TWIN FALLS • Robert Alfred Latham Sr., 76, former owner of Latham Motors, passed away Thursday.
He was living in Kona, Hawaii when he died, but for decades he was a fixture in Twin Falls — known as the “Giant of Magic Valley,” not just for his six-foot stature but because of his legacy of business leadership and community volunteerism.
He was once so well known in Twin Falls that the phone number of his car dealership, Latham Motors, was better known to Twin Falls kindergarteners than their own.
“He was considered the giant of Magic Valley,” said Latham’s eldest daughter Terry Steelman, a former kindergarten teacher. “Twin Falls’ finest. Everybody had (Latham Motor’s) phone number memorized. He had a guy come on TV all the time and tell people to call 733-5776. I remember when kindergarteners were learning how to read, I asked one little girl what her phone number was. She said, ‘733-5776.’ It was too cute.”
As a young man, Latham Sr. was a charmer, his sister Nancy Latham said. He had a “Tony Curtis curl” and a ducktail in the back.
“He liked the girls and the girls liked him,” Nancy Latham said. “I can’t remember how many hours he spent in the bathroom on that ducktail.”
As a Twin Falls High School basketball star, his love for women led him to the girl at the top of the cheer pyramid. At 17 years old, Robert married 16-year-old Janet Plessinger. This year will be the couple’s 59th anniversary.
Starting a family so young soon put the newlyweds in financial straights, Nancy Latham said. At the time, she was scraping by in California, providing for her own emerging family. Despite Robert Latham’s own poverty, his sister remembers an anonymous Christmas card with $50. For years, Robert Latham Sr. wouldn’t admit to sending the money.
“I couldn’t tell you all the things he did and all the things that he didn’t want people to know about,” Nancy Latham said.
Random acts of kindness was one of Robert Latham Sr.’s trademarks. He was also known for donating his time, money and property to the Twin Falls High School and the College of Southern Idaho. Robert Latham Sr. also funded a children’s golf organization and created a project that kept the Twin Falls city pool open year-round.
Nancy Latham said her brother was known to help close friends and family in times of need in any way he could. He was known to stay by the bedside of loved ones who were sick or dying.
But his biggest legacy was Latham Motors.
Steelman describes her father as “a self-made man.” In 1964, what would become Latham Motors was then Milrany Buick Oldsmobile.
“He was working odd jobs trying to keep food on the table,” said Steelman, his daughter. “He went to Milrany every day asking for a job. Mr. Milrany wouldn’t hire him. Finally, Mr. Milarny gave him a shot at selling cars."
Robert Latham Sr. was later hired away from Milrany by Bob Reese Motor Company to be sales manager.
“Robert was so successful at that when Bob Reese decided to retire, he wanted Robert to buy the dealership,” Nancy Latham said. “But he didn’t have the money to do it. So Bob Reese and Chrysler Corporation backed Robert to buy the dealership.”
Nearly all of Robert Latham Sr.’s employees were honored to work for him, Steelman said.
“He was very encouraging and a true friend,” Steelman said. “He was so respected by his employees, he treated everybody equally and they had a high respect for my dad.
“He had a genuine love for people and he would make sure he was visible and walking around and connecting with people. He took a personal interest in every person who worked for him.
“There are several people who have come up to me over the years and said, ‘Your dad was so generous.’”
Funeral services are pending and will be announced by Parke’s Magic Valley Funeral Home of Twin Falls.