Dick Friel, who helped make the Northwest's charity-auction scene a thriving model of national excellence, died Jan. 14 at age 76.
Even now, some can still hear Dick Friel’s signature stomp, the one he made every time a benefit-auction item was sold.
Boom! Heel would hit stage, and the burly, bronzed man in the tuxedo and big glasses was one more step toward his constant goal: To do some good for the community.
Mr. Friel spent his days as VP of marketing for Seattle’s Aviation Partners, but it was his work on weekend nights that many will remember most. In a three-decade career, he and Sharon, his wife of 46 years, were the king and queen of charity auctions, helping to raise more than an estimated $300 million for nonprofit agencies from Seattle to Sydney and making the Northwest’s charity-auction scene a nationally acclaimed model.
“Together, they were our Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of auctions,” said Doug Picha, president of Seattle Children’s Hospital Foundation.
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Mr. Friel, 76, died early Thursday at Bailey-Boushay House, leaving behind a legacy felt nationwide.
“You know what Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix mean to rock ‘n’ roll?” said occasional benefit emcee John Curley, the former “Evening Magazine” host. “That’s what Dick Friel means to charity auctions. He set a standard, and everyone else followed it.”
Mr. Friel bridged the gap between showman and auctioneer, Curley said. He understood that getting the well-to-do to gather for two-plus hours was a unique opportunity, and that “you’d better know their names, you’d better entertain them and you’d better get some money. And Dick Friel did all those things.”
He was the kind of guy who could net $125,000 for the flag off a NASA space module or get former Seattle Mariner Jay Buhner to pay $20,000 for a golden retriever. “Watching him on stage was like seeing Frank Sinatra at the Sands,” Curley said.
Said Jeffrey Stokes, of local Stokes Auction Group, who considered Friel a mentor: “I can still hear him now. Five hundred dollars more. Five hundred dollars more. He had a wonderful rhythm about him. … It was a sweet song that lured you into a spirit of giving.”
Mr. Friel, who was born in Philadelphia in 1933, attacked each event with vigor — studying guest lists, showing up early to check the sound and lighting. By the night of the big event, he was ready, skillfully creating a living-room atmosphere that made people feel comfortable and inspired to open their checkbooks.
“He made it fun to give,” said Janet True, current president of local arts nonprofit Poncho and chairwoman of numerous benefit events. “You always felt like his auctions were a happening, and that you were making a difference.”
Mr. Friel was a natural showman, a former comedy writer/performer who did many radio and TV ads and once played a role in a John Wayne movie. He effortlessly commandeered black-tie-filled ballrooms, climbing onstage with exuberance and a wicked sense of humor, pumped on two cups of coffee. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he’d say, “prepare for a little open-wallet surgery.”
But Mr. Friel gave of himself offstage, too, serving on the boards of numerous nonprofit organizations, including the Seattle Symphony, Washington Arthritis Foundation and Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Puget Sound. In 1988, the aviation buff helped organize a record-breaking, around-the-world Boeing 747 flight that raised $500,000 for several charitable organizations.
“He was, like, Mr. Seattle,” True said. “He loved this community.”
Mr. Friel once even did auctions in the Kingston Ferry car line to benefit the local chamber of commerce.
“He wasn’t in it for the money,” Curley said. “… I used to ask him about it. He’d say, `You know, we’re gonna do some good tonight.’ He wasn’t just saying it.”
Last month, Mr. Friel was hospitalized for continuing heart problems, and his family thought he would rally the way he always did.
“This time, his heart was way too weak,” Sharon Friel said. “It wasn’t strong enough to pull him through.”
Mr. Friel is survived by his wife, their sons Rick and Chris, and daughter-in-law, Kim Virant, all of Seattle. Services will be held at the Museum of Flight, but a time and date has not been set.
Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or email@example.com