Professor, author Stephen Dobbs left mark on community

Stephen Dobbs wasn’t content with just one career.

Instead, he maxed out, excelling as a college professor, prolific author, nonprofit executive and Bay Area Jewish community leader. And just for fun, he occasionally played tour guide in his beloved hometown of San Francisco.

Dobbs passed away Oct. 25 from complications due to Lewy body disease. He was 73.

Stephen Dobbs

“His demise is a blow,” said Lou Haas, a San Francisco attorney and colleague of Dobbs when the two served on the board of J., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California. “He was a star, in that he was inextricably wound up with the San Francisco Jewish community.” Dobbs was  a J. board member at the time of his death, and Haas is a former J. board president.

San Francisco-born, Stephen Mark Dobbs was the son of Harold and Annette Dobbs, a Bay Area Jewish community power couple for decades (he was a San Francisco city supervisor, she was a leading pro-Israel activist). After graduating with a doctorate in art education from Stanford University, Dobbs became an adjunct professor of humanities at S.F. State University, teaching a course on San Francisco history.

He also taught at Harvard, Stanford and the University of London, and authored seven books and hundreds of articles on a myriad of subjects. Dobbs served as senior program officer for the J. Paul Getty Trust, CEO of the Koret Foundation, president of the Marin Community Foundation, executive vice president of the Bernard Osher Foundation and executive director of Taube Philanthropies.

Dobbs was also president of the Mount Zion Health Fund, One Act Theater Company and Brandeis Hillel Day School, and sat on the boards of Guide Dogs for the Blind, the Institute on Aging, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and San Francisco State University Foundation.

In his last years, Dobbs put his expertise on nonprofits to work as a consultant for such organizations as the Laszlo N. Tauber Family Foundation and the Lisa & John Pritzker Family Fund.

 “This is a guy who had many facets to his life, which made him an intriguing guy to know,” said Thomas Peters, CEO of the Marin Community Foundation, a post Dobbs held from 1991 to 1998. “He brought an infectious determination and enthusiasm for working on large-scale problems.”

Peters said he admired Dobbs’ keen mind and the scope of his interests.

“He was unapologetically academic,” Peters added. “He was one of those guys who was serious, thoughtful and even with his own opinions.”

Dobbs had a passion for history, especially local Jewish history. In a 2004 J. story, he called San Francisco a “place for new beginning, not just for Jews but for everybody. People flourish when no one is telling them not to.”

In that article, Dobbs reminisced about his boyhood: “I remember my father taking me to the Ukraine Bakery on McAllister, with the Hebrew letters in the window, for fresh challah back in the early 1950s. I remember Cohen Brothers on Geary Boulevard, where they had mackerel and herring and barrels of pickles. This was as close as San Francisco came to Delancey Street in New York, Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles or Chicago’s Maxwell Avenue.”

Those early experiences fostered a lifetime of dedication to the Jewish community.

Phyllis Cook, former executive director of the Federation’s Jewish Community Endowment Fund and now a consultant to nonprofits, knew and admired Dobbs.

His hallmark, said Cook, was “his creativity, articulate speech, literary skills and his very keen sense of humor. Steve was always interested in engaging young people, the arts, leadership and San Francisco Jewish history. He was an educator at heart.”

Tad Taube of Taube Philanthropies remembers Dobbs as a “sweet guy” with a strong commitment to his Jewish roots. “Stephen was first and foremost an academic,” Taube recalled. “His investigative work and the articles he wrote for us were very good. His character was very positive.”

Gabriel Dobbs, one of Stephen’s four sons, remembers his father as a man of great intellectual curiosity. “He loved books,” Gabe Dobbs recalled. “Our house is full of books, and it would drive my mom a little crazy. Every and free space was filled with bookshelves.”

Those books covered every conceivable topic, with an emphasis on the history of art and of San Francisco. Dobbs was so steeped in knowledge of his hometown, his son recalls, there were times he was lost in San Francisco and would call his father for help.

“I’d give him a random intersection, and he had the grid memorized,” Gabe Dobbs said. “He knew the politics and social history going back 100 years.”

Stephen and Victoria Dobbs met while he was teaching at SFSU. “They were yin and yang in some ways,” said Gabe Dobbs. “He was old-fashioned, she was more of a hippie. But they loved each other very much and always put us first.”

Stephen Dobbs is survived by his wife, Victoria, sons Joshua Dobbs of London, Gabriel Dobbs of San Francisco, Noah Dobbs of Oakland and Aaron Dobbs of Brooklyn; sisters Marilyn Higuera of Burlingame and Cathy Goldstein of San Rafael, and brother Gregory Dobbs of Evergreen, Colorado.

Contributions in his memory may be sent to the Harold Dobbs Cancer Research Fund at the Mount Zion Health Fund.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.