There were few dry eyes in Smith Memorial Union on the Portland State University campus Sunday, as friends and family gathered for a celebration of the life of the late city Commissioner Nick Fish, who died in office Jan. 2 at age 62.
"Nick Fish was the gold standard for public service," U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) tells WW. "Even when he was very ill, he never stopped caring and he never stopped listening."
Fish was the son of the former U.S. Rep. Hamilton Fish (R-N.Y.), who split with his party in 1974 to vote for the impeachment of then-President Richard Nixon, a Republican. (Fish's mother, Julia McKenzie Fish died in a car crash when he was 11.) He is survived by his wife, Portland State University Prof. Patricia Schechter, their daughter Maria and son Chapin and three siblings.
Fish, a graduate of Harvard, worked first as a congressional aide then, after graduating from the Northeastern University School of Law, practiced labor law in Manhattan before moving to Portland in 1995, when his wife, Schechter, took a job on the history faculty at PSU.
Fish lost his first race for council in 2002 to then state Rep. Randy Leonard (D-Portland). In 2004, Fish handily defeated Sam Adams in the May primary but failed to get a majority of votes. In the November general election, Adams upset Fish, a painful defeat Fish talked about wistfully long after he won his seat in 2008.
Despite his losses to Leonard and Adams, he later formed close relationships with both men.
"I think it's fair to say he took those defeats hard," Adams says. "But out of both of them came enduring friendships and Nick persevered—and we're all better off because he did."
On Sunday, the third floor ballroom at Smith Memorial Union was packed to overflowing with more than 600 people, many of them current and former elected officials, friends and neighborhood activists.
In the final days of his life, Fish and Schechter put together the program for Sunday's event. It began at City Hall, where Mayor Ted Wheeler addressed a group of about 100 of Fish's closest friends, who then marched to PSU, accompanied by a Fire Bureau honor guard.
Close friends and speakers entered the ballroom carrying long-stemmed white roses in Fish's honor.
Several of the guests shared their thoughts about Fish before Portland Fire & Rescue presented colors to open the event.
Wheeler says he'll remember Fish's humility and his devotion to the city. "He could have worked anywhere and done anything," Wheeler says. "He cared deeply about the less fortunate people in our community and above all he was humble—he never sought the spotlight and would in fact push it towards others."
Former Mayor Charlie Hales relied on Fish as a fix-it man, handing him the troubled Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services and yanking from him his beloved parks bureau. "He didn't relish the assignments," Hales says. "But I knew he could do it."
Fish regularly got such assignments. Wheeler assigned him the financially troubled Portland Parks and Recreation last year after he'd straightened out Water and BES. He took on turnaround jobs with a smile and self-deprecating humor.
Multnomah County County Chair Deborah Kafoury says that the enthusiasm Fish brought to his work set him apart from many elected officials.
"His love for the institutions, the people and the policy—he loved it all," Kafoury says. "And he loved to talk. You could say he was loquacious."
City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who worked with Fish as a longtime community police reform and social advocate before become his colleague in 2018, says what set him apart from others was his level of engagement. "He was always open to meeting and to new information," Hardesty says. "He genuinely cared, and that's missing too often today from the political process."
On an often-fractious council, Fish was Switzerland, the neutral broker who kept lines of communication open between his colleagues.
"I'm really going to miss him," says City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly. "It's not the same without him."
"He was the best kind of boss," says Fish's final chief of staff, Sonia Schmanski. "He was a teacher. He taught all of us what it really mean to work with other people toward common goals."
Speakers including PSU President Stephen Percy, Former Gov. Barbara Roberts, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, House Speaker Tina Kotek, Former City Commissioner Mike Lindberg, Wajdi Bek of the Muslim Educational Trust, Pastor George Hocker, Kay Toran of Volunteers of America, Peyton Chapman, the principal of Lincoln High School and other community leaders and Fish family members shared their memories of the late commissioner.
"Nick was a gift to Portland," Roberts said. Rosenblum remembered that the first thing she learned about Fish was that he'd moved across the country to support his wife's career. "I liked him right away," she said, recalling Fish's "good cheer and delightful gossip."
Lindberg, who served 18 years on the City Council, retiring in 1996, recalled speaking to Fish about the city's history.
"He frequently called to ask what happened 30 or 40 years ago," Lindberg said. "He wanted to understand the foundation on which the present was built. He saw what others couldn't and saw his that his job bringing others together."
Darrell Grant, a noted jazz musician and PSU faculty member performed a musical interlude with the singer Marcia Hocker, who sang "I'll Be Seeing You."
House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland), who along with her wife Aimee Wilson were longtime friends of Fish's, touched on a characteristic of Fish's that many others cited.
"We loved his optimism," Kotek said, who like other speakers wiped away tears as she spoke. "He always felt problems could be solved, that things can and should be better."
Marc Jolin, the director the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services, told the audience about Fish's commitment to people living on the streets, which Jolin first witnessed when Fish approached him about a homeless man who froze to death in Lone Fir Cemetery in Southeast Portland in 2008. Jolin said that from that moment on, Fish fought tirelessly to preserve and strengthen the social safety net.
"He didn't do any of these things because he saw political advantage," Jolin said. "He did them for the man who died in Lone Fir and thousands who will be homeless tonight."
The program ended with a heart-wrenching montage of photos and brief video clips compiled by Fish's children, Maria and Chapin.
"The people who spoke today were dead-on about who Nick Fish was," says former Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith, longtime Fish ally. "He would love it."