May 20, 2001 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

La Grande lost one of the most prominent military and civic leaders in its history on Saturday.

Maj. Gen. Willard Bill Carey, 72, of La Grande died Saturday morning in Portland following a battle with lung cancer.

Carey, a two-star general, served in the military for about 40 years, all as a National Guardsman. He reached the pinnacle of his military career in 1986 when he was named deputy commanding general for the reserve components of the 6th Army. He was responsible for the training and supervision of more than 100,000 men and women in 12 states.

He certainly will be missed. He was highly regarded and had a stellar career, said Col. Mike Caldwell of Salem, the deputy director of the Oregon National Guards military operations.

Caldwell said that many Oregon National Guardsmen owe much to Carey.

He had a major effect on a countless number of careers. He had an innate ability to put people in the right spot at the right time in their careers, said Caldwell, a former La Grande resident who was a Union County commissioner in the 1980s.

Carey, who was an lawyer, was a major contributor to the community and his efforts did not go unrecognized. He was named man of the year in 1966 and 1986 by the La Grande-Union County Chamber of Commerce. Very few people have won this honor twice.

He was a true citizen-soldier, Caldwell said.

In the community, Carey served as president of the chamber of commerce, was active in the Lions Club, served on Grande Ronde Hospitals board of trustees and did much more.

He had a very deep devotion to community service on a local and national level, said La Grande attorney Steve Joseph, Careys law partner for about 20 years.

He enjoyed the practice of law and helping people, Joseph said.

Carey grew up in La Grande and began his military career with La Grandes National Guard unit. He attended Eastern Oregon State College and later graduated from the University of Oregon. Carey earned a law degree from Willamette University and returned to La Grande to practice.

In an article that appeared in The Observer on March 5, 1986, Carey credited family support as an important element in his success as a reserve officer.

Obviously it would not have been possible for me to be involved without their wholehearted support, Carey said.

Carey and his wife, Audrey, had three children.

Careys appointment as the deputy general of the 6th U.S. Army in 1986 was noteworthy in military circles. Carey was one of the first people from the National Guard since World War II to be promoted to the post. Normally only full-time commanders were appointed to such positions.

It was not an opportunity traditional guardsmen had. He broke some new ground, Caldwell said. It was a hotly debated issue.

Carey did an outstanding job during his tenure, Caldwell said. As a result, others from the National Guard have been able to rise to similar positions in the Army.

Had he been a failure this (plan to make it possible to move National Guardsman to such high leadership positions) would have been scrapped, Caldwell said.

A portion of Careys success can be attributed to his personable nature, Caldwell said.

It was hard to find people who didnt like him. He remembered names and was always friendly and cordial. ... He had a real charm to him, he said.

A memorial service is planned for noon June 2 at the armory.