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Irene Gerlinger


The entrance to Gerlinger Hall on the UO campus

“Never underestimate the power of a woman,” an anonymous friend once quipped to the Register-Guard about Irene Gerlinger. That was sage advice: a dedicated philanthropist, the extensive legacy of the only woman to ever serve on the university's Board of Regents includes the Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, the UO’s very own Gerlinger Hall, and numerous charities.

Born Irene Hazard in New York State in 1876, Hazard initially studied at the University of California, Berkeley, but dropped out in 1903, just before her senior year, to marry George T. Gerlinger. Their wedding was the talk of society pages, with Sally Sharp of San Francisco's The Society Maid and her Love for Athletics referring to Hazard as a "fair bride" and "popular member" of the Kappa Kappa Sorority.

The newlyweds traveled north to George’s native Oregon, where they settled in Dallas. Here, the couple had three daughters: Georgiana, Irene, and Jean. While George busied himself with his businesses—managing the Willamette Valley Lumber Company (later the Fortune 500 company Willamette Industries) and the Gerlinger Motor Company, inventor of the Gersix (renamed the Kenworth Truck after the company was sold)—Irene set her sights on reforming Dallas itself. She formed a Women's Club, bringing in speakers who discussed cultural topics with the women of the town. An avid reader and author—she wrote two books, Money Raising, How to Do It and Mistresses of the White House— she founded the Dallas Public Library, a library that counted industrialist Andrew Carnegie among its patrons. Dissatisfied with schools in the area, Gerlinger also hired a governess to homeschool her three children, then opened a kindergarten in the family home and invited other children to study there as well.

Next, she turned her eyes toward the nearby University of Oregon. Gerlinger, who credited her parents with teaching her the importance of helping others, was shocked to learn that graduates of the university were ineligible to join the American Association of University Women because of the lack of a women’s building on campus, so she immediately set out to construct one. 

With World War I raging in Europe and the country still coming out of a recession, it took seven difficult years to collect the necessary funds. The US was transitioning to a wartime economy to support the troops overseas, so while unemployment was dropping and spending was increasing, the beneficiaries were the factories producing war goods, not the universities producing soldiers. Nevertheless, the state pledged to pay half of the expected cost of a women's building on the UO campus. To make up the rest, Gerlinger collected donations, held bazaars and other fundraisers, and sold bricks for 25 cents apiece. Construction of the building was completed in 1921, with Gerlinger—an advocate for women’s physical education—weighing in on the design: in addition to classrooms, it also housed a swimming pool, gymnasium, gallery, and alumni hall. Upon completion, it was simply called the Women’s Memorial Hall. It was renamed after Gerlinger in 1929; she referred to it as “a monument to noble womanhood.”

State support for the building may have had something to do with a 1914 meeting between Irene and Oswald West, the governor of Oregon. West summoned Gerlinger to Salem, where he told her she had been appointed to the board of regents of the University of Oregon. She initially protested: “I assured him that there were a number of older women of wealth and status living in Portland who’d be able to do much more for the university than I.” The governor ignored her objections, but agreed that if she could find a wealthy, older woman willing to take over, he would release her from the responsibility. “After that," Gerlinger recalled, "Every time he’d see me the governor would ask, ‘Have you found the rich old lady yet?’”

Gerlinger never did. She remained on the board, as both regent and vice-president, until it was abolished in 1929. In the meantime, her love of education brought her to return to her own studies. She recalled, “Then one summer I took my three little girls with a nurse for the baby, and went down to California to finish my work so that I'd receive my degree from the university there. We stayed in the Kappa house, and so in 1922 I was graduated, instead of in 1904 as I should have been.” She later received her master’s degree from the University of Oregon.

Besides Gerlinger Hall, she was vital in the construction of various other projects. She secured funding for the UO's Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art—originally called the Museum of Oriental Art and housed in the Women's Building—as well as Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland. Her various charitable activities included giving to Boys and Girls Aid, Scripps College of Fine Arts Foundation, Holladay Park Hospital Auxiliary, and Waverly Baby Home. 

In the 1930s she co-founded Republican Women of Oregon, which evolved into the Oregon chapter of the National Federation of Republican Women, an organization that survives today. She served as its first president, and mentored several prominent Oregon politicians, including senator Mark Hatfield, governor Tom McCall, and secretary of state Clay Meyers.

In 1957, Irene was named Woman of the Year by the Portland Women’s Forum. Boys and Girls Aid, a welfare association for children, created the Irene H. Gerlinger Family Philanthropy Award in her honor. It recognizes families such as the Gerlingers, whose dedication to public service is carried down through the generations. Her descendants continue to serve the public. 

Irene died in 1960 in San Francisco.

- Abby Keep, class of 2020