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!"