Auto dealer left lasting mark on Walla Walla

'Biff' Brotherton carried on a family tradition when he opened Sunshine Cadillac Chevrolet.

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William "Biff" Brotherton, a third-generation businessman who founded Walla Walla's Sunshine Cadillac Chevrolet on his course to a successful career as a luxury auto dealer in Seattle, died Sunday after a more than two-year battle with cancer. He was 67.

Brotherton was part of a legacy of Walla Walla auto dealers. His grandfather, Frank Brotherton, had founded a local garage in 1916 that became a Chrysler-Plymouth franchise. His dad, Marion F. "Tex" Brotherton carried on the family tradition with a Chrysler-Plymouth and Dodge dealership. When Brotherton opened his own dealership his five children all learned the ins and outs of the industry alongside him.

More than 25 years had passed since Brotherton had called Walla Walla home. Nevertheless the mark he left on the community endured: The dealership he started in the early 1970s is now known as Abajian Motors; the eldest of his five children continues to raise her own family here; and many of the friends and employees who got to know him along the way can still tell stories from when "Brotherton" was a household name.

"On every street corner there's someone that knew him," said daughter Beth Swanson of Walla Walla. " They'll keep his memory alive."

Born in Walla Walla in 1943 to Tex and Geneva L. "Dynamite" Brotherton, he grew up steeped in family tradition -- from bird hunting to an undying allegiance to his alma mater, Washington State University, where he later sent each of his five children.

After college he served three years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He returned to Walla Walla in 1968 and joined his dad in the family auto business.

Three years after that, Brotherton ventured out on his own with Sunshine Cadillac Chevrolet. The dealership initially operated on the southwest corner of Poplar Street and Second Avenue before it became a fixture in Eastgate.

The generational business set the stage for Brotherton to work with his favorite people: his children. He once told a Seattle Times reporter they were the best part about running a family business.

"Four of my kids work with me, and on any given day, I see more of them than I did in the entire time they went to high school," Brotherton said. "It's a riot. I mean it's the most fun thing in the world."

As a boss, he applied the same sensibilities as a coach might, Swanson said.

"A good head coach hires people better than them and then motivates them and supports them," she said.

He provided a workplace with educational opportunities for employees, health care plans and retirement options. He believed in giving chances to people who worked hard. That generosity extended to his children, Swanson said.

She and two of her brothers, Brad and Rob, were trained at the National Auto Dealers Association's Dealer Candidate Academy and worked in the family business. The training gave her the education to open her dad's Land Rover dealership, which has locations in Bellevue, Spokane and downtown Seattle. Brad Brotherton bought his dad's Brotherton Cadillac in 2005.

By then, Brotherton had been a Western Washington resident 21 years. In 1984 he moved his family to Mercer Island and bought Frederick Cadillac in Seattle. He put his own family name on the dealership when he moved it to Renton in 2000, and had added the aforementioned Land Rover, as well as Lexus, dealerships to the family holdings.

The friendships he'd made in Walla Walla all those years before endured.

Longtime friend Don Ritchie, who was commissioned to build the new dealership off Wilbur Avenue, remembers how their friendship evolved from a meeting in a Dale Carnegie course in the mid-1960s.

"We just got to know each other and work together," Ritchie recalled Tuesday. "I bought my first pickup from him."

The friends took trips together out of town and held longstanding wagers over whose team would have the better football season: Brotherton's beloved Cougars or Ritchie's Oregon State University Beavers.

"We were good for each other," Ritchie quipped. "He brought me out of my shell a little bit, and I kept him from getting too far into trouble. He had a lot of fun but he also had a lot of compassion for people."

Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen became friends with Brotherton shortly after arriving in Walla Walla in 1975 to become publisher of the Union-Bulletin, according to a story on Brotherton in The Times. The two were frequent companions at Cougar games over the years. They traveled twice together to Pac-10 basketball tournaments and stayed close during Brotherton's illness.

"Biff was one of those guys who are bigger than life -- big passion, big sense of humor, loved to be around people, loved the attention," Blethen said in the article. Behind the outgoing persona, he added, there was also was another side, that of a sensitive listener and valuable confidant.

That's the part, Swanson said, that helped guide his children.

"He has helped me make every life decision I've ever made," she said. "He's been my conscience. He's been my springboard. He's helped me see both sides of situations."

When he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma about 2 1/2 years ago spending time with family, including wife Leslie, seemed even more important, daughter Kari Brotherton told The Times. He bought a vacation home on Camano Island where he could teach his nine grandchildren to fish. "He taught the kids card games -- Go Fish and Old Maid -- and they played right to the end, even if he was struggling," she said.

He is survived by his wife, Leslie; sons Brad Brotherton of Mercer Island, Rob Brotherton of Bellevue and David Brotherton of Los Angeles: daughters, Beth Swanson of Walla Walla and Kari Brotherton of Seattle; a sister, Terry Terhune of Sisters, Ore.; and nine grandchildren.

A celebration of Brotherton's life is planned for 4-7 p.m. Jan. 14 at the Hyatt at Olive 8, 1635 Eighth Ave., Seattle. A private family memorial also is planned.

Remembrances may be made to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, J5-200, P.O. Box 19024, Seattle, WA 98109 for multiple myeloma research, or to the Washington State University Athletic Foundation, P.O. Box 641602, Pullman WA 99164-1602.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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