A celebration of life is often code for “not a funeral,” but the one held Thursday for Columbia Sportswear’s former chairman Gert Boyle appeared to live up to its billing.
Several thousand people — friends, former colleagues, business associates and admirers — turned out for the two-hour tribute at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland, Ore. The location (a 12,000-seat facility) was selected due to the outpouring following Boyle’s death last month, her son Tim told WWD in an interview at that time.
In addition to video tributes from “Margaritaville” musician Jimmy Buffett and National Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton, there were performances by the Portland Youth Philharmonic, members of the Oregon Symphony and Pink Martini’s Storm Large and Thomas Lauderdale. Upon arrival, guests found Boyle’s red convertible BMW with its top down, as well as encased assortments of her signature oversize earrings, eyeglasses and even her wedding dress along with a slew of photos chronicling her 95-year life, according to former Columbia executive John Fread.
Kerry Tymchuk, who helped Boyle write her biography, “One Tough Mother: Taking Charge in Life, Business and Apple Pies,” recalled how Boyle decked out her sports car with oversize eyelashes on its headlights, much to the embarrassment of her driver in recent years.
Other points of attraction for the largely hometown crowd included Sen. Betsy Helms and Nike cofounder Phil Knight. Boyle’s $100 million donation, which was done anonymously until local media mined the truth about her generosity and outed her, helped Knight and his wife Penny exceed their $1 billion fundraising goal for the Oregon Health & Science University Knight Cancer Institute. More than 700 scientists and medical researchers have since been recruited to the facility, which specializes in early detection of lethal cancers. The OHSU-based facility’s director addressed Thursday’s crowd explaining how he was mentored by Boyle’s sister Hildegard Lamfrom, a world-renowned molecular biologist, according to video footage of the event.
After the death of her husband in 1970, the German-born Boyle took the reins of the family-owned business with zero professional experience. Despite lean years and near-bankruptcy decades ago, the matriarch helped to build the company into a $3 billion operation that employs 1,820 people in Oregon. Some of that success stemmed from Boyle’s hardcharging “One Tough Mother” persona that she exalted under extreme conditions in the brand’s advertising.
Boyle’s son Tim, who serves as chief executive officer of Columbia, said, “Gert’s life is an American immigrant’s story. She escaped the Holocaust, sailed to New York City, entered the U.S through Ellis Island, then sailed through the Panama Canal to San Francisco and took the train to Portland. She married, had three children and then endured the sudden death of her young husband. She built a business, foiled a kidnapping attempt, made a fortune and then gave it all away.
“After telling a story like that, it was once said, ‘only in America.’” Boyle continued. “America needs to be that place again,” to much applause.
Noting how his family has received “thousands” of letters and e-mails, Boyle told the audience, “Many started with, ‘I never knew Gert, but her story inspired me or encouraged me. She told me I could do it.’”
She believed it, too, once refusing medical treatment after a tumble down an escalator flight and turning up at work as usual the following day, he said.
But Boyle’s favorite was from a Portland resident, who while walking her dog, spotted his mother en route to a restaurant. He recounted, “She said, ‘Hey Gert, maybe you’d like to use my dog in your next commercial?’” Only to have Boyle shoot back, “‘I don’t need any competition,’” her son said.
Tymchuk kept things light, too, sharing such stories as how early on at Columbia Boyle returned from a meeting about a bank loan only to realize she had four or five pairs of underwear attached to her outfit by static electricity. True to her eclectic life, the actress Susan Saint James and Moonstruck Chocolate ceo Russell Sneddon offered video tributes. The Pink Martini duo led the crowd in their rendition of “The Lady Is a Tramp,” tweaking the lyrics with biographical information about Boyle and changing the refrain to “The Lady Is a Champ.” He also cited her willingness to appear in an ad with a tag line about staying as warm and dry as a pot roast.
Before the final musical performances, local newscaster Steve Duin, the event’s emcee, told attendees, “Let’s try to be a little kinder, more compassionate, humble. Think about this woman who has done so much for this community.”
They also were encouraged to stop for a slice of apple pie on the way out. Each left with a copy of her apple pie recipe and one of Boyle’s favorite one-liners, “It’s perfect. Now make it better.”