Richard Goldman, S.F. philanthropist, dies at 90

By Carolyne Zinko, San Francisco Chronicle
Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Richard Goldman, a philanthropist whose annual environmental prize is considered one of the world’s top ecological awards, died Monday of natural causes at his home in San Francisco. He was 90.

Mr. Goldman and his wife, Rhoda, dispensed hundreds of millions of dollars in support of a variety of charitable causes in the Bay Area and internationally through the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund they started in 1951. In 1989, the couple created the global Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots environmental activists – a green Nobel, in effect.

Each year, up to seven winners receive $150,000 from an endowment by the Goldman family, and prize winners’ work has helped change the ways that everyday people live.

This year’s six winners included a man who led a campaign to halt the practice of maiming and killing sharks for their fins in Costa Rica and a woman who exposed the polluting practices of livestock ranches in rural Michigan. In 1991, a San Francisco biologist won for a film of dolphin slaughter by ships using nets to catch tuna.

Interviewed by The Chronicle last year, Mr. Goldman said of prize winners, “What they’re doing now will be with them their whole lives. They’re doing it for the betterment of mankind.”

Money for many causes

The Goldman Fund in recent years gave $10 million to the San Francisco Symphony, $3.6 million to the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and $1.25 million to combat rural malnutrition, according to the fund’s website. In 2010 alone, some $12.6 million was allocated to Jewish causes including the Israel Project, an educational nonprofit.

“He was a caring and constructive and intuitive philanthropist – he loved San Francisco and the Bay Area, and he wanted to ensure that the quality of the city and the opportunities for the people were visible, available and meaningful,” said fellow philanthropist Roselyne Swig. “His philanthropic legacy is huge, not only here but across the country and the world.”

But family and community were even more central to his life.

“His greatest accomplishment was having a wonderful, loving family, grandchildren he adored and a wife who was his partner for nearly 50 years,” said one of his sons, John Goldman. “His pride in the Goldman Prize was important – not so much for him, but as a source of inspiration for others – and so was his pride in the work he did in the community. He was a great presence and he will be missed.”

Mr. Goldman was born April 16, 1920, in San Francisco. He and his wife-to-be grew up down the street from each other. Richard was a friend of one of Rhoda’s brothers.

Eventually both Richard and Rhoda attended UC Berkeley. After college, Mr. Goldman spent four years in the armed services and returned to San Francisco in 1946. He later ran into Rhoda at a friend’s wedding. They were married within the year.

Ahead of the curve

The couple were green long before it was popular. Rhoda Goldman taught the couple’s four children to recycle newspapers, grocery bags and cans.

In 1949, Mr. Goldman founded Goldman Insurance Services, a local insurance brokerage firm. It was sold to Willis Insurance in 2001.

Rhoda Haas Goldman was a descendant of Levi Strauss and served on the board of directors of both the apparel company and the corporation’s philanthropic foundation. She died in 1996. Mr. Goldman had piercing blue eyes and was not shy about his opinions or challenging people to do better, said childhood friend Roger Boas, San Francisco’s chief administrative officer from 1977 to 1986.

Thinking things through

“He was a natural leader, not the bullying kind, or the ‘I’m-the-boss’ kind, but even as youngsters, going on hikes or camping, he had the ability to think the situation through very well, and we all followed him,” Boas said. “As an adult, he never ran from a problem. When a friend got ill, I hesitated, but not Rich – he’d go visit right away. He always faced up to things that were not pleasant.

“He did not suffer fools well, and he could not be pushed around,” Boas said. “He made mistakes just like everybody else, but in his fashion, he got to what he thought the heart of the matter was and just stayed there. He was loyal, extremely loyal. If you were down in the dumps, you could call on him.”

Mr. Goldman is survived by a sister, Marianne Goldman of San Francisco; two sons, John Goldman of Atherton and Doug Goldman of San Francisco; and a daughter, Susan Gelman of Maryland. Another son, Richard Goldman, died in 1989.

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