Mike Heffernan
Mike Heffernan
He’s an Irish-American Catholic who owned one of Portland’s most famous Jewish delicatessens. At 81, Mike Heffernan has operated humbly yet powerfully in varied environments, from a smoking grill to the grueling loneliness of distance running.

Heffernan has lived in Portland his entire life. Born in Emanuel Hospital in North Portland, he was baptized in nearby Immaculate Heart Church, became an altar boy and attended the parish school. An Irish stronghold that became a home to Black Catholics, Immaculate Heart was the scene of most of his early childhood.

He is just about Catholic aristocracy. His grandmother’s nephew was Bishop Edward Kelly, who led the Diocese of Boise from 1927 to 1956.

Heffernan attended Central Catholic where he was a 100-pound, five-foot-tall gym rat who loved basketball but was too small to make the Rams’ squad. But he grew to 5-foot-10 and walked on to the University of Portland freshman basketball team.

He was a better than average student but stayed in college just two years before taking a job as a railroad billing clerk. He kept playing basketball — hard.

In 1962, he and U.P. friend John Ward purchased the Harvest House restaurant at Northeast 59th and Halsey. Catering to fans and players from the softball stadium at nearby Normandale Park, the colonial-themed eatery featured 40-cent burgers and filet mignon for $2.15. The men bought their meat from the Catholic Zenner family.

“Come as you are and feel comfortable,” an advertisement read.

Heffernan, who calls himself shy, found it taxing at first to chat with people at the restaurants. But he cultivated the skill.

“It put me out in the world where I hadn’t been much before,” he said.

By his late 30s, he was feeling old for basketball and took up running to lose a few pounds. His wife signed him up for a marathon — “it pretty near killed me” — but he took to it. He’d run more than 30 marathons before a serious knee injury would force him to quit when he was in his early 60s. But first he won scores of distance running trophies all over the world in competitions of World Masters Athletics. He was an age-category superstar. With records that lasted for decades, he was inducted into the national Masters Distance Running Hall of Fame.

Heffernan kept running shorter races well into his 70s, but five years ago changed to bicycling. As he always has done, Heffernan went full steam. He has ridden almost 10,000 miles per year, many at a blistering pace.

The food business continued. Heffernan operated the Driftwood Inn at Cannon Beach and bought Portland landmarks Tubby’s Deli and the Leaky Roof Tavern, where the roof actually did leak.

Restaurant life and running often mixed for him. After grueling training runs, he and his pals would adjourn to the Leaky Roof for hamburgers topped with fried eggs. Owner of taverns in a city nuts for fancy microbrews, Heffernan himself prefers Bud Light.

He owned the catering company that the Archdiocese of Portland Pastoral Center always used for employee picnics.

Then someone suggested he buy Kornblatt’s, a landmark Jewish deli on Northwest 23rd Avenue. In charge there from 2002 to 2011, he hardly changed a thing since the place ran on its own magic. “It had a great vibe,” said Heffernan, who valued a staffer from the Bronx.

About 15 years ago, Heffernan joined the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish Catholic organization that was prominent in Oregon at the start of the 20th century. He met the group when members went to eat at Kornblatt’s on St. Patrick’s Day after a Celtic cross blessing at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Portland.

“As the Irish owner of a Jewish deli he was perfect for the AOH,” said Hibernian leader Bill Gallagher.

Heffernan has overcome tragedy. His stepdaughter died not long after high school, and a 53-year-old son died in a motorcycle accident in 2016.

“When something like that happens to you, it hits you right between the eyes,” Heffernan said. “That’s just how it is. You can’t make it go away.”

He himself survived cancer but does not discuss it much.

In fact, Heffernan talks about himself rarely and only when prodded. But ask questions and one finds that he met Thurgood Marshall in the 1960s, which led to his sister meeting and marrying Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.

“Mike speaks little, not because he has nothing to say but because he likely questions whether anyone else wants to hear what he has to say,” said longtime friend Matt Cato. “When he speaks, everyone stops and listens. I have never known anyone who commands everyone’s attention when he, very softly, gives an observation. None of us would dare miss his pearl of wisdom.”

Until he retired recently, Heffernan helped out with the running team at Central Catholic.

“Mike is one of the finest humans I’ve ever had the pleasure to know,” said Dave Frank, head running coach for the Rams. “Quietly wise, self-effacing, brilliantly accomplished as an athlete and a businessman.”

Frank said Heffernan had conversations with every student on the team at one point or another, from the fastest to the slowest.

Msgr. Tim Murphy, a Central Catholic classmate, marvels at Heffernan’s open heart, especially when it came to helping young runners at Central Catholic.

“The sharing of his gifts is an outpouring, an expression,” Msgr. Murphy said.

Heffernan and wife Gayle, a nurse, have been married for 38 years. Marriage and family top his life experiences, followed by running and restaurants.

One lesson Heffernan learned from it all and passes along to anyone who will listen: “Know your limitations,” he said. “Not knowing them can have dire consequences.”