Hundreds of people gathered to honor the late Mayor Vera Katz during a public celebration of her life Sunday. They filled the large third floor ballroom of the Mark Building addition to the Portland Art Museum to standing-room-only capacity.
"She was an Oregonian who truly changed her little corner of the world," said Kerry Tymchuk, executive director of the Oregon Historical Society.
Those in attendance ranged from prominent politicians, including Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and former Gov. John Kitzhaber, business and community leaders, and citizens who appreciated her tireless efforts to improve the state and city. Also in attendance were Oregon U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonimici, current Mayor Ted Wheeler, and most of the rest of the Portland City Council.
Others speakers included Katz's son, Jesse; former state Sen. Margaret L. Carter, who served on the Oregon Legislature with Katz; former City Commissioner Mike Lindberg, who served on the council with Katz; and Erin Hoover-Barnett, director of communications for OHSU School of Medicine, who profiled Katz as a journalist with The Oregonian.
Among other things, Jesse told stories recounting his mother's transformation from a child who fled Germany shortly after Hitler took power with her family to a young political activist in Portland. Carter praised Katz's commitment to civil rights and education reform. Lindberg praised her decision to lead a delegation to New York City shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attack, calling it her "moment of transcendence." Hoover-Barnett remembered Katz's courage when facing serious health issues, including two fights with cancer.
Music was provided by violinist Laura Jauregui, a former Katz staff member, and Bob McElroy, representing the Portland Gay Men's Chorus, accompanied by Darcy White.
During her tenure as Portland's longest-serving woman mayor, Katz convinced the council to make unprecedented investments in the arts. The museum was only the first of numerous art institutions to receive substantial city funding during her administration.
"Vera understood the value of a world-class art museum to the soul of her city," says Brian Ferriso, Executive Director of the Portland Art Museum. "It is our privilege to open our doors to pay tribute to this urban visionary who dedicated her life to making her community a prosperous, welcoming and beautiful place."
Katz passed away at the age of 84 on Dec. 11, 2017, due to complications from leukemia and kidney failure.
In a political career that spanned three decades, the Portland Democrat was first elected to the Oregon House of Representatives in 1972. She was re-elected nine times through 1990. Katz was chosen Speaker of the Oregon House in 1985, becoming the first woman to serve in the position, which she held for a precedent-setting three sessions.
As a legislator, Katz is known for sponsoring the landmark school reform Oregon Educational Act for the 21st Century, helping pass legislation prohibiting discrimination based on gender in places of public accommodation and supporting gun control measures.
Katz was elected mayor of Portland in 1992, defeating former state representative and then-City Council member Earl Blumenauer, among others. She was re-elected mayor in 1996 and 2000, leaving the office after her third term in January 2005.
As mayor, Katz championed projects including the East Bank Esplanade, which was renamed in her honor. She excelled at marshalling the personalities on the Portland City Council in a way that few mayors have. That leadership led to entire new neighborhoods in South Waterfront, the Pearl District and Cascade Station. Katz pushed light rail to the airport and envisioned capping Interstate 405 to enliven the urban core.
After leaving office, Katz worked as a political consultant and dealt with a rare form of uterine cancer called adenosarcoma.
Katz was born on Aug. 3, 1933 as Vera Pistrak in Dusseldorf, Germany. Her parents had moved there after fleeing Moscow following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
As Jewish Mensheviks, the family then moved to France when Vera was two months old as the Nazi Party rose to power. After Hitler invaded France, the family of four fled over the Pyrenees Mountains to Spain on foot. The family was then able to immigrate to the United States and settle in New York City, where Katz's parents divorced when she was 12 years old.
Katz earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Brooklyn College in 1955 and a Master of Arts degree in 1957. She worked as a camp counselor in upstate New York where she met her future husband, Mel. They moved to Portland in 1962, where Mel emerged as a prominent artist and Vera became politically active. She made news by picketing the City Club of Portland over its male-only membership requirement in the early 1970s, prompting it to end the practice.
The couple's son, Jesse, graduated from Lincoln High School in 1981 and became a journalist in Los Angeles. His memoir, "The Opposite Field," was published in 2009. Vera and Mel divorced in 1985.
In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations in Vera Katz's honor be directed to Lan Su Chinese Garden, or your favorite local arts organization or public school foundation.
To read a previous Portland Tribune story on Vera Katz, go to tinyurl.com/y7gncuql.
Nick Budnick contributed to this story.
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