George Foos, retailer and activist, dies at 79

"Generous" came up repeatedly from family and friends in describing George Foos, who died Monday. He was 79.

Foos had "a very healthy appetite for life," said his close friend Betty Dreyfus. "He had a strong sense of social justice, and was happiest always when he was involved in community affairs."

Originally from Camden, N.J., Foos graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rutgers University. He enlisted in the Army during World War II, becoming a cryptoanalyst. He served in the intelligence corps in the Pacific, breaking enemy codes. When he returned, he began a career in retail.

Foos spent much of his life in Los Angeles, and the last 23 years in San Francisco. In Los Angeles, he was CEO of the May Company from 1970 to 1977. When he moved to San Francisco, he became chairman of the board of the former Emporium-Capwell department stores. After retiring, he continued to serve as a consultant and on the board of several retail chains, including Clothestime and Abercrombie & Fitch.

In Los Angeles, he and his wife, Helen, founded a scholarship program for minority youth called HELM (Higher Education for Los Angeles Minorities). He also served on the board of the NAACP.

"He was always empathetic to others, and a champion of the underdog," said his son David. "He always stood up for people who had been victimized, which often translated into concern about people of color."

This carried over into his work in the Jewish community. A longtime member of the American Jewish Committee, Foos served as president of both the Los Angeles and the San Francisco chapters. He was instrumental in building coalitions with the Asian- and African-American communities, said Ernest Weiner, area AJCommittee executive director.

"He understood there had to be a reaching out to other communities and an understanding of their objectives and frustrations too, as well as the Jewish community," Weiner said. "He was a lifelong student with a richness of background, both Jewishly and academically."

Among his other Jewish affiliations, Foos served as campaign chair and as a board member for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and was a founder of American Jewish World Service. He was a supporter of the Democratic Party, and he served on Mayor Willie Brown's committee for welfare reform.

Foos was also a member of Hillcrest and Lake Merced golf and country clubs.

"He was a highly principled man with extremely strong values," said his son Garson. "He was very outspoken about right and wrong, and was a very devoted and loving father."

Foos was predeceased by his wife, Helen, in 1994. He is survived by his companion, Helga Justman of San Francisco; children Richard (and Shari) and Garson (and Nicole) Foos of Los Angeles and David (and Susana) Foos of Davis; and grandchildren Harley Foos, Miguel Armstrong-Russ, Santiago Foos-Russ, Sydney Foos and Zachary Foos.

Contributions can be made to American Jewish World Service, 989 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10018, or American Jewish Committee, 121 Steuart St., No. 405, S.F., CA, 94105.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."