Remembering Arlene Schnitzer: Portland philanthropist dies at 91
Good friends of the Schnitzers — and they had many — joined them for dinner and lunch many times over the years.
Harold and Arlene Schnitzer had lots to be thankful for, having become perhaps Portland's grandest power couple, as they built their real estate company into an Oregon titan and an art collection that would be the envy of enthusiasts from New York to Los Angeles, not to mention becoming some of the most generous philanthropists and civic-minded folks around.
But, when the Schnitzers sat down to dinner or lunch with Dick and Jeanie Reiten, they would say the same prayer for grace every time, no exceptions.
"It was how fortunate they were to live in America and Oregon and specifically Portland," Dick Reiten remembered. "And, thankful for the opportunities. Given their successes, they were always thankful. It's the thing I will always remember about them."
Portland raised, Portland built and Portland proud. That was Harold and Arlene Schnitzer.
"Home is where the heart is," Arlene once said. "I love it. A wonderful city to live in."
The city has lost another one of its icons, and remembrances flowed when Arlene Schnitzer died Saturday, April 4, at age 91. Her beloved Harold preceded her in death by nine years, but when Arlene died after suffering sudden diverticulitis, she left Earth on her terms. Arlene wanted to die in April because Harold had died in April.
"She was with him in spirit," recounted an emotional Jordan Schnitzer, their only child and scion of the Schnitzers' business and art collection. Jordan struggled to hold back tears at the thought of living without his beloved mother.
"People close to you are always with you," he said. "But, as with my father who died just short of 88, mother was 91. I can't intellectually argue that I didn't have a lifetime with them, because I did. ... You're always a child."
Few people have not been touched by Arlene Schnitzer, and many positive adjectives apply to her — friendly, driven, passionate, funny, energetic.
Harold and Arlene were both children of immigrants, and their families were close. The Schnitzers, from Ukraine, forged their way in the steel business. Arlene's father, Simon Director, came from Russia, her mother, Helen, from Poland. The Directors lived in Portland, and then Salem, where Arlene was born. Simon Director operated five-and-dime stores in Portland, where Arlene later would work, and then a big furniture store. Director Park was named after her parents.
Harold and Arlene, who both attended Lincoln High School, met in 1949 and, as the story goes, Arlene said, "You're going to marry me, so you better get used to the idea," Jordan Schnitzer said. "They laughed. He loved a woman with gumption. He asked Simon for her hand in marriage, and the future father-in-law said, "You're a nice young man, are you sure you want to marry my daughter? She has a temper, she's spoiled and she doesn't cook, do you know what you're getting into?"
Soon afterward, the couple started Harsch and went about amassing their real estate empire.
Harsch Investment Properties became a company that made hundreds of millions of dollars and held millions of square footage of real estate in Portland and elsewhere. Jordan became president in 1990. The Schnitzers gave up to $100 million to charities. The Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Care Foundation supported various health charities. Their art collection grew by the year, and Arlene founded the city's first real art gallery, Fountain Gallery, where she backed Pacific Northwest artists for 25 years. Artists galore credit her for helping support their careers.
Perhaps Portland's most notable venue is the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Southwest Broadway.
And, while earthly possessions and philanthropy grew their reputation, it was Arlene the person who made the biggest impact.
Artists adored her; she adored artists. She was tabbed "The First Lady of Arts in Portland."
"She was a phenomenal person. She had a great deal of interest in the arts and was extremely empathetic to other people," said artist Lucinda Parker, who credits Arlene for helping her start her career at Fountain Gallery. "She had a good eye (for art) — she was enraptured by (Mike) Russo and (Louis) Bunce. She knew every wall in the city and Pacific Northwest, and she convinced people to put up art. She made a career for at least 400 artists who never would have had a chance."
When fire destroyed the original Fountain Gallery in 1977, and the art inside (including some of Parker's), Arlene made a point to purchase work from every artist who suffered losses in the accident, Parker said.
Fellow artist Gregory Grenon knew the Schnitzers for decades, and he remembers his first encounter with Arlene.
"It was sort of a panic attack going into such a nice gallery," he said. "I took them like 18 paintings. They bought them all, full price."
When Grenon accidentally cut himself with a tool at his studio, and Arlene called him about the same time. He told her of the accident and "later (friends) said she ran every red light to get to Southeast where I was living and took me to the hospital," he said. "I could have died. She saved my life." He looks at the scar now, and thinks of Arlene.
Regarding Arlene's personality, he added: "She was like a really good mom."
One month Fountain sold 27 pieces of Grenon's work, and Arlene told him, "it's the first time the gallery was in the black because of you."
Arlene turned her attention elsewhere after the Fountain Gallery. "Without her, Russo Lee Gallery would not exist," the gallery wrote in an email. "Laura Russo started her gallery from the legacy of Arlene's Fountain Gallery. Martha Lee continued the gallery after Laura's passing. We are deeply indebted to her."
The Schnitzers helped expand the Portland Art Museum and contributed mightily to acquisitions, exhibitions and capital campaigns. Arlene and Bruce Guenther, former chief curator, were great friends. Arlene started as a student at the Museum Art School.
Portland Art Museum officials said in a statement: "Arlene's passion for ensuring that everyone had access to art inspired all of those around her. Earlier this year, Arlene gave a historic $10 million gift to the Museum's Connection Campaign, representing the largest contribution from an individual donor in the 127-year history of the institution."
Added Brian Ferriso, museum director: "Arlene believed deeply in the transformational power of art, artists and art institutions. She often said that the arts defined our lives and that she could not imagine Portland or Oregon without them."
Arlene transferred her art collection to the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation in 2018, where it was merged with Jordan's 16,000-item collection.
Arlene loved her son, and they had a special bond. She adored her grandchildren. She also loved her 22 nieces and nephews. Harold was one of seven Schnitzers, Arlene one of three Directors.
"We were very close. From the time I was young, she was a person I could go to other than a grandmother who would say, 'You are wonderful,'" said niece Mardi Schnitzer Spitzer, daughter of Leonard Schnitzer. "She loved me unconditionally. She would also give me advice, comment on whether I was on the right track or whether astray. She was a no-hold-back supporter with no judgment — quite a combination."
Arlene never put on airs, her niece added.
"She would much rather have had attention deflected onto somebody else, or an organization rather than her."
Arlene had friends of all stripes — high-society and common, rich and poor, artists and business people.
She liked to golf and really enjoyed her time after 18 holes with the women, known as the "C-Cups," at the Portland Golf Club. There were eight of them, including Jeanie Reiten, and they would golf, drink and smoke and travel to Palm Springs, California, San Francisco and Gearhart together, for the better part of two decades.
"We'd play golf and pitch cards," Jeanie Reiten said. "She'd take us to the beach house at Gearhart, and she'd leave presents on the beds for us. It was a time she could let her hair down.
"She was always wonderful to be around," though it could be kind of tense at times, as Reiten added: "She would have this phone in her car, and she could smoke a cigarette, talk on the phone and turn around and talk to us. ... We were a wreck riding with her. She was a multitasker, that's for sure."
Nonprofits and companies all over Portland benefited from the Schnitzers.
The couple established the Harold Schnitzer Diabetes Health Center at Oregon Health & Science University. They funded Jewish studies programs at Portland State University and much more. Arlene personally supported construction of the glass tower for Portland State University's Lincoln Performance Hall.
After his death, Arlene spoke of Harold as if her husband were still with her.
"He was so wise," she said. "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. He was good and decent and honorable and funny."
A day doesn't go by that Jordan Schnitzer doesn't reflect on his parents.
"They were married just short of 63 years. Remarkable relationship," he said. His parents weren't always extraordinarily rich; it took time. Theirs was the last family in the neighborhood to get a color TV, Jordan said, and his dad drove an old Buick. They forged their generous nature by volunteering, even when they couldn't donate money.
Other memories flood his mind.
Arlene, a cook? Yeah, she made cookies.
"Father worked with the housekeeper on planning meals, and she ran the house," Jordan said. "When the housekeeper was off, he did the cooking. Whenever mother would cook, the kitchen would be a disaster. But, she loved making chocolate chip cookies. She'd make like 500 cookies at a time, and cookie trays would be all over the place. She loved eating Nestle Tollhouse Cookie dough."
Jordan said his mother wouldn't leave home without dressing well, doing her hair and makeup and donning jewelry. "It was how she carried herself," he said, before lamenting how his mother slowed down.
Arlene was a feminist before the label. "She was a working mother, very empowered, very strong," Jordan said. "She saw prejudice against women, and also being Jewish ... she broke down a lot of barriers."
The Schnitzers would come to own homes in Portland, Indian Wells, California, and Gearhart and an apartment in San Francisco. But, Jordan added, Arlene grew up in Portland and "always said it was her village."
There'll be a public memorial at some point at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and a reception at the Portland Art Museum. Jordan said 100% of her estate, aside from gifts to relatives, will go to the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Care Foundation.
For now, Arlene left her son with one piece of advice.
"Jordan," she said early Saturday morning, April 4. "Please make sure you're kind, and I want you to have a happy life."
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