Hundreds of Oregonians gathered at the Portland Art Museum Sunday afternoon to remember late Portland Mayor Vera Katz.
The memorial celebrated Katz’s political accomplishments, her tenacity, and her extraordinary personal story.
Katz was an immigrant.
Born in Dusseldorf, Germany to a Russian Jewish family, she fled the Nazi occupation of Europe when she was 7 years old, crossing the Pyrenees mountains on foot.
Her story is a reminder of “the value of an immigration policy that recognizes the humanity and the promise of the tired and the poor, yearning to be free,”said Kerry Tymchuck, President of the Oregon Historical Society.
New York and later Portland became her adopted homes. Katz perfected her English listening to Brooklyn Dodgers baseball games on the radio, and idolized Jackie Robinson.
Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign inspired her to get involved in politics.
Katz’s son Jesse shared stories from his mother’s early years as an activist. She once banged pots and pans outside the Benson Hotel to protest the Portland City Club’s policy excluding women.
“Some of you who may remember her first campaign in 1972 will recall that she did not receive the endorsement of the Oregonian, which had branded her a “militant housewife,” Katz said.
“We need more of them,” he added.
In 1985, Katz rose to be the first female speaker of the Oregon House. Former state senator Margaret Carter recalled staying up all night, trying to convince her colleagues to cast their votes for Katz.
“I said, Vera, don’t let nobody go to the bathroom until this count is over,” Carter said.
In the end, Katz prevailed in the vote.
Carter’s conclusion: “Never, never, underestimate a woman.”
Katz is best remembered for her three deeply influential terms as Portland mayor, from 1992 to 2004.
Her influence shaped the city with projects like the Eastbank Esplanade, the development of the Pearl District and the South Waterfront, and the Lan Su Chinese Garden. She was also a passionate advocate for funding public works of art.
In the mayor’s office, she had a reputation as a tireless, detail-oriented worker.
“At night she would read every letter sent by every citizen, and every report sent by every bureau,” remembered former city commissioner Mike Lindberg.
She demanded the same relentless schedule from her staff, and would tease people who left the office at 5:00 p.m.
“She understood as few leaders did that authority and the title of mayor really didn’t get things done. The power was in engaging the community to support your vision,” Lindberg said.
In her final term in office, Katz survived breast cancer. In 2004, she developed cancer of the reproductive system. She lived with complications from the cancer and its treatment for many years.
At the memorial, Katz’s friends and family revealed poignant details about the final years of her life.
In May 2016, Katz broke her hip. Then, last December, Katz was diagnosed with acute leukemia.
“Rather than mount an unwinnable fight, she chose to stop dialysis, to die on her own term with her loved ones around her, with dignity,” said Erin Hoover-Barnett, a former Oregonian reporter who profiled Katz during her earlier battles with cancer.
In her final year, Katz relied on a team of three women from Polynesia who served as her in-home caregivers around the clock.
Katz struggled with her loss of autonomy, but also bonded with the women, giving them piles of her old outfits to send back to their families. Katz was known as a flashy dresser.
“There are women in Polynesia now, strutting around with sequins and spangles and rhinestones,” said Jesse Katz.
Katz’s memorial drew Oregon’s political elite, including Gov. Kate Brown, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.
But the people her son chose to thank publicly during the celebration were his mother’s three caregivers.
He shared that on the day Katz died, the three women dressed her in a tiny yellow shirt that had a tribal design and the word Tonga printed on it.
“They laughed about how it had fallen to three sturdy Mormon women from thousands of miles across the South Pacific to figure out how to make life easier for the former mayor, who herself had crossed an ocean in search of a brighter future,” her son said.