Gresham loses prominent business founder, philanthropist
Neil Riegelmann's legacy in Gresham was cemented when he opened his appliance store in 1965, but he's also fondly remembered as a loving family-man, devout Christian and generous citizen to those who knew him.
Neil Riegelmann died of natural causes on Oct. 26, 2021, in Gresham. He was 96, and would have turned 97 in December.
Riegelmann grew up and went to school in Portland. After graduating Jefferson High School the young Riegelmann entered the armed services during the beginning of World War II. He was accepted into the Officer Pilots Program in the Army Air Corp after he was only one of five participants to pass the entrance test. No longer needed as a pilot, Riegelmann then chose to work on the radio and navigation. After months of training, he and his crew would man the Liberty Belle II bomber plane.
Riegelmann and crew were transferred to Clark Field, Philippines, where they were tasked with bombing shipping sites and airstrips on the China coast. The crew was then sent to Okinawa where they met strong resistance. One of Riegelmann's jobs was to throw strips of tin foil out the bomb bay, which would cause the anti-aircraft guns to aim for the foil, hopefully missing their plan.
Riegelmann and the entire crew of the Liberty Belle II made it out of the war safely.
Opening the shop
After the war Riegelmann returned to Oregon. In 1946 he married Mae Vern, a childhood neighbor who lived across the street from his family in Portland. Riegelmann went to work at Harold Kelly's Appliances as a sales associate. He then ran Mark's Appliance in Southeast Portland. At the same time the couple had welcomed daughter Carol in 1948 and son Jim in 1951.
In 1965 Riegelmann had had enough of working for others and set out on his own. With only $5,000, Riegelmann invested most of that in renting store space, a transport truck and office equipment. However, when trying to finance inventory for the new store, Riegelmann was turned down by nearly every investor he talked to.
"I was pretty discouraged," Riegelmann said in a 2011 interview with The Outlook. "I already had the kids addressing invitations to the grand opening. My wife said, 'Well, don't worry about it. We'll pray about it.'"
The next day Riegelmann hit the links at Pleasant Valley Golf Course. A numbers draw paired Riegelmann with Glen Rossiter. Riegelmann told Rossiter of his dilemma and without hesitation Rossiter, a mortgage lender with Borg-Warner Acceptance Corporation, pulled out his business card.
Rossiter told the young businessman to order the appliances he needed to start his store.
Back at home, Riegelmann's wife was less surprised as she had been praying for something like that to happen all day. Riegelmann Appliance opened its doors to the community in 1965.
Of course, Gresham resident's are well aware of Riegelmann's appliance and furniture store in downtown, but Riegelmann also gave his time and effort to helping the community.
Riegelmann founded the Salvation Army Advisory Council for the Gresham Corps, bringing in local business people who worked together to raise funds for the Salvation Army. Jim remembers his dad standing outside of stores as a bell ringer, collecting donations for the Salvation Army.
"He was looking for every chance he could to help," Jim said.
In the 1970s Riegelmann also started a "Better Living" show that was designed to highlight local businesses and products that Gresham had to offer. Riegelmann also help found Mt. Hood Community College.
Beyond his many accomplishments and charitable contributions, his son's fondest memories are of his father's extraordinary faith.
"I can't stress enough his faith," Jim said. "I remember when my mother was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, he kept his faith through it all."
Jim remembers his dad still managed to take him and his sister to church every Sunday and his thankfulness for the support that he received through the family's struggles. Mae Vern died of the disease in 1966.
In his late 60s Riegelmann would retire and spend Winters in his property in Palm Desert, California, with his second wife Lynn. However, Riegelmann would always make return trips to Oregon to watch over the store that he started, now in the capable hands of his son Jim, and grandsons Josh and Michael Riegelmann.
Riegelmann is survived by his wife of 55 years, Lynn Riegelmann; daughter Carol Marie Scott; son Jim and daughter-in-law Frieda Riegelmann; three grandchildren, and 11 great grandchildren.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.