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Gert Boyle leaves a powerful legacy

Gert Boyle’s intimidating glare in Columbia Sportswear commercials will surely live on in people’s memories of the company’s longtime chairwoman, who died last week at age 95. As the unyielding mother who sent her son through extreme conditions to test the company’s outerwear, Boyle gained folk-hero status in the popular “tough mother” ad campaign that hit the sweet spot of quirky humor and effective marketing.

But it was the mettle she showed in real life that should resonate most deeply with Oregonians. In personal challenges — from fleeing Nazi Germany as a teen to foiling a kidnapping attempt as an 86-year-old — and professional ones, Boyle showed remarkable toughness and resilience of which commercials can barely capture a glimpse. In leading a company that now stands as one of Oregon’s most successful, Boyle has shown how an immigrant, a woman and a mother can reshape the landscape as an entrepreneur, philanthropist and a cultural icon.

Boyle was tested from a young age. In 1937, Boyle and her family, who were Jewish, left Germany where the family had already encountered anti-Semitic discrimination and harassment. Settling in Portland, where her uncle lived, Boyle faced a new life in a country where she knew few words. She recalled decades later that she had to start school in the first grade as a 13-year-old.

As the family settled in, Boyle’s father bought a hat company that would later become Columbia Sportswear. Boyle went to the University of Arizona, where she met Neal Boyle. The two married, and her husband joined the family business, eventually taking over management of the expanding company after Gert’s father died.

But her husband’s unexpected death in 1970 put Boyle on the hot seat. The business had recently taken a loan out with her mother’s house and her own as collateral and she knew that her son, Tim, who left his senior year at the University of Oregon to help her, was too young to lead the company.

“So, I said this is my time, it can’t be all that hard,” she said in a 2008 interview. “It’ll be just like running your house, I thought: If you don’t have the money, you don’t spend it.”

The challenges mounted, however, and by 1972, Columbia Sportswear was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Boyle decided to sell the company — until the would-be buyer kept slicing off parts of the business that he said he wouldn’t buy, dropping the price more and more. By the time he was finished, so was Boyle, who didn’t give an inch.

“Over the years I have learned some very lovely words, so I used all of them on him,” she recalled to The Oregonian. She vowed never to sell to him and threw him out of the office.

Like other companies that trace their arc to a pivotal moment, Boyle’s stand is legendary in Columbia’s history. Mother and son refocused, rebuilt the business and rode the release of the company’s Bugaboo parka to success. Twenty-six years later, the company started offering shares to the public and notched its first billion-dollar sales year in 2004. These days, the Washington-County based company has more than 7,800 employees and global sales of $2.8 billion.

That wealth enabled her to give generously — to organizations including Special Olympics as well as a blockbuster $100 million gift to OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, where the money has helped hire researchers. Initially, the gift was meant to be anonymous, until word leaked out. She quipped to the Portland Business Journal, that people “thought it was a man. That’s the thing I got the greatest kick out of.”

But her wealth also made her a target in a 2010 attempted kidnapping when a man followed her into her garage and pulled out a replica gun in an attempt to hold her for ransom. Boyle, ever collected, told him she would need to disable the home’s alarm. She pressed a silent alarm instead, which alerted police.

Even in times of intense stress, Boyle didn’t buckle — or lose her sense of humor, jabbing the West Linn police chief for wearing a competitor’s jacket. There may be no other person in Oregon who so personifies the state’s ethic of independence and toughness.

Rest in peace to Gert Boyle. She flew with her own wings — and lifted Oregon along with her.