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Harry Friedman, last of brothers who launched Sonoma County hardware chain, dies at 89

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Harry Friedman, the last of a trio of Sonoma County brothers who, following World War II, turned a farm-town salvage yard into a thriving regional home improvement chain and philanthropic empire, died Friday at the age of 89.

He was the youngest and last surviving of the seven children of William and Minnie Friedman, a Jewish couple who fled the pogroms in Russia in 1910 and settled in Santa Rosa.

Harry Friedman was a senior at Santa Rosa High School in 1946 when enterprising older brothers Joe and Benny, both of them young combat veterans, bought a junkyard on Petaluma’s East Washington Street.

They called it Friedman Bros. Hardware. Harry Friedman worked there after school until he graduated, then he signed on full time. His brothers mentored him in the arts of merchandising and small-town customer service.

Through the three siblings’ labor and invention, the business evolved into Friedman’s Home Improvement, today the operator of large stores in Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Ukiah and Petaluma. For decades, it has been among the region’s largest retailers.

Until Harry Friedman’s brother, Benny, stepped back from the business 30 years ago, he was the front man and face of the operation, a natural-born comic with a heart the size of a house. Benny Friedman’s brothers were content with their roles outside the limelight.

In 1985, Joe Friedman had retired and Benny was easing into retirement when ownership of the company passed to Harry Friedman and to Benny’s son, Bill Friedman, who’d also worked in the business since he was a kid.

They worked together less like uncle-and-nephew than like father-and-son.

“He really was like a father to me,” Bill Friedman said. “He taught me so much growing up, to make me the man I need to be.”

Bill Friedman had a dad he adored. But especially when he was a kid, Bill Friedman said, his father Benny worked nearly all the time at the growing business.

“Uncle Harry really taught me more than my father, because my father was busy doing so much,” Bill Friedman said. “Harry took the time to nurture me.”

The two of them also had a lot of fun. Bill Friedman, who’s now 70, remembers working at the Petaluma operation as a kid and still being afraid of the dark.

Aware of that, his Uncle Harry one day asked him to fetch some bolts or some such thing from the basement. Bill Friedman walked down a steep stairway to the pitch-black basement. He felt along the wall for the light switch.

And he touched someone’s hand. Harry Friedman had rushed down to the basement ahead of his nephew, and placed a hand over the light switch.

“Talk about scared!” Bill Friedman said. “I couldn’t go down there again without a flashlight.”

Harry Friedman was a key member of the family and management team when it opened a modern hardware and home- improvement store on Santa Rosa Avenue, between Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park, in 1970.

The trio of brothers closed the humble Petaluma operation in 1976 and then subsequently grew with the construction of new stores in Sonoma in 1993 and in Ukiah in 1996.

For decades the family yearned to return to Petaluma, a goal achieved with the opening of a store on North McDowell Boulevard in mid-2014.

Over the course of more of than 50 years, Harry Friedman rose from an after-school helper to half-owner and chairman of the board.

“His No. 1 love, beside his wife, was the store,” said his son, Geoff Friedman of Santa Rosa. He added that his father demonstrated by example the value of working hard, saving and giving back to the community.

Harry Friedman was a prominent member and past president of Santa Rosa’s Congregation Beth Ami, and as a young man was deeply involved in the Active 20/30 Club of Petaluma. Through the Friedman Family Fund at Community Foundation Sonoma County, he and his family have supported myriad charitable efforts throughout the region.

Friedman was 71 when he retired in 1999 and sold his interest in the company to Bill. Just five years ago, Bill Friedman handed the reins over to his son, Barry.

In his free time, Harry Friedman relished recreational-vehicle travel with his wife of 50 years, Edith Friedman of Santa Rosa.

Geoff Friedman said his folks also traveled much of the world.

Harry and Edith Friedman for many years spent the winters at a second home in Indio.

The people closest to Harry Friedman knew he had a thing for popcorn. “Even his license plate said POPCORN,” nephew Bill Friedman said.

Joe Friedman died in 1997 at age 83. Benny Friedman died in 2008 at 90.

In addition to his wife and son in Santa Rosa, Harry Friedman is survived by his daughters, Michelle Azulay of Santa Rosa and Rebecca Friedman of North Miami Beach, Florida; eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

A graveside service is planned for 10:30 a.m. Thursday at Beth Ami Cemetery, adjacent to Santa Rosa Memorial Park on Franklin Avenue.

Friedman’s family suggests memorial donations to the Friedman Family Fund, Community Foundation Sonoma County, 120 Stony Point Road, Suite 220, Santa Rosa 95401.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.