Paul Matzger, Emanu-El past president, dies at 61

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As a young lawyer, Paul Matzger received a surprise phone call from a prospective client. A gifted conversationalist, Matzger immediately struck up a rapport with the stranger on the other end of the line. They engaged in a conversation that ended only when the caller realized that he'd been looking for an attorney by the name of Metzger, but he had contacted one named Matzger.

No matter. An hour later the caller phoned back, said he'd talked to Mr. Metzger, didn't like him nearly as much as Mr. Matzger, and offered Paul the case.

"He made words in the English language dance," recalled John Matzger, a cousin. "Whether it was in his poetry or every time he opened his mouth, he could do things with words I don't think anyone else could do."

Paul Matzger, a lifelong member of Congregation Emanu-El and its president during the mid-1990s, died in Berkeley Feb. 17 after suffering a heart attack. He was 61.

"Around Emanu-El, when the clergy compared notes, we found that whenever one of us had a problem, we went to Paul," said Emanu-El's senior rabbi, Stephen Pearce. "Frequently we went to him for advice, or maybe it was just to bounce something off of him; the way he thought a program might work the best way to proceed with something. You knew you'd always get a thoughtful response from him."

Everyone always wanted to be Matzger's friend, Pearce added. "He was the kind of person that if you were riding in an elevator with him, by the time you got to the top floor, you'd want additional information."

Friends and family recalled Matzger's indomitable sense of humor and his trademark doggerel rhymes, in which he often poked fun at his loved ones and himself.

"There were a lot of double entendres and humor in them," remembered David Melnick, Matzger's friend for the past 40 years and law partner for the last 30. "He'd make fun of people, but never in a mean way. It was never a put-down at all."

In fact, even in the last days of his life, Matzger's wit remained rapier-sharp, as he cut up the doctors and nurses surrounding him. While being wheeled into the hospital's critical care unit after a first heart attack on Feb. 14, he was overheard to tell a nurse, "Don't be fooled. I am not critical." He died of a second heart attack a few days later.

Matzger grew up in a family with deep San Francisco roots. He stayed local, attending Lowell High School, Stanford and U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall College of Law, where he sat next to his cousin John and met his future partner Melnick.

Matzger and Melnick founded their own business law firm in 1970 and merged with a larger firm in 1980. The pair "sat next to each other for 30 years."

Yet while the silver-tongued Matzger could make friends at the drop of a hat and possessed a legendary sense of humor, those closest to him remembered him most for his compassion and generosity.

"Oh, absolutely no doubt about it, it was his kindness," said John Matzger, when asked what was his cousin's outstanding trait. "A lot of people are kind, but have an ulterior motive. But he really was just a kind man. He had a sense of justice and a feeling for the little guy."

Matzger would do people favors without being asked or expecting anything in return. He would take friends' kids out for ice cream, or leave fruit on the front porch. When Emanu-El Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan's home was burglarized, Matzger drove up with a rug in his arms and said, "People who have things taken from them should have things given back."

Matzger was an avid tennis player, hiker and violin player, but his greatest love was for his family. His adult children, Eddy and Helen, each lived within two blocks of his Berkeley home. After Helen delivered Matzger's only grandchild, Louisa, Paul tenderly helped to carry the infant home from the hospital on foot.

Friends joked that Matzger and his and wife, Lucy, were the perfect couple: He had a lifelong habit of losing his glasses and she had a lifelong habit of knowing where they were.

"There was levity in his life, but he also had the ability to be serious and have a lot of concerns," said Helen Matzger. "He was also just really easy to be around. Children loved him, and he was always drawn to children. He could be playful with them and talk to more senior people, too. He had both sides."

Matzger is survived by his wife, Lucy; his son, Eddy; his daughter, Helen, and his granddaughter, Louisa, all of Berkeley. Memorial services were held at Emanu-El.

Contributions can be sent to Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F., CA 94118; A Better Way Foster Family Agency, 3200 Adeline St., Berkeley, CA 94703; The New Israel Fund, 693 Sutter St., No. 500, S.F., CA 94102; and the Carmel Bach Festival, P.O. Box 575, Carmel, CA 93921

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.