A Journey to Exceptionalism
WORDS Justin Fields | Photography Tim Sugden
For some particularly driven people, achieving the pinnacle of personal and professional success can be a long and circuitous journey, replete with obstacles that would permanently derail the dreams of most. Such is the case with Terry Sprague, the Owner and CEO of LUXE Platinum Properties, an exclusive affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate.
Terry grew up in a modest home in North Portland with his five siblings, where he attended Holy Cross Elementary and Roosevelt High. From a young age he was extremely driven to succeed, but also prone to pursuing adventure. After a series of rewarding early career moves, he launched a stock broker career that started at Shearson Lehman Hutton. Over time, Terry realized he had a drinking problem. His decision to seek professional help came at a time when treatment for alcoholism was not openly talked about.
“Hunter S. Thompson and Hemingway were my life heroes. I was fascinated and entertained by their out-of-the-box antics and life experiences,” says Terry. “They lived life boldly, but also excessively. Unfortunately, they were not able to adapt to change. I saw how that worked out for them, and wanted to choose a different path.”
Today, Terry has been sober for 18 years, and is one of the top real estate brokers in Oregon, focusing on new and lifestyle homes in the Lake Oswego, West Linn, Sherwood and Wilsonville real estate markets. He specializes in working with families relocating to Portland, executives and athletes with the NBA, Nike employees, major health organizations and other local companies. His company, Christie’s International, serves clients around the world, providing a concierge-based experience, complemented by his extensive knowledge of the local real estate market.
Terry lives with his wife Maureen and his daughters, Tallulah Belle (11), and Savanah Jane (9) in Lake Oswego, where he is often seen coaching his daughters’ soccer and basketball teams at Our Lady of the Lake School. He’s also been an active supporter of organizations serving at-risk youth, including the Boys and Girls Club, Casa, and Self Enhancement, Inc.
He feels strongly about sharing his story and inspiring others to seek help for alcoholism and addiction and realize their full personal potential. His unabashed candor regarding his personal travails, coupled with an authentic storytelling ability, make him an inspiration to many. Those attributes also made for a very interesting interview…
You grew up in North Portland in the ’60s and ’70s – what was that like for you as a kid? I guess you could say I had a rambunctious upbringing. I went to Holy Cross Elementary and Roosevelt High in North Portland and lived the life of a sociable kid. My mom and dad were great parents, but with six kids, let me just say there was plenty of unsupervised life. My Dad was traveling, and my Mom was going to school to finish her teaching degree. Older sisters and friends with older brothers in the neighborhood led to exposure and early entry into recreational experimentation with drugs and alcohol. At that time, it was weed and drinking, starting in about sixth grade. This was just kind of normal with my group of friends.
We were all still very active in sports and activities. I just remember playing on the varsity soccer team as a freshman, and it was not unusual to get stoned before a game. It was normal. Our playgrounds in the neighborhood included the industrial area of Mox Bottom, fishing on the log jams on the Willamette, Columbia Park, and The Villa, which at the time were considered the housing projects. There was plenty of mischief available. By the 7th grade, it wasn’t unusual for me to go over to my friend’s house who’s mom dated a Gypsy Joker, and watch her boyfriend roll joints. We did all the normal things kids do, but we were just exposed to a different ‘normal’ as well.
Who is one of your favorite NBA players you’ve worked with? When I met (former Portland Trailblazer) Zack Randolph, I got offered to sell his house and we became good friends. I could relate to his background. While not the same, we had similar distractions that existed in our neighborhoods and the friends we kept as kids. In my opinion Zack has an amazing heart and has strived for wisdom. I have a lot of empathy for people who struggle. I’m so impressed with his maturity and character now that I have gotten to know him. Our life experiences are building blocks to wisdom we pass on, and that includes trials and errors. Believe me, maturity has been a long road for me.
You’ve garnered quite a reputation for excellence with Luxe Platinum Properties. Where did you get your drive to achieve exceptionalism? Were you always set on being in the real estate business?
Actually, when I was 16 I knew I had to change environments. I moved out on my own away from Portland to Eugene and went to work for a wonderful life mentor. I started out as a landscaper with Teller Landscaping. I was a little guy for construction. I rented the owner’s garage fully furnished with lawn mowers and a waterbed — that was my source of heat. The job started at 5am and I was revving to go each morning. My mentor in landscaping taught me how to perfectly complete every task. Kevin had me believing that I was a part of a very small group of professionals, like NBA and NFL stars, when I was a professional landscaper! At the end of the evening we packed up the trucks and turned headlights towards the house so that we could perfectly wash down the job sight before the clients returned. Funny thing, I’ll always remember 1976 we went to see the movie Rocky. The lesson from the movie was Rocky prepared, and he went the distance. That was winning! That’s something I strive for today and teach my children. You may not win, but if you’ve prepared with all your heart, and you go the distance, you have succeeded. I became the foreman for TLC and ran the crews.
Sounds like your mentor instilled in you an early sense of professionalism and a hard work ethic. What came after your landscaping career? Next, I was fortunate enough at a young age to get a job at Meier & Frank, another lucky moment of many in my life. On Christmas Eve of my first year, I hand-delivered two McDonald’s gift coupon books to the 14th floor where Mr. Meier & Mr. Frank’s offices were. Soon I received a personal thank you from management, and they decided to send me through an executive assessment program along with all the college recruits. I went through a full-day interview, so they could see how I handle supervision, how I set up my day, and how I prioritize. At 18, I had already built up credibility to be respected in the workforce and was an executive in training.
That’s impressive for an 18-year-old. It must have felt like a lot of responsibility. Was there also a lot of pressure? When I look back at my time in management, it was one of my first times I realized I had a drinking problem. It was a progressive disease, and I fell into a pattern. During that formative job at Meier & Frank, while I was still in management training, they moved me down to Eugene and I managed toys, candy and gourmet departments, which included alcohol sales. So, I was under 21 and around alcohol. I was also a DJ at night a club in Eugene, where the party scene was very different from North Portland. I was 18, making $150 a night, which was a lot back then. I started doing a bit of recreational drugs that were popular in the disco scene and drinking a lot. Drugs were never really my addiction, but many who drank a lot in the early ’80s would also do other stuff that was available. This crazy behavior came with setbacks, but I just thought it was par for the course of living like every day could potentially be the best day of my life.
When was the first time you began to experience serious repercussions from your drinking? I was on my way home during Christmas to visit my family and I had rented a car to fill it with gifts. I was drinking on the way and ended up passing out and running into a semi-truck on I-5. I woke up in the hospital and still have scars from the accident on my face. My family was never reactive — they were supportive. It was normal back then, DUI’s just weren’t considered a big deal. After that event, a woman in management at Meier & Frank’s sat down with me and asked, “Terry, why don’t you go be a kid? Why don’t you go to college? Why are you working at such a young age?”
I took her advice, buried myself in books for a month and studied for my GED. Back then I was able to get into the University of Oregon based on my scores. I knew I wasn’t going to go for four years but I succeeded in taking every communication and speech course. Three things came from that year: lots of living on the edge fun behavior, gaining lifelong friends and the ability to communicate in the white-collar world. I went home for the summer and got a job at Mario’s, then decided to buy myself a one-way ticket to Hawaii where I got a clothing buying job in Italian clothes.
I was putting on an act every day, constantly trying to hide how I was feeling. I think that all of us carry some sort of weight, an uncomfortableness. Drugs and alcohol reward you, and then beat you up. I was already juggling a life that wasn’t sustainable.
So, you were really living life in the fast lane during that time. Was that kind of par for the course for young, hip professionals then? Do you remember Dudley Moore’s role in the movie Arthur? I was kind of like that guy – smaller build, very likeable and fun, still lovable but every activity included drinking and celebration. There were plenty of wonderful women in my life at the time, but I was too irresponsible to succeed at meaningful relationships. With alcohol abuse, I saw things through my own selfish lens and optics.
During this time, I was a binge drinker. I could go all week sober, but about Thursday night my tea kettle needed to let off steam, and I began my weekend roll! That’s what we called partying among close friends – “Rolling!” I was still wearing great suits from Mario’s and top designers, and trying to stay fit. I worked harder than any of my competition but destroyed myself on the weekends. I would be hungover as hell and run miles six days a week, then use Sundays as a recoup day before each Monday. I thought that was completely normal behavior. I called it, “John Wayne’n it!” That’s how you roll! I was a great actor and even fooled myself into believing life was ok.
What happened in your personal life that made you get serious about seeking help? I remember one of the moments that really hit me the hardest. I was an uncle to my two nephews up in Seattle. They looked up to me as their ‘Master of Fun Uncle’, and unfortunately, I drank one night in front them while they were staying at my house. They ended up getting scared and calling their mom, and my sister. It ripped my heart apart and stunned me. It made me suddenly stop and look in the mirror. That was my turning moment — it wasn’t a car accident or losing a job — it was that evening with my nephews that became the perfect storm of a moment for me. I went to the doctor and ended up taking antidepressants, which turned out to be a bad combination with alcohol. I had what was my own abyss, but I continued acting like everything was fine. I didn’t really know where to turn for help.
Ten years earlier, a friend of mine came into work after a three-day bender, and I did not know how to help him, or what to suggest. I thought, “let’s go see my Uncle Peter, a Jesuit Priest.” Treatment centers were not a thing like they are today. But we all agreed that day that was the answer for my friend. I’m happy today to say his life has been lived brilliantly since that intervention. I did tell him, “If you ever see me looking like you do today, please do the same for me.” At that, point ten years before my own intervention, I knew it was inevitable.
Did you eventually end up seeking help at a treatment center? How did you start to turn your life around and strive for sobriety?
I was a Vice President at a major brokerage firm in Seattle, and my manager came in like any other day to say hello and asked how I was doing. I was drinking a lot every day now and I was becoming scared for my safety. I couldn’t think straight. But I was an actor, I always showed up dressed sharp, and somehow continued to be a high performer. I said, “Not good. I’m scared, unhappy, and sad. And I’ve always been a happy guy.” Fortunately for me, he had unsuccessfully intervened a few times for his father-in-law. I said “let’s get a phone book out, I want to go to one of those 30-day places.” I said I want you to follow me to my home and then to a treatment center, because I don’t want to change my mind. I went in and answered all the questions honestly and they said we have a bed for you today. It was the most amazing relief!
But that wasn’t quite the end of your problems – there were more difficult times to come? After a year of sobriety, there was another dark time. I remember talking with my dad and saying I don’t crave a glass of cabernet with my steak, I crave an escape. I just want to turn off all these feelings. Then two of my friends killed themselves in the same week. In that moment, I just thought, “I‘m scared now.” I called my doctor and said I needed to go to a treatment center because I was going through such a hard time with the death of my friends. But no treatment center would take me because I had not relapsed — I wasn’t using. I panicked and got out the phone book and started calling counselors. I found one late at night and drove to her house, where she did the Burns Anxiety test on me. She said I was through the roof, on suicidal level basically. You really have no idea how sick you are until you have a moment of clarity.
Tell me more about that moment of clarity. How did your decision to seek help in Antigua unfold? I watched an interview with Eric Clapton about his journey to sobriety at the Crossroads Centre in Antigua. That was the beginning of my own five-year journey, and it became one of the best periods of my life. It was an amazing experience, almost like a fantasy. I was doing a lot of photography, so I got a press pass to take photos of sailing events. Pretty soon, the captains of the sailboats asked me to shoot their races from helicopters. I also started to explore painting and sculpture as a way to unwind and enjoy self-reflection. In 2000 I opened Heavenly Hills, a gallery featuring the work of native artists in Antigua. That really lifted me — I began to live a much freer life. Getting sober doesn’t make you a good person, it allows you to be in touch with yourself.
That must have felt like the beginning of a major transformation! And didn’t you meet your wife in Antigua? I was at a friend of mine’s beach restaurant learning how to cook sea bass. A taxi drove up and I heard the American accents. That was the night that I met Maureen. She came up to my place Heavenly Hills the following evening. On Friday nights we had live music, lobster and beautiful sunsets. We ended up hanging out the entire evening. Her friend told one of my staff people that Maureen was going to marry me. Her friend set me up for a date the following evening.
A friend of mine was doing a book reading at the Antigua National Museum. I had done the artwork for her novel. When the writer publicly thanked me for doing the artwork, I think that gave me a little credibility. I still wasn’t used to dating sober. I knew this was a really important date, and we ended up going to a friend’s resort and talking all night. The following day she called me from Puerto Rico and told me she liked me. I began to fly back-and-forth to New York. Maureen was a schoolteacher at an elementary school. I would show up in New York wearing flip-flops and shorts. Maureen was Irish Catholic, close to my age, never married, and had her master’s degree in early childhood education – everything way above my pay grade (laughs). But there was no doubt that we were soulmates.
I asked her 6-foot-5 Irish father from Long Island if I could marry her, and he said no. We worked things out and became very close. The biggest gift of all we gave him was two grandchildren whom he was able to spend a lot of time with until he passed away last year. Family has been the greatest gift of all.
Then you started a family. Was that something you wanted to do right away? Maureen always told me she could never be a stay at home mom, but when her mom passed, an unconditional love came over her for our daughter, Tallulah Belle. Maureen is an amazing mom — we celebrate every holiday from Chinese New Year to Cinco de Mayo. She is making memories that I don’t know how to do. I can’t take credit for how amazing our two girls are and how they have excelled at everything. Second graders reading Harry Potter books is unheard of!
Sounds like you have an amazing family! After all the demons you battled in your life, what does it feel like to finally achieve an idyllic home and family life? I think being normal is fascinating. Being a dad, and being a husband is fascinating to me. Trying to run a company and manage human relationships around you, while also trying to answer a 9-year-old’s complicated questions is fascinating. I find that far more interesting than the wild nights I spent out. I have no resentment or regrets, but I’m in this moment now. When my mom got sick and was on dialysis, I knew she was going to pass. But my mom got to see me get married, and she got to see the birth of my first daughter, Tallulah Belle. I will always be grateful for that.
Let’s switch gears to your real estate career now. What made you decide to partner with Christie’s? While I’ve always been in the top five of the higher end sales guys, it’s not about my volume, but what I sell. I now sell more of the three or four million-dollar homes. There was just moment where I wanted more control of my destiny, so I called Christie’s and said I wanted something different. I flew out to Christie’s in Beverly Hills and expressed my philosophy that we were more of a marketing company and were trying to form client relationships.
When I started it here, one prominent guy that got excited about it was (Portland Developer) Jordan Schnitzer; he had been buying art from Christie’s for 25 years. We do a lot of big events, since Christie’s is the only real estate company owned by an auction house. So, there is a direct relationship – we talk art, and what furniture to look for. We have a program called Collectrium that helps you curate your collections online. Christie’s is also working with Dave Dahl (Founder, Dave’s Killer Bread) to curate a nice collection of African tribal art.
What is unique about Luxe Platinum Properties? What do you offer that other real estate companies do not? What is comes down to is this: If you think of Christie’s, it’s been around for 200 years, and started in London when everybody was losing their money. It is one of the top brand names in the world. I don’t ever want people to get ego confused with enthusiasm. I have reached a peaceful place, where I am enthusiastic. I do not have an ego. What is neat about Christie’s is the products we have throughout the world, surrounded by talented people who have been in this industry for years. Their numbers are shocking, they are crushing the glass ceiling with sales. I thought, “Why can’t I be doing this in Portland?” We are promoting Kengo Kuma (modernist architect) which has never been done before. He’s been selected as the architect of the next Olympic stadium. This relationship has just begun, and it is already incredible.
It sounds like you have been able to leverage the brand prestige of Christie’s to list some of the most impressive properties in Oregon. We just closed about a 7-million-dollar vineyard in Southern Oregon without even going through the RMLS. Seventy million people visit the Christie’s site a year. Sixty percent of them are from different countries. When people say international marketing isn’t important, being sandwiched in between Seattle and San Francisco, we have a lot going on here for us. About 125 people a day are moving to Portland. We sometimes take for granted how beautiful is it here. People from California aren’t moving here for a gated community, they become Portlandized very quickly. People are coming here to embrace and be a part of Portland. How I work is I surround myself with people like myself, self-made, successful men and women. For instance, the athletes and agents in the NBA really like me. I have an NDA with the Blazers, and I respect them like they are my own family.
You’ve built a really amazing client base and community through your business…
The world is my neighborhood. I go to Christie’s meetings two or three times a year. I am always up on stage talking about the client experience and innovation. What I try to do is hire brokers that have special skill sets. We all work together like a law firm, no one works for me, we work together. Portland Business Journal named us number one in Oregon for price per sell.
How does your ability to tell a compelling story translate into building great client relationships? Our intention from the very beginning has been to be a market leader in terms of the client experience and results. Real estate is much like owning a retail store – you are trying to invite certain people in to have a great customer experience. In the art world, every piece of art has provenance. The same should be true of a real estate transaction. Shouldn’t you be responsible to maximize the event? Shouldn’t you have to understand the story, the history, the architecture, even personal experiences that that customer has had in that house? If you convey that through storytelling, you have the best potential of reaching the right client for all the right reasons.