Frank Harkenrider, who dedicated for more than a half a century in public service to his beloved hometown of Hermiston, died Monday at the age of 90.
“Frank was Hermiston’s greatest cheerleader,” said Hermiston Mayor Dave Drotzmann.
Despite having served in small town politics for decades, Harkenrider was never political nor ideological. He had one passion that coursed through his veins his entire life – his love for Hermiston. A registered Democrat, the man affectionately known as “Harkie” supported candidates from both parties so long as they promised to do what was right for Hermiston.
Born on Christmas Day in 1926, (“The worst present Hermiston ever got,” he liked to say) Harkenrider witnessed a sleepy little town grow from around 1,000 people to become the biggest city in Eastern Oregon and he had a hand in much of that growth.
During Harkenrider’s time in city office, he and the city negotiated for the construction of the National Guard Armory, worked to bring the Pacific Northwest Walmart Distribution Center to Hermiston, developed the Hermiston Conference Center, developed youth soccer fields at Butte Park, established a city electric utility system and was a strong advocate for allowing the Army to destroy the chemical weapons at the Umatilla Chemical Depot.
“Anything that’s happened in Hermiston since 1959, Frank has had something to do with it,” said Hermiston City Councilor Rod Hardin at Harkenrider’s retirement celebration in 2015.
Although not a combative man by nature, Harkenrider never backed down from a fight that he felt was worth waging.
“He was never afraid to share his thoughts with anyone that would listen,” said Drotzmann. “He always advocated for Hermiston and its assets regardless of how significant or insignificant they were, but you’d think they were the best in the world by listening to Frank.”
And, said Drotzmann, Harkenrider did not hold grudges.
“He was not afraid to tell you when he thought you were wrong, but he would also be the first to shake your hand and compliment you on doing something well.”
After graduating from Hermiston’s Union High School, Harkie served 13 months in the Army Air Force, attended Eastern Oregon College and the University of Oregon – leaving one credit shy of graduation –and followed his father’s footsteps to 30-year career at Union Oil Distribution.
He married his wife, Beverly, at the Hermiston Methodist Church in 1954, and four years later, he again followed in his father’s footsteps when he was appointed to the Hermiston City Council. That move that would turn into a combined 54 years in city office, including 44 years on the council and 10 in the mayoral seat.
“It was a privilege following in my father’s footsteps and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” he said during his retirement party. His father, George, served as Hermiston mayor from January 1955 to December 1956. Harkie served five terms as mayor throughout the 1990s.
His time in office wasn’t always smooth sailing. In 2012, he and three other Hermiston City Council members were nearly recalled from office over what critics called a lack of transparency and “cronyism” on the council.
But no one ever questioned his commitment to Hermiston. Harkenrider always considered the decision to move to a city manager style of government the best thing that ever happened to Hermiston. He loved to talk about the changes that Hermiston has seen over the decades.
In an interview with Ruralite a couple of years ago, Harkenrider recalled Hermiston’s early days. He recalled when Main Street was the commercial core of Hermiston with everything from a theater to a hotel. Sagebrush dominated where Walmart now stands, the Safeway plaza was weeds and the Hermiston Butte stood alone surrounded by little more than rocks and a single dirt road.
“It’s hard for me to believe now, but the area where (Good Shepherd Medical Center) is now … that was nothing but a dirt road where I used to ride my bike,” he said. “We used to climb up the Butte, and there was nothing there, no houses. Now there’s a path up to the top, but there wasn’t back then.”
Harkenrider’s last battle that he helped lead was the work that went into developing a new senior center for the city. For years, he had talked about the need for a newer, bigger and better center for the town’s senior population. It was a rare council meeting where he didn’t bring up the topic.
That final project is now coming to fruition. The venerable public servant made his last public appearance in April at the groundbreaking ceremony for the aptly-named Harkenrider Center, which is expected to be completed next year.
As well as serving as city councilor and mayor for decades, Harkenrider also had another honorary title – Hermiston’s No. 1 Ambassador. He promoted Hermiston wherever he went and was instrumental in developing the annual trip to Portland where Hermiston watermelons and other produce was passed out to Portlanders. The event also includes the famous watermelon seed-spitting contest. The event was discontinued after 2007, but renewed in 2015 and Harkenrider was there in attendance.
Hermiston City Councilor Jackie Myers remembers Harkie as “a true gentleman at all times – fun-loving and happy.” Myers said Hermiston was always in the forefront of his mind.
“Frank was the biggest advocate Hermiston ever had,” she said. All thoughts, all conversations came back to Hermiston.”
Oregon State Sen. Bill Hansell of Athena first met Harkenrider back in 1982 when both were running for Umatilla County Commissioner. Hansell won and went on to a long career himself in public service. He said that campaign began a friendship that lasted until Harkie’s death this week.
“He became one of my staunchest supporters and a close friend,” Hansell said. “We worked together on many projects and issues.”
Hansell said Harkenrider’s time as councilor and mayor coincided with Hermiston’s path toward becoming Eastern Oregon’s largest city.
“I will miss him and his warm greeting every time we met,” said Hansell. “ ‘Hi Billy! How you doing!’ Hermiston, Umatilla County, and Oregon lost an icon with Frank Harkenriders’s passing, and I lost a dear friend.”
After his fifth term as mayor ended in 2000, Harkenrider intended to quietly fade into the background, but just couldn’t stand the quiet and rejoined the council a few years later.
“He didn’t like being out of the loop,” his wife, Beverly, said a couple of years ago. “He’s like the (Energizer) bunny. He just keeps on running.”
Funeral services for Harkenrider are pending with Burns Mortuary of Hermiston.