Marcos Breton

Marcos Breton: Sacramento sadly lacking lions like Mort Friedman

Published: Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Thursday, Apr. 18, 2013 - 7:45 pm

Mort Friedman was one of those indispensable people who uplifted Sacramento with his intellect, his guts, his money, his work ethic and his unwavering sense of community.

A powerhouse plaintiffs lawyer who won some of the biggest judgments this town has ever seen, Friedman saw the value of a piece of land north of downtown when few did – land he turned into the Arden Fair mall.

You didn't think that was a big deal?

That mall became the home of retail never before seen in this former cowtown. It was an amenity as necessary as any in Sacramento because it catered to growth, increased wealth, new blood and new diversity.

Now that the Kings are in free fall, Arden Fair remains the place where the lives of Sacramento residents intersect most frequently.

Friedman took his riches and poured them into the Crocker Art Museum, and now so many more people interact with art because of his gifts. He was a friend and mentor to the powerful and was not above scaring the life out of politicos who annoyed him.

He was part of a golden generation of Sacramento movers and shakers lionized mostly in memory now. His influential contemporaries grow fewer in number when we need them most.

It's why I went to Friedman's memorial on Friday, though I didn't really know the man who died last week at 80 after a long illness.

Seeing hundreds of affluent and influential people pay their respects so openly to one man was a reminder of how much individuals matter in our world.

We're always searching for leadership in Sacramento, as if there is a mystic person out there who can divine a better community for us to live in.

It doesn't work that way. You have to find leadership when you look in the mirror.

It seems to me that is what Mort Friedman did.

He died rich, but wasn't born rich.

Friedman was born in isolation and died in isolation, but spent his life creating and nurturing a sense of community for himself and for Sacramento, the town he adopted after moving here in 1957 with his beloved wife, Marcy.

There were almost no other Jewish families around in the South Dakota of his youth. Yet instead of having his Judaism bled from his soul by the now disproved axiom of America as a "melting pot," Friedman grew to become a tireless champion of Israel.

The son of Russian immigrants proved you could be an American first while honoring your roots, something that resonates deeply with someone like me – the son of Mexican immigrants.

You better believe that Friedman's memorial stiffened my spine, and I will never again apologize for refusing to toss my roots into some fictional "melting pot."

Glory comes to those who are undeterred by narrow-minded people. To me, that was Mort Friedman.

"He had a clear sense of right and wrong," Mark Friedman, the developer, said of his father. "He wasn't confused."

In the last decade, Sacramento has seemed confused amid an economic recession made worse by political inaction and – I'm sorry – a gigantic lack of guts from the generation that is supposed to take the baton from Friedman and his contemporaries.

Leaving Friedman's memorial, I wondered where those people are – the next generation of movers and shakers in Sacramento.

There are any number of candidates, but at least right now, Sacramento's young lions seem more like kids at the junior high dance – the ones striving so hard to be cool but who are also deathly afraid of being criticized or dirtied by a good fight.

Even though I didn't know him, I loved Mort Friedman because he wasn't neutral. He wasn't afraid to show he cared. He wasn't strident, but he didn't shy away from a fight.

Sacramento needs such people as it emerges from economic recession with a chance to better itself if – and only if – the next Mort Friedmans care as much as he did.

Who is ready to build Sacramento up without being confused? Who is ready to share success instead of hoarding it for accolades that mean nothing when you get sick and die?

In the last years of his life, a neurological disease rendered Friedman a prisoner of his own body. In the end, he was blind and unable to speak – but he still didn't give an inch.

Just before he died, one of his sons asked Friedman if he had any regrets or if there was anything in his life left undone that he wished to fulfill.

More than money or status, Friedman's answer to his son's question was priceless:


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Read more articles by Marcos Breton

Marcos Breton, news columnist

Marcos Breton

Hello, my name is Marcos Breton and I'm the news columnist with The Sacramento Bee. What's a columnist supposed to do? I'm supposed to make you think, make you laugh, make you mad or make you see an issue in a different way. I'm supposed to connect the dots on issues, people and relationships that cause things to happen or prevent them from happening in our region. I also write a weekly baseball column during the baseball season. I am a voter in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Yes, I have voted for Barry Bonds - twice. I am a native of Northern California. I am the son of Mexican immigrants. I've been at The Bee for more than 20 years, and I love Sacramento.

Phone: 916-321-1096
Twitter: @MarcosBreton

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