Oregon businessman and civic leader Gerry Frank dies at 98

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He was Oregon’s beloved local tourist, traveling the state’s back roads and reporting to large, enthusiastic audiences.

For Gerry Frank, who died at 98 on Sunday, it was far from his only claim to North West fame. Before he began recommending day trips on KPTV’s “Good Day Oregon” and highlighting favorite restaurants in a column for The Oregonian, he was Senator Mark Hatfield’s right-hand man for more than two decades.

When Frank stepped down as Hatfield’s chief of staff in 1992, The Oregonian pointed out that he was “almost as important as his boss”.

For years, Frank was Salem’s best-known restaurateur, holding court at Gerry Frank’s Konditorei, where he offered “his famous crushing handshake” to patrons and friends. He has also promoted numerous charitable initiatives over the years and has served on a multitude of boards. He even became a Big Apple connoisseur favorite after writing the best-selling travel guide, “Where to Find It, Buy It, Eat It in New York City.”

He was celebrated as Salem’s “first citizen” and “most eligible bachelor” – and as Oregon’s “third senator”.

When Frank turned 93 in 2016, popular conservative radio host Lars Larson introduced him as “the the greatest ambassador for Oregon and the Northwest.

Frank insisted he never expected to have such a varied public career. “I thought I would be in the family business all my life,” he said.

That company was, of course, Meier & Frank Co., Oregon’s largest and best-known retailer throughout the 20th century. At its peak, the department store company’s northwest influence was so great, wrote former M&F store model Jan Boutin, that its “sales representatives joked that there were four major cities on West Coast: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Meier &”. Franc.”

Frank, the great-grandson of store founder Aaron Meier, was never the mayor of Meier & Frank – his father Aaron Frank was. But, as he later did for Senator Hatfield, he was his tireless butler. He traveled widely to uncover the secrets of the world’s best retailers, and in 1955 he personally put into practice what he had learned as manager of the company’s new Salem store.

Ten years later, the company’s board of directors suddenly forced his father out of his position as general manager. Amid feuds between family members, the business was sold to St. Louis-based May Department Stores Co. Frank said the contentious battle for control of Meier & Frank was the “sadest” time of his life.

He never really got over it. “In Frank’s view,” The Oregonian wrote in 1977, “the most toxic influence in Oregon has been the control of business by out-of-state owners who have no ‘interest, genuine emotional connection “here”.

Gerald W. Frank was born in Portland on September 21, 1923, eight years before his great-uncle, Julius Meier, became governor of Oregon. His privileged childhood was offset by his father’s work ethic and his mother’s social obligations, and he admitted that he spent more time with his governess than with his parents. Frank served in the military during World War II and he attended Stanford University and the University of Cambridge in England.

Although he holds sophisticated degrees, Frank did not begin his retail career in the Meier & Frank executive suite. “He started in the reception hall opening boxes,” Boutin wrote, “then was promoted to opening larger boxes!”

After the May Co. took over the business, Frank turned to another passion: politics. He had run Hatfield’s campaigns since the mid-1950s. Now he has joined the senator’s office, initially taking a salary of one dollar a year.

Frank, whom Hatfield called his “best friend”, quickly became chief of staff. He relished the job — even on the rare occasions when Hatfield’s perspective made him uncomfortable, such as when the senator opposed the Vietnam War.

“I’m a standard bearer,” Frank said of his early support for President Lyndon Johnson’s escalating conflict in Southeast Asia. “I was in the army. I have to say my [attitude] has always been, ‘My country, good or bad.’ I found it very difficult not to accept what the president, the commander in chief, was saying.

But he supported Hatfield’s anti-war stance for one simple reason: “I trusted Mark’s intelligence.”

He also stayed with Hatfield through career-ending scandals that threatened the senator’s reputation, such as the revelation that Hatfield had accepted gifts from lobbyists. In 2012, a year after Hatfield’s death, newly released FBI documents showed that in 1985 the federal government secretly indicted a Greek arms dealer for bribing the influential senator.

For years, Frank was probably the most well-known congressman in the country. In 1976, a Salem man approached Hatfield at a campaign event and asked for a brief audience – with his aide. “My wife says she won’t want anything else,” he told the senator, “if she can just see Gerry Frank.”

“It is difficult to overstate the contributions of Gerry Frank, over decades of service, to our Salem community and to the State of Oregon,” Governor Kate Brown said in a statement Sunday. “As Senator Mark Hatfield’s chief of staff for more than 20 years, he was sometimes referred to as Oregon’s third senator. He has also advised countless governors over the years, myself included. I am lucky to have called Gerry a trusted advisor and friend.

Throughout the 1970s and beyond, rumors swirled that Frank would run for governor, and state pundits believed that, if he did, he would easily win. But he never threw his hat in the ring.

A long-time friend offered a theory as to why Frank never put his name on the ballot: “I think he knows the title ‘Gerry Frank’ is enough to get him everything he needs.” ‘he wants in Oregon.’

That included cozy spots on a long list of corporate boards — as well as a spot on an advisory board for Aequitas Capital Management, which collapsed in 2016 in one of Oregon’s biggest financial scandals. Company receiver Ronald Greenspan released a report detailing Aequitas’ long history of institutionalized insider trading and “actual fraud”, which he called “Ponzi-like”.

In 2007, Aequitas provided Frank with $250,000 for a planned restaurant in Portland – an investment Frank never repaid. When Aequitas collapsed, the receiver came seeking reimbursement. Frank “at first denied he owed anything in this case,” reported The Oregonian, but ended up paying the debt with a combination of stock in a healthcare finance company and silver.

Frank diligently followed Oregon’s power elite even long after he left politics, but he insisted his true calling was very different. More than anything, he loved discovering new places and meeting ordinary people. (For decades, he was the sole judge of the annual Chocolate Cake Contest at the Oregon State Fair.) In the early 1980s, shortly after he began his television career in the Oregon, Frank wrote “Where to Find It, Buy It, Eat It in New York,” which immediately became an indispensable guide for anyone who found themselves in New York. Twenty editions of the book have been published and over a million copies have been sold.

Years later, his guide to Oregon, “Gerry Frank’s Oregon”, was first published in 2012. This book grew out of travels for his newspaper column, which he titled “Friday Surprise” – a reference to the popular weekly Meier & Frank sale back in the day. He never forgot that his North West stardom had as much to do with his family’s department store as anything he had accomplished as a politician or travel writer.

“Being Frank’s name and moving around the state as much as I do, I constantly, almost daily, encounter people who worked at the store, whose relatives worked at the store, who shopped at the store as young , who visited the store from places far across the state,” Frank told the Oregon Historical Society in 1991. “Meier and Frank were really a part of their lives and were certainly the focal point of community life. .

Frank enjoyed being an important member of the community. This drove him, during his long post-Meier & Frank career, to seek out work that he believes has improved Oregon, whether it’s traversing the halls of power in Washington, D.C., running a restaurant in Salem, running a charity campaign in Portland or serving on a board of directors in Lake Oswego.

“I want to have a personal identity,” he said in 1977 of his various charitable and corporate endeavors. “I want to get involved in something. I have nothing to gain from pushing a business, but I want to have [a role] in the economic and cultural fabric of the state. I hate any implication that there is a question about this.

There was a question about it from time to time, but Frank will be remembered as a benevolent champion of his home state, one who worked hard for the greater good. And he did it all the way. He liked to point out that he was not the hobby type – he only felt attracted to activities that made a difference.

“I can’t sit around and cut coupons,” he said. “I can’t go out and play golf.”

–Douglas Perry

@douglasmperry

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