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Published: Sunday, 10/22/2006

Furniture exec was active in '60s civil rights effort

NORWALK - John "Jack" Raymond Gerken, Jr., 80, who pioneered new retail concepts for furniture sales while working to build his family's business, Norwalk Furniture Corp., died Friday at Fisher Titus Medical Center.

The family said he died from muscular dystrophy complications.

Mr. Gerken helped establish several community organizations and advance the local civil rights movement during the 1960s.

He began working as a sales representative for Norwalk Furniture shortly after graduating from Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., in 1947.

The business was founded as Galpin & Gerken in Toledo in 1902 by his grandfather, Charles Gerken, and a business partner. It was renamed after being moved to Norwalk in 1919.

Working with his father, John Raymond Gerken, Sr., and brother, Edward "Ned" Gerken, Jack Gerken helped build the company. Today, the company deals with about 1,000 independent retailers throughout the country, his son, Jim Gerken, said.

Mr. Gerken was inducted into the American Furniture Hall of Fame in 1997 for pioneering concepts for living room specialty stores in the 1960s, as well as 30-day custom-order furniture, his son said.

Furniture stores of that era typically sold their living room furnishings in large buildings along with bedroom furnishings, kitchen appliances, and other home products. Under Mr. Gerken's vision, Norwalk Furniture focused on living room products that could be custom ordered to meet consumer preferences.

Mr. Gerken was chief executive officer of the company from the mid 1970s until his retirement in 1988. He was also a president of the National Association of Furniture Manufacturers, and recipient of numerous industry awards.

In the community, Mr. Gerken helped found the Norwalk Day Care Center, the Norwalk Revitalization Corp., and the Norwalk Community Development Corp., his family said.

In the early 1960s, Mr. Gerken helped form the mayor's Norwalk Committee for Human Relations. He was a longtime supporter of the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"It was just part of his personal commitment to equal rights and justice," his daughter, Ann Green, said.

Surviving are his son, Jim; daughter, Ann Green, and four grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Norwalk at 2 p.m. on Nov. 3.

The family suggests tributes to St. Paul's or the endowment fund for Norwalk City Schools. Walker Funeral Home is handling the arrangements.



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