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“The thread that ties a community together”

Reflections from Jordan Schnitzer ’69

On the 50th anniversary of his graduation from Catlin Gabel, the civic leader and philanthropist shares thoughts on early influences, his commitment to art education, and why he believes we should “leave the place that we lived in better than we found it.”

Interview by Ken DuBois, Caller editor

A lifelong resident of Portland, Jordan D. Schnitzer attended Ainsworth and Catlin-Hillside schools, and graduated from Catlin Gabel in the class of 1969. He is President of Harsch Investment Properties, a family business founded by his father, Harold Schnitzer, that now owns and operates over 150 properties in six Western states. Jordan’s mother, Arlene Schnitzer, started and ran for 25 years The Fountain Gallery, the first art gallery in the city entirely devoted to supporting Northwest artists.

The Schnitzer family’s philanthropy has had a transformative effect on the city. Over the past three decades, their charitable giving has served as a model of civic engagement, with countless Portlanders benefiting from their support of arts and culture, education, medical research and treatment, social services, senior care, and opportunities for youth. Through the Harold and Arlene Schnitzer CARE Foundation and the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation the family has given close to $150 million.

The Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation, established in 1997, is an art education program that shares art masterpieces with museums and galleries at no cost. The foundation has been especially generous to Catlin Gabel, mounting 15 exhibits in Cabell Center Gallery, and providing our students rare opportunities to see and discuss the work of major artists.

In a recent interview with The Caller, Jordan reflected on his influences and inspirations. Following are excerpts from that conversation.

Catlin-Hillside and the Honey Hollow campus

The Hillside campus was a magical place. It was an older building, built in the 20s. The building was full of antiques, it had steam heat, so when we got there in the mornings you could hear the hissing of the steam. And there was a cook who made amazing chocolate chip cookies and cinnamon rolls. It was a wonderful place. It had a Pietro Belluschi-designed gym, and it also had a tennis court that wasn’t in too good of shape. And when it got cold, [Head of School] Manvel Schauffler would stay after school, dedicated as he was, and pour water on the tennis courts that would freeze. We’d put on our skates the next day and come in and skate, or try to skate. We also had an art teacher named Byron Gardner, and he was a falconer. He brought a falcon to the art class, and that falcon sat on a little perch as we made our art. It was a magical time.

The eighth grade class was invited by the freshmen at Catlin to come out to a party to see what the Honey Hollow campus was like, the campus the school bought in 1957. It had been there for a few years, but they were inviting us to see what it was like. Some kids from the neighborhood came, like Sally Tremaine [’68] and Anna Gadsby [’68]. We had a wonderful party out there, mostly with kids from our class at Catlin: Dick Singer, David Margulis, Steve Bachelder, myself, Eric Bergman.

Class of 1969 members Dick Singer, Doug Roberts, Charlie Rosenfeld, Liz Thomas, Jordan Schnitzer, and David Storrs

 

Catlin Gabel teachers

The years at Catlin were wonderful. When I was there it was a wonderful collection of teachers. They were all fascinating personalities, and all people that we learned from or were influenced by and generally respected—and some of them could teach! What I noticed when my kids went to Catlin decades later is that they still had people who had integrity, strong character, but they all could teach. So I think the school has gotten immeasurably better academically. We were so blessed at Catlin with that 1-to-9 student-teacher ratio.

Overall the teachers were incredible. Mrs. Jenkins, our English teacher, is still probably my all-time favorite teacher. The passion she had in our learning Chaucer, or coming in and stepping on my toes when I became too hyperactive. She cared about us so much. And Dave Schauffler, I was in a choir group with him. The art teachers, too. All the teachers were amazing.

I’d become very close to Warren and Hazel Aney. He was in charge of the grounds at Catlin, and Mrs. Aney ran the food program and organized the house keepers—they lived on the property. I got into tennis so much I wanted to play on the tennis courts after school hours, so they were nice enough to give me a key to the tennis court. I never quite realized it was the master key to the whole campus. I probably could have gotten into lots of mischief, but I didn’t. But they were wonderful to me and it was neat going over From the there and playing at night to practice tennis.

Lifelong friends and family values

The years I spent at Catlin were magical times. The high school was a fascinating experience, and I formed wonderful friendships that have been lifelong. I think our class, the class of ’69, stayed closer than most. We tend to see each other a fair amount, and a lot of us are closest friends. The quality of people in our class was phenomenal, and frankly, the class ahead of us was amazing too, and the class behind us, and the teachers. Glorious years.

And, like any experience when you’re younger, it shapes and forms your values. Of course, my values about business, philanthropy, being a good person, whatever, comes first from my parents—they were the biggest influence on me. Next, my aunts and uncles, and my grandparents, and then the neighbors. But Catlin was a huge, huge influence on my values.

Early influences at Catlin Gabel

There are a couple of experiences in particular that stand out. I got to be friends with the controller, Mr. [Ernst] Bass, and I’d stop in and see him every week. So, when I was a junior, I walked in to say hello, and I looked down and saw a check from John and Betty Gray made out to Catlin Gabel [John Gray was a prominent Oregon philanthropist and developer]. And I said, What’s that? And Mr. Bass said, “Well, we don’t really talk about it much, but John Gray is the Chairman of the Board at Catlin, and every year he and his wife write a check to cover the deficit.” That had a huge impact on me—that someone could be a business person and make money and then give back and make a difference.

For our senior year Catlin created a new thing called Winterim. And I picked Visiting Oregon Businesses. So I went to Tektronix and studied them. They were one of the most leading-edge companies in the country. I noticed then what they were doing philanthropically. And when [co-founder] Howard Vollum died, he left half of his estate directly to 32 organizations, including Catlin.

So, in addition to my parents, that Catlin influence of the Grays and the Vollums was a huge shaping force about giving back. And I was lucky because they were wonderful examples of people who cared about their community and worked hard and accomplished a lot, and the more they accomplished the more they gave back.

"How do we define community? What really creates community is where people live fulfilled lives... [And] the thread that ties a community together is reaching out and taking care of others."

Entering the family business 

Early on, when I was in grade school, I’d traipse around with my parents a lot, so I was exposed to a lot of business activities. I started working when I was 14. I was a janitor at King Tower Apartments [a Schnitzer family property]. The next year I was a painter. Then I came home and told my folks I didn’t want to be a janitor or a painter, I was going to be a shoe salesman. And my mother said, Harold, I think he’d better start working in the office. 

I started working in the office [Harsch Investment Properties] when I was 17. I got an awful lot of business experience, and decided early on I wanted to be part of our family business and help build it up. I knew what I wanted to do. I was very focused and loved business and loved the real estate business.

Becoming a civic volunteer

I started working full time in 1976, and right away I was asked to go on two boards. I accepted because I wanted to gain some civic experience. I was asked to go on the boards of the University of Oregon Museum of Art Council and the Japanese Garden. And with those two boards I began to really learn the business of being a civic volunteer.

So my giving back to the community was shaped and formed by those first boards I was on. Since then I’ve been on 32 boards, spent decades in the trenches raising money and running different organizations. And these weren’t the things where you go to some meetings and they give you a plaque and you’re finished. It was where you roll up your sleeves, and where you built things and created things and restructured things and so forth.

Supporting artists and sharing art

My mother opened the gallery, and that also was a huge influence on me—seeing how she was so devoted to helping her artists. From her gallery I bought my first small study by Louis Bunce for 75 bucks. I bought it the night of June 23, 1965, the first piece of the Schnitzer collection. That collection today now totals over 13,000 artworks and is growing all the time.

I was committed to buying art of our region. That was my mother’s claim to fame, supporting local artists. So I follow along. And when I was on the board of the Portland Art Museum, I saw an exhibition of contemporary prints from what I’ll call the New York school: Warhol, Stella, Rauschenberg. I thought, I want to stay committed to art of our region, but this might be fun. So I bought a small Frank Stella, a Hockney, and a Jim Dine. Soon I had about 300 works. David Robertson, the then-director of the University of Oregon Art Museum, asked if he could do an exhibition, and I said sure. And several months later I went down to the museum, and it was so exciting to see these works in the gallery space. I thought, this doesn’t get any better! And then suddenly it did, when everybody came in, especially when people came in with kids.

Jordan Schnitzer with students at Martin Luther King, Jr. School in Portland during an exhibition of his Andy Warhol prints.

 

Inspiration for the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation

A light went off. I thought, since I’ve developed a significant private contemporary collection of prints and multiples, I can build a teaching collection and make that available to universities and regional museums. So to date I’ve had 130 or 140 exhibitions at 80 or 90 museums. We do it all for free, we ship it for free, give them brochures for free, and we fund outreach money to bring in seniors with dementia, and kids who may not have access to museums. It is so exciting.

When I go to the Catlin exhibitions, the 15 we’ve had in the Cabell Center, I look at this work and get all emotional. It’s like being in the midst of geniuses. They’re gifted with talent and being around that is inspiring. It inspires me to be the best I can be, whether it’s in business, civic, or parenting.

Creating community and taking care of others

How do we define community? Well, a community is generally a place, it has a bunch of buildings, and it has people. But what really creates community is where people live fulfilled lives. Yes, they want to raise their families, have friends, build up retirement funds, travel, eat, go to entertainment things. But really the thread that ties a community together is reaching out and taking care of others.

The reason to give back is because an awful lot of people came before us. They founded Catlin Gabel, they founded hospitals, ballets, symphonies, art museums, schools, health clinics. And we’ve been the beneficiary of things that others did to help build this community. I think that’s an obligation on each of us, to do what we can to leave the place that we lived in better than we found it, just like others did before us. So I guess I’ve been pretty driven on that. There’s never enough you can do to help others in need.