Tom Markgraf and his family resolved to stay in the North Portland neighborhood where he grew up. The area has turned around, but once was marred by drugs, prostitution and gunfire. (Courtesy Markgraf family)
Tom Markgraf and his family resolved to stay in the North Portland neighborhood where he grew up. The area has turned around, but once was marred by drugs, prostitution and gunfire. (Courtesy Markgraf family)

“My people have been in this church for five generations,” says Tom Markgraf, gazing and sweeping a hand around Holy Redeemer Church in North Portland. “My great-grandfather died right over in that in pew. What a great way to go.”

Markgraf, 57, is director of public affairs for TriMet, which runs the region’s buses and light rail. His family roots and his Irish Catholic faith have made him a man who cares for the common good and backs the underdog. “I think I am the last of my era who can remember John Kennedy,” he says. “I still remember that call to serve. Public service was the place you could make a big difference.”

‘Take care of the poor’

His mother’s family, the Flemings, moved to North Portland in 1920, when the neighborhood was mostly fields and trees, with footpaths from family houses to the church. Each year, the Ku Klux Klan would burn a cross in the Catholic family’s front yard.

“I remember asking my grandma, ‘Why didn’t you call the police?’” Markgraf says. “She said, ‘Oh, the police were there — to make sure the Catholics didn’t get out of hand.’”

His grandfather, Lou Fleming, was a builder who joined the firm of Reimers and Jolivette, owned by one Jew and one Catholic. The KKK made it hard for them to get some jobs, but the company built many Catholic structures in Oregon, including Holy Redeemer School.

Markgraf’s parents matured during the civil rights era and were active in the social gospel movement. “The poor are the most important people. You always take care of the poor,” he says, encapsulating the Markgraf family credo. “That’s what it’s about.”

When Markgraf was a teen, a gregarious and handsome Irish Catholic named Dick Feeney visited the family home to discuss public policy that helped the poor. Feeney had worked for Bobby Kennedy, which gave him mystique in Catholic circles. Young Tom knew a role model when he saw one.

‘How soon can you get here?’

Markgraf attended Central Catholic High School and then Oberlin College in Ohio. In the 1980s, he attended the LBJ School of Public Affairs in Texas. Among his professors were cabinet secretaries from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He took a particular liking to Barbara Jordan, a civil rights leader and the first southern African-American woman elected to the U.S. House. She would mentor him for years.

While at the LBJ school, Markgraf was required to find an internship. He set his sights on TriMet back home. He repeatedly called Feeney, a TriMet manager, who always said there was no money and hung up. After another call gone badly, the dejected Markgraf looked up and saw Lady Bird Johnson standing before him with an inquiring look. The former First Lady frequented the school named for her husband.

Markgraf related his sad tale. “Call him back and tell him I will match anything he has to offer,” Johnson said, waiting for him to dial the phone. He made the call to Portland and identified his new patroness. After a stunned pause, Feeney said cheerily, “Well, how soon can you get here?”

In Portland for good

After his graduation from the LBJ school, Markgraf and wife Teresa returned to Oregon. He’d been hired as project manager for a homeless shelter in downtown Portland.

They moved into a family house in North Portland. Drugs were being pedaled from houses on either side and gunfire rang out on the street regularly. After the fusillades, Markgraf would enter his children’s rooms to make sure bullets hadn’t pierced the walls.

People asked why he stayed. “This is home,” he explains. “I do feel really connected here and I feel it’s important not to have the old families leave.”

As the family grew to six, Markgraf found a new house, but still in the neighborhood, five blocks away and within walking distance of Holy Redeemer.

Lion of the neighborhood

Markgraf chaired the Piedmont Neighborhood Association for much of the 1990s, working to abolish violence, the drug trade and prostitution.

He led the effort to save the grand brick convent and school run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. His great-aunts had volunteered there to help the girls who’d found safe harbor from abusive and neglectful homes. At hearings about the potential destruction of the structure, women would come to Markgraf and say of the Good Shepherd Sisters: “They saved my life.”

Strengthened by that history and witness, Markgraf put forward a vision of using the magnificent property to house low-income seniors and others — continued care for those in need. 

He helped Holy Redeemer School stay open when things looked dire, establishing an ongoing benefit festival called Good in the Hood.

His children, now aged 27 to 37, attended Holy Redeemer and La Salle Prep before going to college. 

‘Extraordinary human being’

For six years, Markgraf was in charge of the state’s project to develop the economy of small former timber towns. He drove 3,000 miles a month in a tiny car with no heat and no air conditioning.

Residents asked if he backed the environmentalists or the timber companies. “What does it matter?” he would answer. “We’re all out of work. Let’s figure out how to change that.” The coastal town of Powers chose him as grand marshal for its Independence Day parade.

For a decade, Markgraf served as a chief aide to Rep. Earl Blumenauer, whom he admires for integrity and having a heart for the poor.

The two men started a partnership to counter crime and gang problems in North Portland. “Tom was a key leader of the effort to empower citizens to patrol the neighborhood and find strength in one another,” says Blumenauer.  

Their work moved on to traffic and pedestrian safety in school zones, including Holy Redeemer, where they pioneered the city’s traffic calming measures.

“Over the years, I’ve seen Tom work with immigrants in our community, promote economic progress for minorities, and we even traveled the state in an effort to promote better understanding between Portland and people outside the metropolitan area,” Blumenauer says. “Tom is an extraordinary human being with a great heart and generous spirit. Few people know what a difference he’s made for the community, but we’re all better for his special efforts.”

Markgraf shared Blumenauer’s interest in transportation beyond the personal automobile. Peers chose him as president of the Oregon Transit Association, and he began work as a consultant on transportation matters.

‘Masterful job’

Without Markgraf, the light rail line into North Portland may not exist.

Many TriMet leaders gave up after Vancouver residents voted down the project. But Markgraf realized North Portlanders still wanted it.

TriMet sought him out and sent him to work in his own neighborhood. He held meetings in church halls, the Nite Hawk Cafe and his living room. He listened to business owners, home owners, renters and church leaders. In the end, the tracks were laid along North Interstate Avenue to acclaim. 

“It was a masterful job,” says Feeney,  who was also Markgraf’s mentor. “He talked to anyone who would listen. And he talked to them in their native tongue. It was the language of the neighborhood rather than the language of political leaders.”

Markgraf is proud to work for TriMet, which has the highest approval rating of any governmental entity in Oregon. Coming up soon is a special fare for low-income riders, increased bus service across the region and electric buses. 

Markgraf says being a Catholic clearly influences his workaday life.

“I think you pray all day,” he says. “I think my decisions are based on a foundation of fairness, of figuring out what is right for everybody.”

Occasionally, he hears anti-Catholic comments in his public life. He always disputes them. “If you don’t challenge it, it just gets stronger. Would you say that to a Jew?” he asks. “I am a Catholic. You got a problem with that?”