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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Lamfroms from Augsburg, Bavaria founders of Columbia Sportswear

The Lamfroms from Augsburg, Bavaria [1,2,3,4]

Gertrude Lamfrom was born in Augsburg, in southern Germany some 40 miles from Munich, in 1924. She was the middle sister of three, and her father Paul owned the largest shirt, sock, and underwear factory in the country. Her family lived the Bavarian good life, complete with maids.

It was 1937 when Paul Lamfrom decided to flee with his family from the Nazi regime in Germany to America. He left behind a successful clothing factory and nearly all his money and possessions, but sought safety for himself and his family.

The Lamfrom family was Jewish, and by the mid-1930s it was clear that the wind had begun to blow very chillingly the wrong way. As was often the case in her father’s generation, the eldest son was shipped off to make his way in the New World, and several years earlier her uncle had sailed away to a faraway place called Portland, Oregon. In 1935, Gert’s grandmother traveled to America to visit her son, and before long Gert’s father received a cable from her: “Please dissolve my household. I am not coming back.”

Events in Nazi Germany soon went from very bad to even worse, and in 1937 Gert’s father decided to emigrate to America. His daughter Gertrude wouldn’t return to her homeland for sixty years.

“We were fortunate to be able to get out,” she says now. “We had to leave all our money behind. But we were allowed to bring goods with us, so my parents took my sisters and me to a shoe store and bought each of us 20 pairs of shoes, in different sizes! And they made us clothes and bought a dowry for each of us. Packed everything in two big containers that looked like the back ends of trucks. I wasn’t scared about leaving. I’ve always been one of those people who never live in the past.”

The family sailed first-class from Le Havre in Normandy to New York, then through the Panama Canal and on to Portland. They arrived in August, and immediately the three Lamfrom girls stood out from the Portland crowd.

“Oh, we were quite unusual,” says Gert. “My sisters and I had long braids and we looked very different. It became the thing to do for people to invite us over to their homes: ‘Get those little undernourished German girls over and feed them!’”

Gert spoke no English, so, at 13 years old, she was placed in 1st grade. Two weeks later, she was moved up to 7th grade.

“I must have said ‘Hello’ or something, so they figured I suddenly spoke the language,” she says, “but my complete vocabulary was ‘One a-penny, two a-penny, hot cross buns’! I remember one day the class was learning about Germany, so I had to talk about it. Everyone listened for the whole hour, and later they told me no one had understood a single word!”

"My father decided that our family also had to make a new beginning; we were in a new country and needed to learn a new language. From that moment on no more German was spoken in our house."

Her father borrowed money and bought a small hat manufacturer, the Rosenfeld Hat Company. Having just fled the Nazis, and not entirely convinced that anti-Semitism was nonexistent in his new home, Gert’s father began looking for a new company name. “I won’t deny that I’m Jewish,” he told the family, “but I don’t have to put it on the label.”

He settled on Columbia Hat Company, named after the Columbia River, which forms most of the border between the states of Oregon and Washington.

After graduating from high school, Gert broke form when she took off by herself for the University of Arizona in Tucson. In 1946 she received her sociology degree.

Her family had never been overly Orthodox, so there was nothing to prevent them from embracing the staunchly Catholic Neal Boyle. “I fell in love with a guy who happened to be Catholic, who cares?” Gert says. “It doesn’t really make any difference, and it didn’t bother my family one bit.” In 1948 she married Neal Boyle, who went to work for his father-in-law in the business.

The business grew slowly but steadily. So that the firm could enter other market segments, the name was changed to Columbia Sportswear Company in 1960.

When Paul Lamfrom suddenly died of a heart attack four years later, Neal Boyle took over the helm.

In 1970, Neal Boyle died following a heart attack. Gert and son Tim Boyle, then a University of Oregon senior, took over the operations of Columbia, rescuing it from near bankruptcy.

Columbia Sportswear distributes its products in more than 72 countries and 13,000 retailers. Its flagship store is located in downtown Portland, Oregon.

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