Hundreds honor Gerry Frank, “Oregon’s Premier Citizen”

Skip Frank speaks at the memorial service for his uncle Gerry Frank, held Thursday, May 19 at the Salem Convention Center (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

When Gerry Frank moved to Salem in 1955 to open the newest branch of his family’s Portland-based Meier & Frank Department store, the city only had about 40,000 residents.

But Frank employed his signature networking and charm and drew a crowd of about 75,000 for the store’s grand opening, former Salem Mayor Janet Taylor recalled.

“That’s what a great marketer he was. He could reach out and make people excited about anything,” Taylor said.

The story was one of dozens Frank’s friends and colleagues shared at a public memorial service held Thursday morning at the Salem Convention Center, which drew dignitaries from across the state and farther afield.

Hundreds of people gathered in the upstairs ballroom to hear about Frank’s love of Oregon, Salem and chocolate cake. The Oregon State Police Honor Guard presented the colors, and singers opened the service with a rendition of “Oregon, My Oregon” – all part of Frank’s last requests.

Frank died March 13 at 98, leaving a legacy that spanned decades of Oregon history and politics and crossed every corner of the state.

He was born in Portland in 1923 and moved back to Oregon in 1948 after serving in World War II and earning a degree at Cambridge University in England. 

From then until his death, Oregon had 14 governors, 38 U.S. senators and representatives and thousands of local legislators, civic and business leaders, said Kerry Tymchuk, executive director of the Oregon Historical Society.

“No one, no one came close to knowing more of them, advising more of them and mentoring more of them than did Gerry,” Tymchuk said at the service.

A display honoring Gerry Frank at his memorial service Thursday, May 19 at the Salem Convention Center (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Frank spent the bulk of his career in politics, working for U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield starting in 1966, shortly after the department store sold to the May Department Stores Co.

There, he kept the relentless focus on customer service that made him stand out in the retail business.

Tom Imeson, another longtime Hatfield staffer, recalled working with Frank on Hatfield’s 1972 re-election campaign.

“He had a campaign plan and he built an organization to carry it out, and failure was simply not an option. Part of that plan was that Hatfield volunteers would knock on doors to ask Oregonians about their concerns, and then they would receive a follow up letter from the senator explaining his positions on those issues,” Imeson said.

After Hatfield won re-election, Frank became his chief of staff, a position he would hold for over 20 years. Frank instituted a rule that constituent mail must be answered within 48 hours.

Skip Frank, his nephew, said Gerry Frank saw a “meteoric rise in status” once he came to Salem, quickly becoming a pillar of the community.

But Frank also maintained close personal and family relationships. Skip Frank recounted how when his father died in 1962, Gerry Frank took on the role of a father figure for him and his siblings.

“Gerry told each of us that he would not be in a position to ever replace our father but he was going to be the best replacement father he could be,” Skip Frank said.

A photo of Gerry Frank on his 75th birthday, on display during his memorial service Thursday, May 19 at the Salem Convention Center (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Nearly every speaker at the memorial met Frank in a professional context, but described a decades-long friendship that endured well beyond their time working together.

Terry Lundgren, the retired CEO and chairman of Macy’s, flew across the county to speak.

He recalled his first conversation with Frank on Feb. 28, 2005, after news broke that the company, then called Federated Department Stores, was acquiring the company that owned Meier & Frank and numerous other local department stores.

Lundgren was considering changing the name of local stores to turn them all into Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s.

Frank spoke of his love for Macy’s – the flagship New York store, featured in his guidebook to the Big Apple, as well as the Thanksgiving Day Parade.

“I think it’s a great idea to change all of them, Lundgren recalled Frank saying. “Except Meier & Frank.”

When Lundgren eventually went forward with the name changes for all stores – including Meier & Frank, Frank called again to say he didn’t agree with the decision, but he would support it. From then on, Frank called regularly to inquire about the particulars of the store business, noticing when cashmere socks appeared to be running low.

The two men maintained a friendship after Lundgren’s retirement, spending time together when Frank traveled to New York.

Frank’s decades judging the chocolate cake contest at the Oregon State Fair were honored with a special blue wreath, and chocolate cake served to guests after the service.

Chocolate cake served to honor Gerry Frank at his memorial service Thursday, May 19 at the Salem Convention Center (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Former Gov. Ted Kulungoski, another longtime friend, recalled how Frank was always a sounding board during his time in the governor’s mansion. Frank also pushed him to be involved in the life of Salem, dragging Kulongoski with him to ring bells for the Salvation Army during the first Christmas of his term.

Thanks to Frank’s connections around the state, Kulongoski said he was often able to spot and solve small problems before they became larger. That included allocating some state money for a project to replace the West Grandstand at the Pendleton Roundup – an issue that got on the governor’s radar because supporters called Frank for help to make it happen.

That sort of behind-the-scenes work to support community projects was a hallmark of Frank’s life, with nearly every speaker sharing a similar story of s civic effort that only got off the ground because of connections Frank made.

“His goal in life was to make life better for all Oregonians,” Kulongoski said.

View the full memorial service here.

Guests stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at the memorial service for Gerry Frank, held Thursday, May 19 at the Salem Convention Center (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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