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The arts philanthropist could see a Portland that the rest of us could only imagine

Leonardo da Vinci once wrote, "The artist sees what others only catch a glimpse of." When the indomitable COURTESY: PORTLAND ART MUSEUM - Arlene Schnitzer passed away Saturday, April 4, at the age of 91. Arlene Schnitzer passed away on April 4, Portland lost one of its leading citizens and our non-profit community lost one of our most generous donors.

We also lost one of our most talented and creative artists, because Arlene Schnitzer had a unique ability to see long before anyone else what Portland could become and — thanks to her — would become.

Arlene saw a community that would value, appreciate and honor artists and their work. She saw that a world-class art museum was key to making Portland a world-class city. Along with her husband, Harold, she saw what a vibrant performing arts center would mean for Portland's downtown. And once she saw all this, she used her energy, her influence and her generosity to make her vision a reality. PMG FILE PHOTO - KERRY TYMCHUK

I once told Arlene that she reminded me of the Oregon pioneers. She wondered what I meant, joking that she might be old, but she wasn't old enough to have traveled to Oregon in a covered wagon. I explained what I meant was that the Oregon tradition of "neighbor helping neighbor" began way back then, when folks would gather from miles around to participate in community barn raisings, and that a lot of "barns" had been raised thanks to the leadership and generosity that were her trademarks. She thought for a moment and then replied, "And I might have raised a little Hell, as well."

One of the last times I saw Arlene was a few months back at the Oregon Historical Society. As they had for several years, the Harold and Arlene Schnitzer CARE Foundation was using the OHS pavilion to host an annual ceremony for their CommuniCare Program.

Established in 1997, the innovative and inspiring program trains new generations of civic leaders, volunteers and philanthropists. The foundation tasks student-led groups in local high schools to meet with local non-profits to learn about the work they are doing in their community. The students then determine which organizations are most deserving of financial support. The CARE Foundation then provides that financial support.

Over its 21-year history, groups of high school students have awarded more than $1 million in grants to more than 230 non-profit organizations working in areas of health and human services, the environment, education and youth services.

Several hundred students, teachers, parents and non-profit leaders filled the pavilion that evening as checks were presented. Arlene and her son, Jordan, were in the front row, and you could see in their smiles and the gleam in their eyes how much the evening and the CommuniCare program meant to them.

I couldn't help but think that the program was the perfect example of Arlene being an artist once again. She was seeing what most others only glimpse — a future where community service, generosity and philanthropy continue to raise Portland's barns. It is a future that will be Arlene Schnitzer's most enduring masterpiece.

Kerry Tymchuk is executive director of the Oregon Historical Society.


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