Leo J. Falk - Charter Member

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Leo J. Falk

This History moment is about one of the charter members of Rotary, including his forebears and his progeny. It begins not when he became one of those founding Boise Rotary, but on September 14, 1955 when the Idaho Statesman published his Obituary with the notation “For nearly 40 years he was an ardent Rotarian”.

I’m going to discuss this fine man’s contributions to Boise and the State of Idaho. The story would not be comlete without also talking about how 4 generations of his family have been such significant leaders in the commercial, charitable architectural and civic excellence that Boise has been and is.

We start in the year 1863 when David Falk arrived in Boise, then called Idaho City, with the wave of 16,000 gold seekers and suppliers who surged into the Boise Basin. Our Rotarian’s father Nathan followed a year later leaving his native Bavaria at age 15 to come to Boise. The pair peddled goods and operated a trading post located between New Plymouth and Emmett where the present day Falk Store Bridge stands, until 19 September 1868 when they opened a dry good store and grocery business in a small building on the corner of Main and 8th street here in Boise. They were joined in 1873 by their brother Sigmund. In the early, hard pressed years, the brothers were at work at six in the morning to light fires and lamps and were often still waiting on customers or doing store chores until midnight. The firm used a wheelbarrow for the delivery of goods and there was little to foreshadow the greatness which the establishment was to reach. It is reported that their methods were most progressive and they catered to the support of the public through honorable dealing and an earnest desire to please their patrons. In 1877, when David was 30 he journeyed to Strasburg and persuaded 19 year old Ernestine Weil to share his modest lot in Boise, still a raucous mining supply town short on everything but hope. Their business enjoyed a big boost in the mid – 1880’s when a gold strike at Coeur d’Alene brought a new rush of settlers to Idaho. By 1897 these brothers were doing business in a Then elegant three story building at that corner of Eighth and Main. Brother Nathan, who was 10 years younger than David and was to eventually, be the father of our Rotarian, waited until 1878 to marry Rosa Steinmeier of Munich. They had 6 children, the oldest being Leo J Falk, born September 24, 1882, who eventually entered the business of the Falk Mercantile Company and later became one of the founding members of Boise Rotary and is the person about whom this history is given. 

Like other successful mercantile families of the period, the Falk’s did their share to boost their community’s social and civic life. Nathan served on the school board and the chamber of commerce and was active in Odd Fellows. The brothers also took part in early Jewish observances. In 1895, when 100 Boise Jews, spurred by the dynamic Moses Alexander (soon to be Boise Mayor and eventually Idaho Governor, met to organize the Reform Congregation Beth Israel, as incorporators. David, called “the grand old man of Boise” was 58 and had been in residence in the community for 30 years, was founding president.

Both David and Leo’s father Nathan died in 1903. Their brother Sigmund took charge of Falk’s and Our Rotarian to be, Leo J Falk, served as company treasurer. After a dozen years as company president, Sigmund joined the United States Diplomatic Corps and was sent abroad to serve as American Consul in several European Cities and sold his entire interest to his nephew Leo J (this was 1915) who stepped into the post as President of the company. For more than half a century he headed the Falk Mercantile Company which operated stores in Idaho and Eastern Oregon under the name Falk’s. He retired from the business in 1953. Leo J., was an able and energetic entrepreneur, who organized early irrigation projects, helped establish the Boise-Winnemucca Railroad, And developed mines. He was president of the Idaho Chapter of the American Cancer Society for years and was active in work connected with the United Jewish Appeal fund. In 1909 he organized the Owyhee Hotel Company selling stock to Boise citizens and from the beginning was president of that company and operated it for 42 years. The hotel opened May 10th 1910. In addition, he built what is now the Egyptian Theatre and was part of the group who built this building, the Boise Hotel, now called the Hoff building. He was instrumental in not only building the Boise Depot but in getting the railroad to establish the railroad connection to Boise. He devoted countless time and effort to the constant improvement and development of Boise and its welfare. Like many pioneer Idahoans, he was at one time interested in mining and owned several properties in the Atlanta district. He served on the committee which obtained the first Boise airport and the airlines which used the project. He was an organizer of and past president of the Boise Commercial club, a founder and past president of the Boise Polo club and…for 40 years was an ardent Rotarian, which is where we started.

So, we have talked about Leo J, our Rotarian, and about his ancestors. The story does not end there however. He married Helen Friendly of Elmira, New York. She also became a civic leader and was reported to have been a member of the board of directors of every cultural organization in the city: Idaho Historical Society, Boise Gallery of Art, the Boise Civic Symphony, a charter member of the Junior League of Boise and active in American Red Cross, United fund, and polio and cancer foundations. They had three children, Elaine, Jane and Leo J Jr. Both Jane and Leo Jr. were born in the architecturally significant home he built at 1320 Warm Springs. It was lived in by Leo, then his widow and then Jane and her husband until a couple of years ago when Jane passed on and is now for sale. Son Leo J Jr. became a physician and having moved to the East coast for a Princeton education followed by post grad training at University of Virginia, stayed there living in Charlottesville until his death in 2008. He was founding director of the coronary care unit of Martha Jefferson Hospital, spent 2 tours as part of Volunteer Physicians for Viet Nam in the Tay Ninh Province on the Cambodian border, served for 4 years as Director of HOPE’s land based program and was Senior US Foreign service Officer with assignments in Zaire, Bolivia, Peru, and Washington DC. He served as a consultant in Washing, D. C. from 1984 to 94 and also operated his farm nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, as well as service on the Charlottesville Free Clinic Board.

Leo’s second child, Jane moved away from Boise and then came back to stay bringing with her, her husband Arthur Oppenheimer, He was New York born which is where they met. Then they romanced in England where Jane was Red Cross and Arthur was OSS. Jane and Arthur continued the family tradition of commercial and civic service involvement over their 55 years of marriage. Arthur became president of Falk’s and, after the sale of the company set up the very successful Oppenheimer companies. Jane’s community activities included Idaho Public Television (PBS), the Idaho Botanical Garden where she was a founding member, served on the Board and created the Jane Oppenheimer Rose Garden, a Board Member the Idaho Commission on the Arts, and of the Idaho Community Foundation where she and Arthur set up the initial fund created by individuals, the Boise Philharmonic, and the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. She served on other Boards including the Boise Junior League, Head Start, Family Advocate Program, College of Idaho, Boise Opera Guild, Boise Art Museum and the Youth Tennis Foundation. She was a member of the Boise Garden Club, Hillcrest Country Club and the Arid Club. She received numerous awards including the Idaho Governor's Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts, Idaho Statesman Distinguished Citizen, Girl Scout Women Leaders of Today and Tomorrow, and the Boise Area Chamber of Commerce Distinguished Citizen of the Year Award. They were also two of the best friends my wife and I had in Boise. They had 4 children, of whom two, Skip, (Arthur F) and Doug continued to work in Boise and carry on the family traditions. The Oppenheimer companies are broadly involved in the food business and in commercial real-estate development both here and elsewhere. The firm built both the One Capital Center building and what is now the Wells Fargo “Triangular Building” and are involved with numerous other properties where they supply management and development. That company currently employs approximately 150 people and is now run by Skip and Doug, after Arthur passed away. The tradition also continued in Civic service with Skip becoming first Chairman of the St. Luke’s Health System Board after serving as Chair of the Luke’s Regional Center Medical Board. He was, Chairman of the Boise Chamber of Commerce board and chairman of several Task forces set up by our Idaho Governors, the latest of which is the Idaho Business Coalition for Education Excellence (IBCEE). It is a not-for-profit organization, comprising Idaho's CEOs and company Presidents, who share a common goal -- Better Education in Idaho.  Skip formed an exploratory committee that lead to the creation of the IBCEE and later became the founding Chair. The goals and purpose of the IBCEE were encouraged by the Governor's office and other officials as well. The effort commenced with meetings to assess interest and form priorities in 2002. The group recognized that Idaho was one of the few states that did not have a business community group advocating for education. As in numerous other states, the original members recognized a disparity between workforce and societal needs and the supply of qualified people graduating from public education in Idaho. Skip was named the Trustee of the Year by the Idaho Hospital Association in 2009, and received the Ralph J Comstock Light of Philanthropy Award 2010,

Skips wife Esther is also active, a past Chair of the Boise Art Museum, a past Chair of Serve Idaho, appointed by the Governor, and a recipient of the Girl Scouts Women Leaders of Today and Tomorrow Award. In her professional career as a licensed counselor she was named Supervisor of the Year by the Idaho Counselors Association.

Doug is a member of the University of Idaho Foundation, The U of I Journalism Advisory board, the Board of Directors for the IBCEE and committee chair and board member of St. Luke’s Health Foundation. He was Kingfish (Board Chairman) of the Arid club and was on the Idaho Shakespeare Festival Board. He and his Brother Skip, sponsored the October 20th 2011 day long, free “Oppenheimer Ethics Symposium: Reinvigorating Ethics in Education and Practice in the Digital Age,” hosted by the University of Idaho, and held in the Statehouse

It was my thought that this story about these 4 generations of this Rotarian, Leo J. Falk’s family, who have been and are both very successful in business and who have given so much leadership to civic activities, would be interesting and inspirational. So much of what we have here in Boise is the result of dedication and involvement of a few!

Presented January 19, 2012

By Jim Steele