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Sonoma County leading man Benny Friedman died Tuesday, a month after the self-made philanthropist and natural comic beamed at the appreciative throng that dropped by his retirement home apartment on his 90th birthday.

Friedman grew up poor in Santa Rosa and, along with two brothers, nurtured a cluttered Petaluma salvage yard into the retail powerhouse known now as Friedman's Home Improvement.

The Friedman brothers built the business on the principles of fairness and respect, and Benny Friedman delighted in using a generous share of the profits to enhance life in the city and county he loved. He was a principal in the transformation of a distressed church into what is now the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts and a trusty supporter of community organizations, including the Volunteer Center, Memorial Hospital and Congregation Beth Ami.

To his many friends, he also was known as the sweetest, funniest, liveliest man that they ever knew.

"He was concerned about everybody and always told me, 'Be frank with people, respect people,' " said Iraj Soltani, owner of Mac's Deli in Santa Rosa and a friend of Friedman's for 38 years. Soltani sat at Friedman's bedside at the Brighton Gardens senior residence shortly before he died Tuesday night.

"He was my mentor; I'm not kidding," said Soltani, who also relished his frequent visits with Friedman to the slot machines at River Rock Casino. "I just followed his step, believe me, all these 38 years."

Friedman was born June 4, 1918, one of seven children of Bill and Minnie Friedman, Jews who had fled the pogroms of their native Russia.

Bill Friedman died the year Benny turned 13; the following year, Benny quit Santa Rosa High School to help support his family. Friedman would receive many awards from his community, and one of which he was most proud was the honorary diploma Santa Rosa High gave him decades later.

As a teenager, Friedman learned about hardware and honest business while working in a store owned by Mike Cohen. Friedman's son, Bill, now the president and owner of Friedman Home Improvement, said Cohen was not only his dad's boss but his surrogate father.

"That's where Dad learned the hardware business," Bill Friedman said.

Benny Friedman was 22 and working for Cohen when he married the former Rosemary Zittin, a Russian immigrant, in 1940. Rosemary, who was married to Friedman for 61 years and died in 2001, would confide that her father was certain that the young hardware salesman "wouldn't be able to take care of me."

Both Benny Friedman and his older brother, Joe, went to war following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. After the war, they returned to Santa Rosa and agreed to go into the hardware business for themselves.

There was no way they would become competitors to Mike Cohen, so they looked out of town and found a junkyard and used-stuff lot in Petaluma. Its 92-year-old owner, Meyer Lerer, agreed to sell it to the Friedman boys for the $4,000 Benny and Joe had saved.

For decades Benny Friedman loved to say that on the first day of business -- April 6, 1946 -- he and Joe took in 75 cents.

"And the second day," he'd say, "business fell off."

"And on the third day, a man came in to ask for change for a $20 bill. We made him a partner!"

Benny and Joe Friedman made a go of their Petaluma second-hand lot by treating people fairly and working tirelessly.

"They came from nothing," Bill Friedman said of his dad and uncle. "They worked seven days a week, they did everything for their family."

Younger brother Harry eventually joined the Friedman Bros. hardware and salvage business.

Press Democrat columnist and longtime Friedman friend Gaye LeBaron wrote in 1996: "They loaded and lifted and hauled things that weighed a whole lot more than they did. They removed rust, wrestled used laundry tubs, separated the steel from the cast iron with shears, a difficult job."

Friedman Bros. Hardware grew. In 1970, the brothers bought land on south Santa Rosa Avenue and built a large store that became Friedman's Home Improvement.

Benny Friedman said the store slogan was a holdover from the day years before when an enthralled antiques dealer said while picking through the odds and ends at the Petaluma yard, "You can find anything in this place." Friedman replied, "If you can't find it here, you don't need it."

The new Santa Rosa hardware and housewares store did so well that the Friedmans expanded, building stores in Sonoma and Ukiah. The brothers brought their kids into the business, then their grandkids, reminding all of them often that success depends on the respect they show their customers, employees and suppliers.

"My father didn't want anyone to leave the store unhappy," Bill Friedman said. "I keep bringing up the word respect because he drummed it into our heads when we were kids."

Another fundamental of the business has been to give back. For decades the Friedmans have been generous sponsors of community efforts large and small. Benny Friedman was a co-creator of the Wells Fargo Center and in 1990 he and his wife, Rosemary, and brother Joe contributed the $3 million Friedman Center, a community hall, to Congregation Beth Ami.

Younger generations of Friedmans stepped into progressively more responsible roles at the stores as the brothers Benny, Joe and Harry aged and stepped back.

Joe Friedman died in 1997 at age 83. Benny Friedman retired about 20 years ago, Harry a decade ago. Benny's grandson, Barry, is working his way up the organization.

Benny Friedman struggled with health issues in recent years -- repeat hip replacements, a 1997 quadruple heart bypass -- but never lost his spark and his love of a good tale or joke.

"Benny was a wonderful storyteller," Gaye LeBaron said.

"You could just sit and listen to his tales and deadpan Jewish humor. Once he told me that he'd solved the parking problem -- he bought a parked car."

Years ago, Friedman would tell people, "I'm going to be 94." They'd blink in astonishment because he looked so much younger and he'd say he was going to be 94 in nine or 10 years.

He was 88 when he remarried in 2006. He'd met Irene at the Lodge at Paulin Creek, where they both lived.

Recently, failing health made it hard for the gregarious and jocular Friedman to speak. His son, Bill, said he fought the effects of old age to the last.

"He was fighting and fighting and fighting," Benny's son said. "He didn't want to go. There was too much more to do in life."

Of all the accolades and awards Friedman received, Bill Friedman said one that stood out was to be named by The Press Democrat as one of 50 most influential people in making Sonoma County what it is.

That was quite an accomplishment for someone who'd grown up in Santa Rosa as the poor son of immigrants.

"He deserved that," his son said. "He really did deserve it. His heart was as big as a house."

In addition to his wife, his brother, Harry, and his son, Bill, Friedman is survived by his daughter, Debbie Chapman of Santa Rosa, and four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Friedman's family is planning a private service and a public celebration of his life, which will held later this summer at the Friedman Center.

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