Hormel heir dies

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 14, 2006

By Lee Bonorden, Austin Daily Herald

“Geordie” is dead at 77.

George Hormel II, son of Jay and Germaine Hormel, and grandson of George A. and Lillian Hormel, died at his home in Arizona last weekend.

Long before professional athletes and pop music stars became know by a single name, Austin had Geordie, a celebrity they had to share with the world outside the meatpacking empire that bears his name.

“We were saddened to hear about Geordie Hormel’s passing. Our hearts go out to his brothers, his wife and his children,” was the Hormel Foods Corporation’s official response to the news of the Hormel heir’s death.

According to Julie Henderson Craven, vice president corporate communications,

Hormel Foods Corporation, “The stock ownership by Mr. Hormel is not public information.”

“He has not had an active role in the company for many years and has spent most of his adult life on the west coast,” Craven added.

Geordie did, indeed, live a flamboyant lifestyle befitting the free-spirit he was since birth.

According to The Arizona Republic, he died Sunday at his home in Paradise Valley.

He was known for his long, gray hair and casual style and for donating generously to several Paradise Valley charities and often attended fund-raisers with his wife, Jamie, the newspaper reported.

After being hospitalized for a week with an infection, he returned home last Monday (Feb. 6) and died at 6 a.m. Sunday with his wife, Jamie,

and family by his side.

“Jamie’s last words to Geordie were, ‘You’re my best friend,'” said Celeste Nichols, a close friend. “Jamie brought him home so he could be surrounded by his family and the comforts of his own home for his last days.”

He moved to Paradise Valley about 15 years ago and bought the 54,000-square-foot McCune Mansion. In 1992, he bought the historic Wrigley Mansion, built by the chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. in the late 1920s, as a 50th wedding anniversary gift for his wife. He restored it to its original splendor featuring his private art collection, the Arizona Republic noted.

He was married four times, according to the newspaper. His first wife was actress Leslie Caron, who starred in such films as “An American in Paris” and “Gigi.” The couple lived for awhile at the Hormel estate in Austin.

The artist and talented musician owned the Village Recording Studio in Los Angeles. His son, George A. Hormel III – known as Smoky – is a successful guitar player. Geordie often played piano at the Wrigley Mansion during Sunday brunch.

The mansion houses a restaurant and hosts special events. He frequently traveled with his family from Paradise Valley to their home in Newport Beach, Calif., on one of his three tour-size buses. One bus has a small recording studio and a piano.

The funeral will be private. The date for a celebration of his life at the Wrigley Mansion will be announced later.

Donations can be made in George Hormel’s name (his grandfather) to Hospice of the Valley.

He is survived by his wife, six children, eight grandchildren and two brothers.

Geordie last visited Austin 15 years ago.

Sharon Jensen, wife of Harold Jensen, knew Geordie. She has written “The Fine House on Water Street,” chronicling the Hormel family in Austin and the home known today as the “Historic Hormel Home” along what is now Fourth Avenue Northwest.

“The last time I saw him was in 1991, when he came back to Austin for a memorial service for his mother, Germaine,” Jensen said. “He had a very, very kind heart.”

Jensen worked first for the Austin Daily Herald and later Gerard of Minnesota, an adolescent treatment center in the former Jay C. and Germaine Hormel mansion at the east edge of the Austin city limits. In her own words, Jensen described her contact with the most flamboyant of the “Hormel boys.”

“I know that there are many people in Austin who knew him personally; I only had the opportunity to meet him and did not know him

personally,” she said.

“I did work as a secretary to Geraldine Rasmussen, former owner and business manager of the Austin Daily Herald, for 28 years; 24 of those years were part-time after she retired,” Jensen said. “The first time I met Geordie was in the spring of 1958 when he was preparing to open his new hotel at his former boyhood home, now known as Gerard. Geraldine liked Geordie very much and she introduced him to me when he arrived at her office to have her assist him with his advertising regarding his new hotel, Kings Wood.”

“He was tall, handsome, and was dressed in a white shirt, suit and tie,” she said. “My first impression, which has remained constant through the years, was that he was very gracious and kind.”

“Geordie’s second wife, Kim, was an artist and in 1959 Geraldine hosted an art show for her in the lower level of the Sterling State Bank,” she went on to say. “They were a very attractive couple. There have been many times when I have wished that I would have had the insight to purchase one of her pieces of art.”

Another memory of Jensen’s is Geordie’s penchant for music.

“I also worked at Gerard for 28 years and when I retired in 1999, I left my CD of ‘Geordie at the Wrigley’ there,” she recalled. “We usually played it quite loudly on late Friday afternoons.”

Musician, philanthropist and ‘family guy’. Music remained a passion of Geordie’s throughout his life. He once owned radio station KGJR (later KQAQ until it went off the air). He made 2 CDs – one country and the other an eclectic mix of pop tunes and other genres – and both are on sale at the Hormel Historic Home.

Tracy Plunkett, executive director of the former Hormel mansion, has become an archivist herself. Her collection of magazine and newspaper

articles, plus old pictures, is as extensive as anyone’s. Plunkett also visited Geordie at his mansion in Arizona.

On the occasion of the recent Hormel Foods Corporation annual meeting, a restored grand piano was unveiled to the public. Funds for the restoration came from Geordie and his two brothers.

His was truly a lifestyle of the rich and semi-famous. He made the tabloids, when he purchased the Wrigley mansion and was a frequent “item” in society columns in Arizona newspapers, when he opened “Geordie’s” a piano bar and restaurant in the Wrigley mansion. He was courted by striking meatpackers, during the labor dispute and strike at Hormel Foods’ flagship plant in the mid-1980s.

Although not always as headline-grabbing as other activities, Geordie became well-known for his many acts of philanthropy. Hormel archivists Plunkett said his generosity may have been lesser-known because his free-spiritedness tended to over-shadow them. Even a trip back to his hometown put him in the headlines. From a 1977 Austin Daily Herald is the story headlined “Geordie visits briefly over weekend in Austin.&8221; All he had to do was show up and it was an event. Fond memories of a man who was ‘like an uncle&8221;.

Still another side of the man is told by Tom Lembrick, who lived at the Hormel estate in the 1950s to 1970s. His father, Richard, was property manager for first, Jay C. Hormel, and then, Geordie.

“I knew the more private side of Geordie,” he said. “He liked to play with kids. He let us take our sleds into the woods on the estate and pick out a Christmas tree for our family.”

“He had this room called the ‘Hawaiian Room’ at the old Kingswood Hotel and he would play the piano and sing to guests. He even sang

Christmas songs at that time of the year,” Lembrick said.

“One Christmas when all of us kids were there with our folks, he had this reindeer brought in with its nose painted bright red. We all thought it was the real Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” Lembrick said.

Lembrick’s father moved north to the Ottertail Lake area and opened two resorts. Geordie owned property there on which he frequently visited a large, log cabin in the deep woods. “He said he enjoyed getting away from everything at that place. He loved Minnesota a lot,” Lembrick said.

“Back home in Austin, when I was growing up, he was like an uncle to me. A guy who had a great sense of humor and enjoyed having fun,” Lembrick said.

There are other more ribald stories told about Geordie by those who knew him well in Austin. Of business schemes, a documentary movie about Austin and more that only he could verify.

He was a member of the Austin High School class of 1946, but dropped out of school to attend Shattuck Academy at Faribault as a sophomore. Only last week, members of the AHS class of 1946, were planning their 60th reunion and wondering if Geordie would like to attend. What a perfect homecoming it would have been this summer. Perhaps, even a repeat of the headline “Geordie visits briefly over weekend in Austin.”

That was not to be and instead Austinites will have to reconcile themselves with their own memories of a man living large before the words were invented.

A man who called Austin his home.

(Lee Bonorden can be contacted at 434-2232 or by e-mail at

mailatlee.bonorden@austindailyherald.com.)