Serge D’Rovencourt’s yellow Nazi star has the word “Juif ” written in black. Forced to wear this as a child in France, he’s kept it along with meticulous records of how his life evolved. We met him at his “office away from home,” the Starbucks in the Pearl at NW 11th Avenue and Lovejoy. He’d brought stacks of photo albums and documents in the carryall bag attached to the walker he’s used since recovering from a devastating stroke in 2006.
From the ashes of his early life, Serge moved on to become a successful Portland executive and philanthropist. He received the Ordre National Du Merite from the French government for his work in the resistance during World War II, and he is Portland’s honorary Consul of France. An active Rotarian, he managed the downtown Hilton Hotel for 38 years and still organizes the annual Global Business Lunch to honor outstanding leaders and benefit the Special Olympics. On April 28, the Jessie F. Richardson Foundation will honor him at its annual Ageless Award Luncheon for his contributions to the city and his devotion to children.
“I don’t know where to start,” says Serge, opening an early photo album. “My parents, Leah and Kalman Rosenberg, were Polish and immigrated to France.” Sam Rosenberg (his original name) was born in 1928 in Metz, a French city near Germany. The family settled in Lyon before the war.
“When I was 12 or 13 years old, they started to arrest Jews,” he says. “One day, in 1942, the gestapo walked to our apartment. We saw them through the window. They arrested my father at the gate. I kissed my mother and never saw her again.
“A fellow was living in the attic,” he continues. “I said, ‘The Gestapo is after me, hide me.’ I hid under the bed, and he left for work but came back and said, ‘Sam, I can’t hide you; they are looking for you.’ I took a chair and jumped out the window to the back of the house.”
Twenty years ago, Serge and his wife, Magaly, went back to that house in Lyon. They took photos of the roof, three stories up, where Serge had clung to the ledge and fell. Luckily, he landed in a ditch, unhurt, and spent the night outside. Then he sent a message to his sister, who fortunately had been staying with a neighbor.
“My father was a tailor and specialized in officer’s uniforms,” Serge says. “He was connected with the French underground, and we went to them. My sister and I spent two years in the mountains in the French underground, which were cells, groups of 50 or 100. We were close to French farmers, who helped us. That’s how we survived.” When the French Army marched north from Algeria, Serge joined them. A photo shows him among a group of soldiers on top of a truck liberating a French town. His parents perished in concentration camps.
After the war, Serge took advantage of an American training program and learned hotel management. Work took him to the Plaza Athenee, a major Parisian hotel. Still, the war in Indochina loomed, and Serge emigrated from France to Venezuela to avoid the draft. He had had enough of war. After unsuccessfully panning for diamonds, he took a job at a Caracas hotel. Later he started his own successful credit card company before immigrating to the United States as part of the sales team at the Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Serge went on to manage the Hilton Hotel chain in Hawaii before moving to Portland to be closer to his three children, then in college. Arriving in January 1986 to his post as manager of the Portland Hilton, he stayed for 38 years. He met, and had his photo taken with, every U.S. president since Gerald Ford. “D’Rovencourt, almost literally, eats, drinks and sleeps Hilton, taking meals in the restaurants, nightcaps in the bar, and sleep in the apartment-like suite on the 21st floor that he shares with his wife, Magaly,” the Oregonian wrote in a 1988 article titled “At the Helm of the Hilton.”
While working at the Hilton, Serge started his annual Global Business Lunch to honor outstanding business and civic leaders. At first, proceeds went to the Consular Corp scholarship fund. After his stroke, he decided the lunch should benefit children and soon settled on the Special Olympics.
Since the mid-1970s, the Oregon-based Jesse F. Richardson Foundation (jfrfoundation.org) has helped indigent older adults in the developing world with food, housing and medicine. Founder and president Dr. Keren Brown Wilson helped choose Serge D’Rovencourt as one of this year’s honorees. “The Ageless Award is given to older individuals, typically 75+, who well past retirement engage and contribute to their communities,” she says. “It’s important to point out that while many people need help when they are older, many older people contribute. Serge continues in the Rotary Club, consular offices and Special Olympics. He practically single-handedly organizes this dinner every year; he basically works from Starbucks. He doesn’t have a staff, he just has a passion. He epitomizes purposeful aging.”
Honoring Serge D’Rovencourt
Ageless Award Luncheon of the Jessie F. Richardson Foundation
11:30 am, April 28 at the Multnomah Athletic Club
For information or tickets ($100 by April 7): Beth Mitchell at email@example.com or 503-408-4759
Organized by Serge D’Rovencourt
Global Business Awards Lunch
Benefits Special Olympics-Oregon
Noon, May 14 at Portland Hilton
For Tickets ($100): 503-224-4193 or 503-248-0600, ext. 29