Robert Upright, scourge of Bay Area fish, dies at 102

Robert Upright was a funny guy, but he was a serious fisherman. And he was perhaps never so serious as the day he was making his own gefilte fish and realized he didn’t have enough.

“He took his pole, ran down to the pier, caught a few more fish and came back and finished it,” said his daughter, Arlene Bernstein.

A native of Austria-Hungry and a San Franciscan since 1923, Upright drove himself from his Sunset District home across the Golden Gate Bridge several times a week to fish at the Fort Baker pier until he sold his car at age 98. He died June 3 after a sudden outbreak of internal bleeding, a week after celebrating his 102nd birthday with his family at a San Francisco brewery and restaurant. He lived on his own, and was mentally acute until the very end.

“I basically spent the past 20 years showing him off to my friends. Everybody got to know him and everyone called him Grandpa. No one could believe how old he really was,” recalled grandson Alex Bernstein.

Upright was born in 1905 in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. (After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Upright’s father looked at him over the morning paper and allegedly uttered, ‘You watch — there’ll be trouble over this.'”) His immediate family immigrated to the United States in the 1920s and, other than a pair of cousins who ended up in Munich and Israel, his entire family was wiped out in the Holocaust.

As a very young man on a hike in Marin, Upright drifted away from the group to feast his eyes on a babbling brook tantalizingly full of fish. He noticed another young man had done the same. It was Joe Koret, who went on to become the businessman and Jewish philanthropist behind the Koret Foundation. The two became lifelong friends and went fishing almost every Saturday in the Pacific Ocean. The two men’s families grew intertwined because of the close friendship; Arlene Bernstein refers to Koret (now deceased) as “Uncle Joe.”

Upright worked for 40 years in the family drapery business, Caro & Upright, but fishing and the outdoors was his true passion. With a rod in his hands, he was the Da Vinci of anglers, and he had little patience for fishing’s Sunday painters. Alex Bernstein recalls that his grandfather had a nickname for unskilled fishermen — shoemakers — and if the boot fit, he’d let them know.

Every couple of years Upright and his elderly buddies would help rescue “shoemakers.” One time, an inexperienced young windsurfer who’d been swept out to sea and spent the night on his board was ecstatic to be rescued by a boat full of octogenarians.

Upright’s love of the sea and the outdoors led him to become an environmentalist before it was fashionable; decades ago he was helping to save imperiled seals, sea lions, shore birds and fisheries.

When he wasn’t fishing, it was a good bet Upright was either smoking the salmon he caught — “that was my dowry,” jokes his daughter — or making jams out of the berries he picked. His wife, Elizabeth, died more than 30 years ago, and afterwards he became even handier around the kitchen.

He was also a voracious reader, and the National Geographic magazines stacked up in his garage track back to the days when the magazine didn’t even have photographs on the cover. And he remembered a frightening amount of the material he read.

“My wife had a funny story about him,” recalled Mervin Brown, Koret’s nephew and a lifelong friend of Upright’s. “She was driving one day and listening to Joe Carcione, the ‘greengrocer,’ on the radio. And someone called in to correct him and she recognized the voice on the radio as Bob’s.

“He could answer you on any subject you wanted to talk about. But he didn’t force it on you. You could always go to Bob to find out the answer.”

In addition to his daughter, Arlene Bernstein of Hillsborough, Upright is survived by grandchildren Alex Bernstein of San Francisco and Dana Bernstein Stiskin of San Jose; and a great-grandson. Donations in his memory can be sent to the Marine Mammal Center at Marin Headlands, 1065 Fort Cronkhite, Sausalito, 94965; the Mills Peninsula Hospital Foundation, 100 S. San Mateo Drive, San Mateo 94401; and Jewish Family and Children’s Services, 2150 Post St., S.F. 94115.

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.