On a September day in 2012, Dan Pokorney, then mayor of La Grande, put in a grueling day in order to deliver a message of hope — a typical day for this man dedicated to community service.
Pokorney arrived at La Grande High School’s track just before 10 p.m. Sept. 29 to provide concluding remarks for the 15th annual Drug Free Relay. Pokorney’s appearance capped an exhausting day, which started in Salem where he attended a meeting of the League of Oregon Cities before rushing back to La Grande for the relay. The 12-hour event, which had more than 100 participants on 17 teams, was conducted to promote and support drug- and alcohol-free lifestyles in Union County.
“This is not the end, only the beginning,” Pokorney told the relay participants. “This community cares and is not going to stop working until it is drug free.”
Pokorney’s relay appearance was one of about 635 community events he attended from 2011 to 2015 while mayor.
This remarkable number is evidence of the dedication of a tireless public servant, one whose inspiring story tragically ended Monday. Pokorney, 65, passed away in La Grande after suffering a cardiac arrest.
Pokorney had lived in La Grande since May of 1973, when he moved here from Nebraska with his wife, Linda. He made his mark on the La Grande community over the next 45 years, serving not only as mayor but also as a city councilor, a member of the La Grande School Board, a volunteer for Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church where he was a member of its Knights of Columbus chapter and much more. At Our Lady of the Valley ,Pokorney’s work included operating its booth at the Union County Fair for years and helping lead many church projects.
“He was volunteer par excellence,” said Colleen MacLeod, a former Union County Commissioner.
MacLeod and her husband, Al, are the owners of Joe Beans, a coffee and sandwich shop in La Grande, where Pokorney was a regular each morning and made a habit of lending a hand.
“He would help us open each morning and shovel snow off the sidewalk in front of our shop and those next to ours,” Colleen MacLeod said.
MacLeod believes that Pokorney’s good deeds will not go unrewarded.
“There will be no waiting in line for him at the pearly gates. His ticket is already punched,” she said.
Di Lyn Larsen-Hill, who served as mayor of La Grande about 20 years ago, said it was clear that Pokorney was comfortable in his role as mayor.
“He loved being mayor. He liked the ceremony of being mayor,” she said.
She noted that Pokorney never missed an opportunity to go to parades and ribbon cuttings for the opening of new businesses. He was clearly in his element with a booming voice, quick wit and ready smile.
“He was very good at (representing La Grande as mayor),” Larsen-Hill said.
John Howard, a La Grande businessman and a former Union County Commissioner, also said Pokorney was a natural as mayor. One of Howard’s favorite memories of Pokorney is watching him with members of the La Grande Downtown Association who were handing out candy to children and their families on Halloween.
“He was grinning from ear to ear,” Howard recalled.
Howard also has a vivid memory of Pokorney enthusiactally leading a crowd of people from the Christmas parade to the lighting ceremony of the community Christmas tree at Max Square one December.
“This was classic Dan,” Howard said. “He was the people’s mayor.”
Robert Strope, La Grande’s city manager, said part of what made Pokorney so special was his passion for this town.
“He was deeply committed to the community and to doing what was right for the citizens of La Grande,” Strope said.
Pokorney went out of his way to give others credit for good things being done in La Grande. For example, Strope said that at every council meeting while Pokorney was mayor, he had a segment he called “Council Spotlight,” during which he recognized individuals or organizations working hard to make La Grande a better place.
Pokorney, whose survivors include his son, Jason, and daughter, DaLyn, discussed his tenure as mayor in an autobiograhical book published in September of 2018.
He wrote his ultimate goal as mayor was to be a visible connection between the people and their city’s government. Pokorney made it known to organizations he was willing to come to their meetings and community events.
“I went to all ribbon cuttings and attempted to visit every business in the city to let them know I was willing to listen to their concerns,” Pokorney wrote in his book. “Some folks were initially skeptical of my motives, but soon they saw I was sincere about learning all I could about everything in La Grande.”
Pokorney did all this while working a full-time day shift at a Boise Cascade mill, which meant he often attended two or three meetings between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.
In his book, “Tragedy to Grace — A Personal History of Perseverance Through God,” Pokorney discusses blessings in his life borne of tragedy.
The first was a horrific motor vehicle accident on July 18, 1960, which he survived unhurt, but claimed the lives of his parents, Bill and Jeanne, and two of his three brothers. Dan Pokorney, who was 6 years old at the time of the accident was then raised by his grandparents along with his surviving brother David, who was 10 when the accident occured, wrote philosophically about the accident in his book.
“My life as I knew it certainly had been changed, yet I can not imagine having a better family and community to rescue my brother and me,” he said. “They did their best to see that there were no other victims from this accident. There are many times in our lives when events happen to us, good or bad, (and) we try to rationalize the impact on us. I truly believe only God knows the ultimate impact, and I believe that if we wait for his guidance, he will provide the best possible outcome.”
Other tragedies Pokorney wrote about include the loss of his wife, Linda, who died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1998, and the death of one of his daughters, Diedra, in 2015 at the age of 29.
MacLeod said that writing the book was cathartic for Pokorney, who rarely discussed any of the tragedies of his life.
“It was monumental for him,” she said.
MacLeod, who has known Pokorney for more than 25 years, said she learned a lot in the course of reading his book. She said this was a tribute to Pokorney’s character, since he was not someone to seek sympathy for the curveballs life threw him.
She recalled seeing many people go up to Pokorney in her coffee shop and tell him how much they loved his book because it helped them deal with issues they were confronting. She said Pokorney will be missed by many.
“Dan was a fabulous guy,” she said.
Funeral service information for Pokorney will be announced later. Daniels-Knopp Funeral Cremation & Life Celebration Center is in charge of the arrangements.