to the dock to jump into the lake were told, “That’s Erick Laine. He’s a Finn.”
Sisu is a Finnish word that is often used to describe the Finnish national character. The word doesn’t have a good English equivalent, but it can be seen as a combination of integrity, courage, and tenacity that is passionately and purposefully directed. Erick Laine lived with great Sisu.
As his family gathered around him to sing his favorite skiing and Sigma Phi songs, he gave his paddle one last, strong pull and crossed to the other shore.
Erick is survived by his wife of 41 years, Marianne Letro Laine; children Kristen (Jim Collins), Erick, Jr. (Susan), Peter (Constance Ensner), Christopher (Ulli Valentini); brother Tom (Aleta) , nieces Joanna (Vik Penna) and Sarah; and a large extended family, including Toni Litzinger, Gerry Moriarty, Francis Letro (Cindy Abbott), Michael (Julie) Litzinger, Gretchen (Tim) Davison; grandchildren Kimberly Young (Tyler), Michael Laine (Heather Duvell), Kelen Laine, Forrest Laine (Annie Moore), Will Laine, Ursula Collins-Laine, Virgil Collins-Laine, River Laine, Laine Davison, Gabrielle Litzinger, Grace Litzinger; great-grandchildren Victoria and Trevyn Young; and Komulainen and Salminen families in Finland.
The family owes a debt of gratitude to the people who cared for Erick as his memory and body weakened, including Cory Johnson, Tom Jones, Dianne Safford, Brenda Wade, Heath Brown, Logan Brown, Bryon Finnemore, and John Sinsabaugh.
At this time there will be no services. A Celebration of Erick’s life is being planned for a future date. Arrangements are under the direction of the Letro-McIntosh-Spink Funeral Home, Inc., 646 East State Street, Olean. Online condolences may be made at www.LetroMcIntoshSpinkFuneralHome.com.
The Olean Business Development Corporation has created the Erick Laine Entrepreneur Fund to help people who want to start new businesses in the Olean area. Contributions in Erick’s honor can be made through John Bartimole at Olean Business Development Corporation, 301 N. Union St., Olean, NY 14760.