Richard Dinner, 76, aided Jewish groups

Richard Shine Dinner, a major philanthropist and a Swig family member, died Tuesday at his Sonoma County home in Kenwood after many years of battling heart and kidney disease. He was 76.

Known to friends as "Buddy," he served on the boards of numerous organizations including the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El, Israel Bonds, the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, and the Salvation Army.

About three years ago, the GTU honored him by renaming its Judaic program the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies.

But his two daughters also recall their father's love for singing in Concordia Club shows, his passion for aiding victims of fires through the Phoenix Society, his pride in his Sonoma County vineyard, and his generosity in paying for college for countless young people.

"He was truly motivated from his heart, and his intentions were pure," said his daughter, Carolyn Zecca Ferris.

Rabbi Stephen Pearce of Emanu-El called Dinner "one of those rare people that a rabbi can rely on when he has someone in need."

When Pearce would hear of a student with serious financial problems, for instance, he would call Dinner for help. "There was never a question. A check arrived," the rabbi said.

Born in Brookline, Mass., Dinner majored in business administration at Boston University. In 1942, he married Betty Swig, the daughter of Fairmont Hotel magnate Benjamin Swig.

Dinner served in the Army from 1944 to 1946. He earned a bronze star for his service behind Japanese lines in Burma. After the war, the young couple moved to California and stayed together until her death in 1980.

Dinner married Joan Withers in 1982.

He was a partner in the Dinner Levison Co., a commercial insurance brokerage, until he retired in 1983. But friends said his real passion was outside of work.

The GTU, an interfaith seminary and religious studies, drew his attention in the late 1960s. He served on the board for about 30 years, including as vice chair. He later was named a trustee for life.

His daughters attributed his interest in ecumenical relations to his father-in-law, who became highly involved with the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco. But they also said his own upbringing in the Boston area influenced him.

His move to California, "where there was a more relaxed interaction between people of different cultures and religious faiths," inspired him to work for harmonious relations on more than just a personal level, Zecca Ferris said.

Dinner was also a longtime member of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund committee. Along with his brothers-in-law Richard and Mel Swig, Dinner created the Mae and Ben Swig Supporting Foundation.

"He cared very much about passing on the torch to the next generation," said Phyllis Cook, the endowment's executive director.

He earned an honorary doctor of human letters from the Hebrew Union College in New York.

Dinner had been ill since the early 1980s.

"I never heard him complain. He just thought he was a lucky devil to be alive," his daughter, Patricia Swig Dinner, said. "We used to call him the cat with 99 lives."

In addition to his wife and two daughters, he is survived by two sisters, Dorothy Winegarden and Janet Gross, and seven grandchildren.

He was interred at Home of Peace Cemetery in Colma. A memorial service was set for yesterday at Emanu-El.

Contributions can be made to the GTU Richard S. Dinner Center for Judaic Studies, 2400 Ridge Road, Berkeley 94709; the Dialysis Unit Renovation, California Pacific Medical Center Foundation, P.O. Box 7999, S.F., CA 94102-7999; or the charity of one's choice.