Columbia Sportswear Company’s longtime chairwoman Gert Boyle, the inspiration behind the brand’s iconic “One Tough Mother” ad campaigns, died Sunday at the age of 95.
Boyle had led the Portland-based apparel company for nearly half a century, taking over after her husband died in 1970.
At the time, Columbia Sportswear was a small hat business-turned-outerwear manufacturer.
Gert Boyle was born Gert Lamfrom in Augsburg, Germany, in 1924. Her father owned one of the country’s largest shirt factories.
She told OPB in 2015 she remembered the Nazis coming to power.
“I was 13 years old. I couldn’t go to regular school anymore because I am Jewish. We couldn’t go shopping anymore because we were Jewish,” said Boyle. “There were a lot of restrictions. The kids that we went to school with, it was absolutely amazing. They’d report their own parents for what they said at home. It was terrible.”
She said ‘Jews live here’ was written on the outside of her home.
When a relative took a trip to San Francisco, Boyle said, the newspaper coverage was a lot more alarming than anything published in Germany, so the family decided to emigrate.
Boyle arrived in Portland in 1937 knowing only one English phrase: ‘One and Penny, Two a Penny, Hot Cross Buns.’
At 13 years old, she was placed in the first grade.
“If you go somewhere and you don’t understand what they’re saying. You go, 'Huh? I think I better learn that,'” said Boyle.
She said it was two weeks before she’d picked up enough English to be moved to the seventh grade.
Meanwhile her father, Paul Lamfrom, in 1938 bought a small hat shop in Portland, the Rosenfeld Hat Company.
It did okay until the 1960s. But then hats began to lose their popularity. So Boyle said, he changed the name to Columbia Sportswear and started making ski mittens.
The company also needed something to keep the factory running in the summer, so her husband invited a few friends over and asked Gert to design a fishing vest.
“And we took a piece of material and they said, 'OK, Gert. Put a pocket here for cigarettes.' That was the first thing. And then we had little hooks that were really curtain hooks and we put them on so you could tie your flies so that you had both hands empty,” said Boyle. “We made buttons out of magnets, all that kind of stuff.”
The vest was a big hit and placed the company on track to benefit from the outdoor fitness craze of the 1970s.
Things were going well, but then Gert’s husband, Neal Boyle, died. She was left with three children, a business she knew little about, and a large loan against her house and her mother’s house.
“My mother was in her mid 80s at the time so I’m going to say to my mother, you know what, give it up and they take your house. It’s no longer yours. I can’t do that,” said Boyle.
So she and her son, Tim Boyle, a new University of Oregon graduate, took control and worked to keep the business running. Neal Boyle had been such a hands-on manager that neither Gert and Tim, nor the employees knew what to do.
At one point, things got so bad Gert was going to sell to the son of a wealthy Portland apparel manufacturer.
“I had all sorts of debt and he said, I don’t want to take on that debt. I don’t want to take your whole zipper inventory. I don’t want to do this and I don’t want to do that. So it didn’t take me very long to figure out that for $1,400, I wasn’t going to let him have it,” said Boyle. “So I had learned some very lovely words over my years and I used every single one of them on him. And I told him, take that door and don’t let it hit you on the way out.”
So Gert and Tim stuck it out.
The former head of the Oregon Historical Society, Chet Orloff, remembers Gert as a strong and independent woman.
“And I don’t know whether that’s something that’s been her style all her life or whether that’s something that she had to become once her husband Neal passed away and she was responsible for the company and responsible I’d say even more for maintaining the household. Making a living so that her kids could grow up,”said Orloff.
But gradually, the company’s fortunes began to turn around and businesses like Lands End, Eddie Bauer and Orvis contracted with Columbia Sportswear for manufacturing.
Fifty years later, the company reports annual net sales of $3 billion and outerwear sold in 90 countries.
“Her sharp wit and wisdom helped propel the company from near bankruptcy in the early ‘70s to the global multi-brand company it is today,” the company said in a statement announcing her death.
Boyle is perhaps best known for the role she played in the company's massively successful "One Tough Mother" marketing campaign, which aired throughout the 1980s and '90s. The ads debuted the company's tough-talking chairwoman — clad in equally tough outerwear — demonstrating the durability of the products with her son Tim, the company's president and CEO.
Boyle’s legend as "One Tough Mother" only solidified after the ads went off-air. In 2010, Boyle thwarted a kidnapping attempt in her West Linn home at the age of 86.
When an armed man barged in, Boyle warned him she would need to disable the home alarm system. She then pushed the system’s panic button, bringing the police to her doorstep within minutes.
One officer made the mistake of arriving in a North Face jacket.
Asked by the police chief how she was faring, Boyle reportedly said she was "OK until that jacket walked in here."
In lieu of flowers, the company is asking people to make donations to OHSU’s Knight Cancer Institute to honor Boyle. A few years ago, Boyle made a $100 million donation to the institute — a gift that was intended to be anonymous but Willamette Week soon traced it back to the chairwoman.
Asked about the attempt at anonymity by the Portland Business Journal, Boyle said she wanted to give away her $400 million in Columbia stock under the radar.
“I’ve given away quite a bit and it’s always anonymous because I love the reputation that I’m cheap and I don’t do anything,” Boyle said.
The company has said it’s planning a “celebration of life” for Boyle, the details of which will be released in the upcoming week.
Boyle is survived by daughters Sally Bany and Kathy Deggendorfer, and son Tim.