Who’s Who of Oregon Politics Gathers to Celebrate the Life of Former Mayor Vera Katz

The late three-term mayor presided over the creation of much of modern Portland.

A standing-room-only crowd of about 700 people celebrated the life of former Mayor Vera Katz at the Portland Art Museum on Sunday.

Katz, the first woman to serve as Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives and Portland's mayor from 1993 to 2005, died of leukemia Dec. 11. She was 84.

Among the numerous current elected officials who came to pay their respects on Sunday were Gov. Kate Brown, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, City Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish, County Commissioner Loretta Smith and state Sens. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappose) and Lew Frederick (D-Portland).

Numerous former officials, including ex-Gov. John Kitzhaber, Secretaries of State Phil Keisling and Bill Bradbury, Portland Mayors Bud Clark and Sam Adams, City Commissioner Jim Francesconi, County Chair Diane Linn, also attended. So did prominent real-estate developers: John Russell, who chaired the Portland Development Commission under Katz and Doug Obletz, who was heavily involved developing the westside MAX on Katz's watch.

Kerry Tymchuk, the executive director of the Oregon Historical Society, emceed the event.

A video montage of how Portland's cityscape changed as a result of Katz's leadership played on a giant screen. Among the project's Katz spearheaded: the Eastbank Esplanade, the Pearl District, South Waterfront, the Lan Cu Chinese Garden, the Portland Streetcar, OHSU's massive expansion and a revamped Providence Park.

Speaking after the ceremony, Francesconi, who served with Katz for two terms, remarked on the extraordinary changes Katz oversaw.

"As a council, we didn't always get along," Francesconi says. "But looking back, we got a lot done under her leadership—and I think it was because she had a vision of where she wanted the city to go."

The ceremony itself was simple: Tymchuk introduced four speakers, each who addressed a discrete part of Katz's life.

Former state Sen. Margaret Carter (D-Portland) spoke as a longtime legislative colleague. Carter described the intense competition that resulted in Katz first being elected speaker in 1984. The final result came at 3 am, after a gang of male politicians had done everything they could to elect one of their own.

Carter said Katz took the opposition in stride and accepted the honor with an agenda already prepared for the upcoming session.

"She was gracious to the boys," said Carter, who added that, as a leader, Katz was extraordinarily well prepared and a great listener.

'She was the best mentor a person could have," Carter said.

Lindberg, a former city commissioner who served with Katz from 1993 to 1997, attributed her success as mayor to a fierce worth ethic, mastery of essential details and an ability to generate widespread support for her ideas.

"She had charm and charisma, but she understood that the title of mayor didn't get things done," Lindberg said. "It was the ability to mobilize the community."

Erin Hoover Barnett, now at Oregon Health & Science University, covered the early stages of Katz's 18-year battle with various forms of cancer as a reporter at The Oregonian.

In Hoover Barnett's telling, Katz treated her life-threatening condition as an inconvenient distraction from work, smiling through waves of debilitating treatment, chronic discomfort and increasingly grim prognoses. She outwardly soldiered on, rarely letting people see how serious were the challenges she faced.

"She was an intensively private person," Hoover Barnett said.

Jesse Katz, the former mayor's only child, recalled that when Katz first ran for the Legislature in 1972, The Oregonian branded her a "militant housewife," and endorsed her opponent.

"We need more militant housewives," said Katz, a Pulitizer-Prize-winning former reporter at the Los Angeles Times.

He told of his mother's longtime love for baseball. Listening to Brooklyn Dodgers games on the radio helped her learn English after her family fled Europe ahead of the Nazis and landed in New York.

In the last year of her life, Katz said, his mother, limited by the ravages of cancer, years of dialysis and a broken hip, became house-bound. She took great solace  from a YouTube video of Neil Diamond singing "Sweet Caroline" to Boston Red Sox fans in the week after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.

The image of a grieving city and its rabid fans engaging with Diamond in a live performance of the longtime Red Sox theme music cheered her.

Katz says that's how he'll remember her: "My mom smiling, her heart filled by a song."

For Portlanders, the neighborhoods and structures that Katz did so much to build will provide plenty of other reminders.

When Katz was in eighth grade, the printed program distributed at her service said, a teacher asked her class to write did what they wanted on their tombstones.

Katz's choice: "She made a difference."

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