Katherine Gellhorn, Spokane’s twinkling-eyed godmother of the arts, died Friday after battling cancer for four years.
The white-haired dynamo was unwilling to do only one thing in her life - reveal her age.
Known for her stunning hats and fierce devotion to opera, theater and the Davenport Hotel, Gellhorn left an imprint on the city’s major cultural institutions, promoting arts events and organizing fundraisers.
Family members and friends are honoring her request for no formal services.
Gellhorn, who spent her final days at Sacred Heart Medical Center, told friends she couldn’t die. She had too much left to do, including finding softer pillows for her fellow patients.
That was vintage Gellhorn, always helping others, close friend Susan Kennedy said.
“That’s what kept Katherine going. She was such a strong person. She always rallied. She triumphed over that pain,” Kennedy said.
“Katherine cared about everybody all the way up to the day (she died).”
As far back as many in the Spokane arts community can remember, the 5-foot-tall Gellhorn cast a giant shadow.
Her passion for the arts made her a formidable champion. Few could resist her calls for help.
“You knew that when she headed your direction you were going to agree to do something,” said Marjory Halvorson, artistic director for Uptown Opera.
Born in Basel, Switzerland, Gellhorn developed an early lust for culture, attending German arts schools in Leipzig and Berlin, where she studied graphic arts and ceramics.
In 1939, the horror of a world war overwhelmed her, pushing her overseas to the Art Institute of Chicago.
She fell in love with Howard Gellhorn, an executive with Sears, Roebuck and Co.
On Chicago’s Hyde Park Boulevard, she opened a millinery shop, Katherine’s Hats of Distinction.
When the Gellhorns moved to Spokane in 1957, she reopened her business, creating unique, handmade hats until 1973.
The most painful period of Katherine Gellhorn’s life came in 1963, when Howard died of cancer following a four-year illness. She immediately threw herself into the American Cancer Society, where she was a board member for the next 20 years.
One of Howard’s best friends, Bud Cox, became Gellhorn’s longtime companion.
“She told me the other day she was going to write the story of her life and have Bud translate it into English,” said Lois Neswick, a family friend. “They were just two parts of a whole person, just perfectly matched companions.”
Donning an eye-popping hat with every outfit, Gellhorn was a year-round fixture at local arts events. She took pride in her reputation as a problem-solver and sparkplug.
As one of the founders of the Friends of the Davenport, she played a key role in the citizen group committed to saving and restoring the downtown landmark.
Former Mayor Sheri Barnard said Gellhorn’s tenacity and charm won over Ronald Ng, the Malaysian millionaire who bought the building but hit frequent snags in efforts to reopen it.
“He said he never had met anyone like her, who when something needed to be done, went out and did it,” Barnard said.
Her death will change the way arts groups get things done, said Spokane Civic Theatre executive director Jack Phillips.
“She wasn’t about just getting money for a cause. It was more about getting people to share her commitment,” Phillips said. “She truly believed that the arts make a big difference. And that if you believed in the arts, you had to support them.”
Others who benefited from her energy and generosity agree.
“The driving cause in her life was the arts in Spokane,” said Ed Schaefer, chair of the Gonzaga University music program. “She put her whole being into it. We certainly owe her a great debt.”
Although countless Spokane residents have loved, admired and learned from Gellhorn through the years, there is one thing no one will know - her age.
Her deliberate denial of the reality of her years was part of her charm, friends said.
“That’s one thing you’re never going to find out,” Neswick said. “Every time she was asked her age she said, ‘That is for me to know and you to guess.”’
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