Philanthropist, arts maven Arlene Schnitzer has spent her life setting off a charitable chain reaction

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Her beloved husband isnt too far away for Arlene Schnitzer these days, as the arts supporter and business woman holds dearly to the cause of diabetes, with which Harold Schnitzer suffered in his later years.It's an unofficial title, but an accurate one: "The First Lady of Arts in Portland."

Arlene Schnitzer downplays the suggestion of such a nickname, although it's indisputable the impact that she and her late husband of 62 years, Harold Schnitzer, have made on the city of Portland and beyond.

The couple has given an estimated $80 million to charities. She founded Fountain Gallery, which provided much-needed exposure for Pacific Northwest artists. One of Portland's grandest performance venues bears her name — the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. She has provided ample support for the Portland Art Museum, the Oregon Symphony, Boys & Girls Clubs, many schools and religious organizations, and one medical facility near and dear to her heart — the Harold Schnitzer Diabetes Health Center at Oregon Health & Science University.

The Harold & Arlene Schnitzer Care Foundation will put on its annual fundraising event for the center at 4 p.m. Sunday, June 2, at the Portland Art Museum, with Rocky Blumhagen and Susannah Mars singing George Gershwin (info: 503-552-0698).

Harold died April 27, 2011, from cancer, but also had battled diabetes, which he contracted at age 45. Arlene misses him dearly.

She also has stayed quite busy, still holding down an office at Harsch Investment Properties, the real estate company that she and Harold formed in 1950 and where her son, Jordan, serves as president.

She still collects art and beams with pride when talking about how her son has inherited the passion, and then some.

The Portland Tribune sat down with Schnitzer, 84 and living part of the year in Indian Wells, Calif., to get her thoughts on a variety of subjects, none more important than the upcoming fundraiser:

Tribune: The Harold Schnitzer Diabetes Health Center means much to you, clearly, because of the ravages of diabetes.

Schnitzer: Harold was diabetic, and it certainly has enabled us to learn about the impact of diabetes on lives. I don't think there's anybody you can talk to —anybody — who doesn't have some person in their life that wasn't diabetic or isn't diabetic. It's beyond epidemic, it's pandemic. I have a niece that lives in Bend; out of the blue, diabetic.

Tribune: What sets the diabetes center apart?

Schnitzer: It treats you, no matter what. It has a wonderful director, Dr. Andrew Ahmann. He is one of the most respected endocrinonoligist/diabetologists in the country. We are so lucky to have him. He's just a wonderful human being, besides being a phenomenal doctor. He was Harold's doctor. ... We did a tour when Harold was still alive, toured the country and all the major diabetic centers. There really wasn't anything on the West Coast; it was really important to start this diabetic center here. The clinic has done wonderful things, but it's little known. That's why we did the benefit.

The more successful it is in treating, the more it needs funding. It's a self-perpetuating need. Heart, cancer — it's a little bit easier to raise money, but people think diabetes is the other guy. Once you have it, you begin to find out how important the care is.

Tribune: It's mighty commendable to be so devoted to the cause.

Schnitzer: God, how lucky can you be when you can take things you care about and hopefully try to make a difference? We try. You have to have profound respect for people like Phil Knight, who can make such a huge impact on segments of the population who are dying off (with cancer and heart center donations at OHSU).

I worked hard, and Harold was a hard worker, and we've never shirked community responsibility. It's inculcated in Judaism, first of all. You give of your resources.

Tribune: What do you miss most about Harold?

Schnitzer: Oh boy. He is so wise. It's funny I say "is" instead of "was." I'll sit on the edge of the bed, just what he used to do, and I'll have kind of a conversation with him, about certain things that come up. He was one of a kind. There was nobody like him. He wasn't just smart. He was good and decent and honorable and funny — had a great sense of humor — and a lot of understanding and compassion.

Tribune: You've always done what's necessary with philanthropy?

Schnitzer: I'm very aware of resources. I have worked hard. Hell, I worked in my dad's 5-and-10 since I was 15 on. I know what hard work is. I worked hard, and Harold was a hard worker, and we've never shirked community responsibility and Jordan hasn't either. It's inculcated in Judaism, first of all. You give of your resources. I think of myself as a humanist, if you may.

Tribune: What are your future endeavors?

Schnitzer: We've been asked that before. It's one area where Jordan and I don't quite see eye-to-eye. Jordan is much more strategic and a planner; I'm a by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of philanthropist. I don't toss anything out, depending on the presentation and the need of the moment.

Tribune: You've enjoyed art collecting (glass, wall art, sculpture, print, paintings). And, Jordan?

Schnitzer: I'm so proud of him. He's gone in a little different direction — print. He has probably developed the largest and most important post-World War II print collection in the country. It's a fabulous collection, and he does good things with it. He sends various work to schools, as material that teachers can use to educate students as to the value of art. I'm thrilled to see that passion extended beyond what Harold and I loved. I've seen other families where the parents have a passion for something and the kids just turn away.

Tribune: What do you think of the arts scene in Portland?

Schnitzer: I think it's great. You know, not only are artists working here good artists, but they're penalized because they've chosen to stay and live in this great state of ours ... and not major art centers. I've began to question, what does "make it" mean?

Tribune: What do you think of Portland these days, with its "Keep Portland Weird" reputation?

Schnitzer: Whatever it is, it's my home. Home is where the heart is. Both Harold and I are native born and reared Oregonians. A wonderful city to live in. A wonderful city to rear children in. With all its eccentricities, that's what makes it great. Physically it's in the perfect place — hour and a half from the beach, hour and a half from the mountains. Has two rivers. It's a beautiful, contained city.

Tribune: You're still heavily involved in Harsch?

Schnitzer: I'm really proud of it and the job Jordan has done since he came into the business at 21 years old. Everything we're able to do in the community has been because of this business, and because of the passion that Harold and I felt for our community and our state.

Tribune: What do you do for fun?

Schnitzer: This is fun. I love this. If I leave the office to go away, I say, "Goodbye, desk." If I could put a bath and bed here, I'd stay right here. I can remember walking up four flights of stairs with Harold in an old building in 1950, a block off Burnside, the first building we bought. I had high-heeled platform shoes on, and I was pregnant. And I remember setting up an office with Harold. It was so much fun. You work hard … my parents came over as immigrants, so did Harold's. They worked hard to be able to educate their children.

Tribune: You owe a lot to your parents?

Schnitzer: My mother was from Poland, father from Russia. They came over here with nada, nothing. You have to admire that kind of bravery. Harold's parents, same thing, They came over with nothing. My father-in-law walked from Astoria to Fort Stevens collecting old (metal) castoffs and put them on an old barge to Portland to sell them. He earned $1,500 and sent for his wife. They were real pioneers, Harold's parents and my parents. I had wonderful parents, and Jordan named that (Director) park after his grandparents.

Tribune: Do you get out to see art exhibits and live shows?

Schnitzer: Not really as much as I should. I had the gallery for 25 years (Fountain), a long time for an art gallery. So, I've never stopped buying and supporting the artists in that way; we've developed a pretty big collection of Northwest art.

Tribune: "The First Lady of Arts in Portland" ... like it?

Schnitzer: Thank you! But, honest to God, I'm in awe of a lot of people I've met. I would be in awe of meeting the president of the United States. I would have loved to meet Abraham Lincoln and (Polish physicist/chemist) Madame Curie.

Tribune: Who do you socialize with these days?

Schnitzer: You name it. Just got through visiting with (PAM chief curator) Bruce Guenther and (PAM patron) Jim Winkler and his wife. I'm going to Japan with a group from the Japanese Garden. I have a great son who keeps me busy and two wonderful granddaughters. But, I think my best friends, and this could be misinterpreted, but I mean it sincerely, are the people that I work with every day. It's a marriage of a sort to see their ups and downs and moments.

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