Larry LaRue: Rewarding unsung local heroes with storytelling jewelry

Staff WriterMarch 1, 2014 

Steph Farber of LeRoy Jewelers in downtown Tacoma shows a pendant design he created to honor Pat Flynn, 75, right, and her work with Relay For Life.

LUI KIT WONG/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

When Irving Farber opened LeRoy Jewelers in downtown Tacoma in 1941, he offered customers more than diamonds and gold. He had toasters, too. And baseball bats.

“It was like a jewelry store and department store,” his son Steph said. “When he died in 1965, my mother, Hazel, took over. She changed it, focused more on jewelry you couldn’t get anywhere else, and art work.”

Hazel Farber hired her son, then a substitute teacher, to repair and clean jewelry — and to design it.

“I slowly came to creating one-of-a-kind pieces,” said Farber, 65, who runs the business with his wife, Phyllis Harrison. “I took classes. At first, I learned how to fix my mistakes. Then I learned how not to make mistakes.”

In the last five years, Farber has twice won national jewelry design awards, and the trophies that accompanied them got him thinking.

“No one knows about them, and I started considering how many people have influenced life in Tacoma, but done so under the radar without reward,” he said. “I thought they ought to be honored.”

Farber and Harrison started what he called the “Most Gifted Client” award in 2012, although the name is misleading. Nominees need not be clients.

“Last year it was two men who’d been together 40 years and were finally able to marry,” he said. “They got the rings they wanted, at no charge. I lost a sale and gained two friends.”

At his annual December party in 2013, Farber threw the floor open to nominations from friends — all longtime Tacoma folks — and the subsequent voting was unanimous.

“We chose Pat Flynn, the Mother of the Relay,” Farber said.

Flynn, 75, has been with Relay For Life since the beginning, when Dr. Gordon Klatt walked and ran a Tacoma track for 24 hours in 1985 and raised $27,000 to fight cancer. A year later, more than 300 people joined him, and Relay For Life became an annual event.

Today, it’s grown into a worldwide phenomenon and raised nearly $5 billion. It is the American Cancer Society’s main fundraiser.

“I was on the committee for Gordy’s first Relay and from that time on, when he couldn’t fulfill all the requests from all over the country from people who wanted to know about the Relay, I’d help out,” Flynn said.

“Gordy had wonderful vision,” she said. “I got to help him fulfill it by handling some of the details.”

Until Flynn was chosen in December, Farber had never met her. He invited her to the shop and interviewed her the way he did customers who came in wanting something special.

“I love creating jewelry that tells your story, illustrates who you are,” Farber said. “We don’t just sell stuff. If a couple comes in for wedding rings, my first question is ‘Tell me about yourselves …’

“I’m a storyteller with metal, and clearly, one of the main stories throughout Pat’s life was the Relay.”

Flynn grew up on Day Island, and attended the University of Washington. She worked for the Tacoma School District for 23 years, then spent another seven in public information for the city. Flynn eventually quit to take care of Mike, her husband of 50 years, who was dying.

Several weeks ago, Farber began working on designs for a pendant. Flynn doesn’t wear necklaces or rings because of a metal allergy.

He began by studying the Relay logo, which features the moon and sun to represent the 24 hours of the event.

“Her favorite color is purple, so I began with stones of that color,” Farber said.

Most of his designs featured the half moon, sun and purple stars exploding out into the world. This week, when she revisited LeRoy Jewelers, Flynn looked over Farber’s designs and picked her favorite.

It was the highlight of a tough few days for Flynn, who on Tuesday had surgery and began three-times-a-week dialysis for failing kidneys.

“Beautiful,” she said of the final design sketch. “I’m so excited.”

Now, Farber will get to work on the pendant, continuing his annual effort to reward quiet heroes of the community.

Why does he do it?

“It’s consistent with what I’d like to do in this world.”

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638 larry.larue@ thenewstribune.com

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