Nathan Ratner, a soft-spoken man who knew how to get things done

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One of Nathan Ratner’s proudest moments happened when he was a high school junior: he served as an usher at the founding of the United Nations.

Besides taking part in history, the creation of the U.N. had personal significance to the young Ratner. He believed its founding might lead to some word of his aunt and uncle in Bialystok, Poland; they hadn’t been heard from since World War II began.

“I have a very, very strong feeling for family,” and not hearing from his relatives for so long “really knocked me over cold,” he told the Jewish Bulletin in 1995.

Ratner, who went by Nate, died Thursday, Feb. 12, at the Jewish Home in San Francisco. He was 75.

He was a simple man who had the ear of many of the city’s politicians and officials. Among his close friends were former S.F. Supervisor Quentin Kopp, now a San Mateo County Superior Court judge, and Bill Lee, San Francisco’s chief administrative officer.

Born on June 30, 1928, Ratner lived at the same Polk Street address until he moved into the Jewish Home. He was 19 when his father died, and he had to drop out of junior college to run the family business and take care of his mother.

For most of his life, he ran a neighborhood hardware store. He later got a plumbing license, and fixed the plumbing of many of the city’s politicians.

He was an unassuming man who knew where to go when he thought people were being cheated.

“He was a fairly soft-spoken plumber who didn’t run in the power circles, but knew how to get things done,” said Milton Marks III, a family friend.

“He got a bug into him about issues, especially those issues where things needed to be corrected. He was very intense and persistent, and got these issues in his head and wouldn’t let go until he won.”

Marks’ mother, Carolene, added that Ratner always fought for the underdog.

Rabbi Yosef Langer, director of Chabad of S.F., first got to know Ratner around the time he began the Bill Graham Menorah Project. Ratner became caretaker of the giant menorah that is lit every year at Union Square.

“He rolled up his sleeves and took care of the nuts and bolts and made sure the springs were intact every year,” said Langer. “When you’re up there with the elements and the pigeons hovering and the wind blowing, you need a high-tech operation.”

While Ratner was not a war veteran himself, his father was, and he was fiercely proud of that fact. It led him to become involved with the local chapter of the Jewish War Veterans. Wallace Levin, a past commander of the JWV, said that he and Ratner led the effort to bring a battle flag saved from World War I back to City Hall, after it had gotten lost in the retrofitting. Ratner enjoyed a close relationship with the veterans, and often served as an announcer at Memorial Day festivities. He also served as president of the S.F. chapter and the central council chapters of B’nai B’rith.

Ratner has no immediate family, but was always very proud that he was related to Israeli General Israel Tal, who fought in the Six-Day War.

A shloshim service will be held for Ratner at 6 p.m. on Friday, March 19, at the Chabad House, 2950 Anza St., S.F.

Donations can be made to Chabad S.F., 2950 Anza St., 94121, or the Jewish National Fund, 42 East 69th St., New York, N.Y. 10021.

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."