Vera Katz, Portland's larger-than-life mayor, dies

Vera Katz was 84

Cole Miller, Lisa Balick and KOIN 6 News Staff - PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Vera Katz, the larger-than-life woman who was Portland's mayor for 12 years and became one of Oregon's most powerful politicians, died Monday. She was 84.

"It's been a tough few days for us, but it's been wonderful to be reminded how many people cared for her," her son, Jesse Katz, told KOIN 6 News.

His mother, who fled Russia and Nazi Germany before coming to the USA from France at the age of 7, had health challenges the last few years. She was undergoing dialysis 3 times a week and twice beat cancer.

"I'm struck by how much my mom was an immigrant," Jesse said. "She was quintessentially American, in the sense that she never took anything in this country for granted. She was so grateful for the opportunities and stability this place gave her and she felt responsible for it. She felt an obligation to make the world a better place."

Vera Katz came to Portland from Brooklyn in 1964 when her husband got a job at the Portland Art Museum. She thought it was a temporary move until she realized Portland was a great place to raise her son.

Jesse said she wasa homemaker and a modern dance instructor at Caitlynn Gabel.

But she had a very different life as a politician. "She was a public servant in the truest sense," he said.


"Before she ever ran for office in the late '60s and early '70s, she was out picketing the City Club meeting at the Benson Hotel because they did not allow women," Jesse told KOIN 6 News. "She was doing sit-ins at the lunch counter at 5-and-dime department stores downtown because, on weekdays, they wouldn't serve women. It was a businessman's lunch.

"It's funny now because we see her as the accomplished woman in the mayor's office. It seems natural and inevitable. But if you look back at her origins, you realize she had to knock very hard on those doors."

She was elected to the legislature in the 1970s and became the first woman speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives from 1985-1990.

She then served 3 terms as Portland mayor, leading the city from 1993-2005 — a time that included the disastrous floods of 1996. After the floods, she made it a primary goal to bring attention to the mostly ignored east side of the river.

A public memorial service is being planned for January.

The family requests that donations in her honor be directed to Lan Su Chinese Garden, or your favorite local arts organization or public school foundation.

Reaction to her death
"Vera Katz was larger than life. She made an indelible impact on Oregon and Portland over four decades, from the early 1970s to after the turn of the new millennium. All of us in public service can aspire to her boldness, her candor, and her humanity." -- Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler"Along with all Oregonians, I mourn the passing of Vera Katz. Vera was a true leader, and a pioneer for women in politics. Portland and Oregon are better because of Vera's leadership and legacy. She will be missed." -- Rep. Suzanne Bonamici
 Her own summation

"I've lived an interesting life but I can tell you truly, serving as Portland's mayor, as your mayor, has been one of the greatest experiences of my lifetime. I cannot begin to thank you fo this extraordinary honor. If you do remember me in times hence, this is the sentiment I would like to be remembered by. This was a quote give to me when I was in ICU for my cancer treatments, from George Bernard Shaw, and I quote:

'My life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatsoever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.'

"I hope I have lived up to such grand words. I thank you all. God bless you and good afternoon."

-- Vera Katz, 2004

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