Jillian Daley, Anthony Macuk, Cliff Newell and Barb Randall contributed to this story. Originally published in the Lake Oswego Review 12/17/15
Businessman and philanthropist Gene Wizer, whose impact on Lake Oswego extended from his beloved grocery stores to his deep involvement with the Chamber of Commerce, Lake Oswego Rotary Club, Lakewood Center for the Arts, Oswego Heritage Council and a host of other school, church and civic organizations, died at home Monday night from a type of cancer called multiple myeloma.
He was 77.
“I cannot imagine our town, let alone our church, without Gene Wizer,” said the Rev. John W. Kerns of Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Parish, where Wizer was a longtime member and counselor. “He is part of the landscape of the area.”
Kerns and others said Wizer’s health had been declining for some time, so his death was not unexpected.
“I don’t know if people know how generous he was to the community financially and in terms of simple work,” Kerns said. “After every Mass, he would put all the hymnals back in place in the pews, so they would be ready for the next service. He was a humble guy, and no job was too small for him.”
Wizer, a devout Catholic, attended Columbia Preparatory School before graduating from Central Catholic High School in Portland. He earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Portland in 1960, and in 2008, the university — where he served on the Board of Regents for more than 20 years — honored him with an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.
“To work with all your heart and all your might at a job that isn’t a job, but a pleasure every hour — isn’t that what the best work is? To share your gifts with others, to bring laughter and peace to others, to give them what they need most, food and an open heart and the cheer and respect of their friends and neighbors — this is the essence of community,” the university’s citation read, “and of Gene Wizer’s life as what his neighbors call The Mayor of First Street in the Oregon town he has called home all his life.
“Grocery owner, city developer, beloved benefactor to many Catholic schools and causes, he is what the university most wishes its alumni to be — accomplished but humble, gracious and generous, creative and compassionate, visionary and relentless in pursuit of a better world.”
Wizer was born into the grocery business on Aug. 2, 1938. His father, Jim, opened the family’s first supermarket on Milwaukie Avenue in southeast Portland in 1929 after seven years with Safeway. He moved his business in 1948 to Lake Oswego, where he worked for George Rogers at his store on State Street before buying the business in 1960 and moving it to what has come to be known as the Wizer Block — Lake Oswego’s first indoor shopping center at First Street and A Avenue.
After graduating from the University of Portland, Gene Wizer became manager of the grocery store. He met his future wife, Janet, there in 1966. A teacher at Lake Grove Elementary School, she was purchasing groceries at his checkout stand with one of Wizer’s friends.
“I got her name off the check,” Wizer told The Review years later. “So I called this friend up to find out who she was. I said, ‘Is she Catholic, and is she single?’”
The couple married two years later and raised three daughters, all of whom worked at the family store from time to time.
In 1991, Jim and Gene Wizer expanded their business to a second location in leased space on Bryant Road in Lake Grove. But within months of opening that store, Jim Wizer passed away. And in 2010, facing an expensive new lease and $675,000 in needed improvements, Gene Wizer closed the store to concentrate on the remaining downtown location.
There, his many friends recall, he continued to operate more than just a grocery store.
“He loved his town and its people and the way the store was a village green, a refuge, a safe place, a warm place, a cheerful place,” said Lake Oswego author Brian Doyle, a longtime Wizer friend. “I would guess he gave away a lot of food that no one will ever know about. I would also guess that he knew who was struggling to pay, and I bet he extended a lot of quiet credit.”
Attorney Peter Glazer, who met Wizer when Glazer moved his law practice to Kruse Way in 1985, confirmed Doyle’s suspicions.
“That was just an example of the kind of things he did for Lake Oswego,” Glazer said. “It’s hard to imagine anyone today walking into Safeway and asking for a tab of credit. The world has changed since then. Gene had a high sense of community that will be sorely missed.”
After more than six decades in the red brick shopping center, Wizer decided to close up shop in 2013 and sell the property to developers. He actually had considered selling several times before, but “squashed the deal” with QFC in 1995 over the chain’s refusal to let him continue to operate a deli and wine shop on the property.
He also couldn’t come to terms with Barry Cain’s Gramor Development or with Gerding Edlen, which opted to concentrate on the South Waterfront and Pearl District. A pact with Trammell Crow fell apart in the midst of the Great Recession, but an improved economy and what Wizer called “the right partner” — Patrick Kessi and his PHK Development — resulted in plans for the mixed-use development that is under construction today.
Wizer continued to play a role in the operation of Wizer’s Fine Wines even after it moved from the shopping center to its new home on A Avenue to make room for the new project.
“It was less than a month ago that he stopped in to see how we were doing, how the shop was looking,” said Jim Vincent, who worked with Wizer for 38 years.“He was anxious to get the Christmas lights up.”
Tom Reider remembers the day he began working for Wizer. “May 2, 1989,” he said. “He treated me well and was loyal to me. It’s been a nice family to work for. I’m proud that we are keeping the legacy of his name on the business as an icon in town.”
When it is completed, the Wizer Block will be home to 200 apartments and more than 36,000 square feet of commercial space. Wizer himself attended groundbreaking ceremonies for the project in October, wielding one of the gold-painted shovels reserved for dignitaries.
“I’m delighted that before he died, he was able to see and participate in the groundbreaking of the development on the Wizer Block, because I know that was important to him,” Lake Oswego Mayor Kent Studebaker said. “We had discussions, in my role as mayor and his role as a property owner, about that block that’s being put up. He was always very nice, soft-spoken, warm — he almost always had a smile on his face and was very appreciative of anything anybody would do for him.”
Kessi said he would miss working with Wizer on the project.
“Gene Wizer was an incredible man of faith and community,” Kessi said. “He generously gave opportunities to so many people, and I was certainly one of those.”
Word of Wizer’s death spread quickly through Lake Oswego, prompting fond memories of a man who touched many lives.
“I can remember when I was in high school, we used the lower parking lot of his Oswego facility for the YMCA fundraiser of installing seatbelts — that was in 1961,” Studebaker said. “Gene was very generous in allowing us to do that. He’s been very generous to the Lake Oswego community for a long time.”
School Board member John Wendland said he first met Jim and Gene Wizer when he moved to Lake Oswego as a kindergartener.
“(They) were my first encounters with going to the grocery store,” Wendland said. “Two of the nicest men ever. My 84-year-old mother shopped at that store until the last day it closed. The Wizer family did so many wonderful things for the city and donated so much in a very quiet way.”
Andrew Edwards, executive director of the Lakewood Center for the Arts, said Wizer and his family helped contribute to the purchase and renovation of the Lakewood Center for the Arts building and helped with projects at Lakewood for capital improvements over the years.
“The Wizer family had a tradition of philanthropy in the community that is unsung by choice. They preferred to do good deeds for the sake of doing them,” Edwards said. “They wanted to make sure community was first.”
Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr., owner and founder of Pamplin Media Group, was one of Wizer’s longtime friends.
“He was dutiful and wise. He was kind and generous, truly a venerated icon of our community,” Pamplin said. “He was an endowment of those traits from which springs the elevation of mankind. It was my honor to have known him, and his spirit will constantly remain with all of us.”
Community leader Dee Denton met Wizer when she served as the executive director of the Lake Oswego Chamber of Commerce in the 1960s.
“He’s been such a dear friend for many years,” she said. “He was a gentle, loving person. He was very, very kind, and he never said a bad word about anybody to anybody.”
Tris Denton, Dee Denton’s daughter and principal broker at Realty Trust Group, said Wizer “had the best heart, and he was just a real blessing to our community.”
“I also knew Gene through my church, Our Lady of the Lake,” Tris Denton said. “I’ve been at that church since 1962, and I’d always see Gene. He went to Mass every morning, unless he was sick. I’d always see him walking to morning Mass, because I live really close to the church. It’s a huge loss for our community.”
Wizer’s Rotary Club colleagues would agree. Rob Le Chevallier recalled that even after he became ill, Wizer would attend weekly Rotary gatherings and perform “the unassuming tasks of setting up and taking down after our meetings.”
“I also remember that through Wizer’s, he purchased the food for our gift baskets for several years,” Le Chevallier said.
Rotarian Rob Fallow said one of Wizer’s favorite Rotary activities was delivering those baskets to neighbors in need during the holiday season.
“Gene was an extremely unique person,” Fallow said. “Lake Oswego was blessed to have him. He was one of the most giving and kind-hearted people I have ever met. We’re going to miss him.”
Doyle, who collaborated with Wizer at the University of Portland, agreed.
“I thought he was one of the most genuine, unadorned, unegotistical men I have ever met,” Doyle said. “The real man was right at the surface, you know? I’ll miss his open grin and heart.”
Wizer is survived by his wife, Janet; daughters Kim Wizer, Suzanne Wizer and Sara Lamon; son-in-law Chris Lamon; three grandchildren; and a sister, Shirley Wizer. The Wizer family said public services will be held at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 29, at Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Parish, 650 A Ave., Lake Oswego. A reception will be held after the funeral Mass in the Parish Hall.
Reporters Jillian Daley, Anthony Macuk, Cliff Newell and Barb Randall contributed to this story.