Stuart Moldaw, tender and sweet business magnate, dies at 81

Stuart Moldaw helped people dress for less, and it made him his fortune. Then he turned around and gave back — and encouraged others to do the same.

Friends and associates hailed Moldaw’s generosity and compassion after his death at age 81 on May 24 following a brief illness.

Moldaw, who lived in Atherton, was a pioneer in the specialty retail and clothing business. He founded Ross Dress for Less in 1982, was a founding investor in the Gymboree Corporation in 1996, and was a cofounder of U.S. Venture Partners, a premier venture capital firm, in 1980. Ross Stores became a Fortune 500 company with more than 900 retail locations, and is the nation’s second largest off-price retailer.

But beyond his business ventures, Moldaw was remembered as an active philanthropist with a strong commitment to the Jewish community and the underprivileged.

“He lived a full life,” said friend Donald Seiler, who knew Moldaw for 45 years; they were both members of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. Moldaw also later became a member of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

“He was active in the business world, the political world, the philanthropic world … he helped a lot of people,” Seiler said. “He was very bright, very hard working … he understood the retail business. He also surrounded himself with intelligent good people.”

Seiler noted that Moldaw also was a doting father who didn’t let business get in the way of being very involved with a close-knit family.

“You would think that with all that business ability that you wouldn’t see a guy who is really very tender and sweet,” said Rabbi Brian Lurie, a former executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. “[But he had] a personality that was really quite endearing.”

Moldaw, who served on the board of

the federation’s Jewish Community Endowment Fund, always had a commitment to senior citizens and the underprivileged, according to Phyllis Cook, outgoing executive director of the JCEF.

“He had a deep and profound interest in the Jewish community for a long time,” said Cook, adding that Moldaw was very astute about sizing up leadership skills. “Only two and half weeks ago, he was asking me about the new leadership of the federation.”

Cook said that Moldaw’s retailing wisdom and advice — key components in helping the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s gift shop become successful — will benefit to the gift shop at the new Contemporary Jewish Museum.

“Stuart was extremely supportive of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, always encouraging and supporting his wife Phyllis, who was a past president of the museum,” said Connie Wolf, director and CEO of the museum. “Both were tireless champions of our future.”

Fellow philanthropist Richard Goldman and his wife were among the first people that Moldaw met when he moved to the Bay Area in the 1950s, and they became lifelong friends.

“The main thing about Stuart is he had the knack for starting a business and making it work,” Goldman said. “His great accomplishment was that he was a good judge of management people.”

Moldaw used his financial success to become active in a wide range of political and philanthropic efforts, focusing on children’s needs, the Jewish community and the arts.

He served on the boards of Bay Area nonprofits such as the Moldaw-Zaffaroni Boys and Girls Club of East Palo Alto, Communities in Schools and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. He was also a member of the board of trustees of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Ballet and KQED.

He was a leading supporter of a senior living center at the Taube-Koret Campus for Jewish Life in Palo Alto, which was renamed the Moldaw Family Residences at 899 Charleston after a $10 million gift from a Moldaw foundation this year.

Moldaw was also politically active in the Democratic Party at both state and national levels. He was appointed by President Clinton as a public delegate to the U.S. Mission at the United Nations in 1993 and as chairman of the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars in 1996.

Moldaw’s personal credo was perhaps best summed up in his 2006 book “A Life Story for My Grandchildren,” in which he wrote, “We can do so much to make the world a better place. The advantage of financial well-being can make a person indulgent, rob him of the true measure of meaningful accomplishment and allow him to live a shallow life; or it can give him the ability to make a difference in the world that cries out for compassion, action and commitment.”

Moldaw was born in Boston in 1927 after his father fled Russia’s civil war. Moldaw served in the Navy during World War II, then attended Syracuse University, where he met his future wife, Phyllis Israelson of Portland, Maine. Moldaw graduated from Syracuse in 1949 with a degree in marketing and economics, and he and Phyllis married in 1950. After working in retail for several years, Moldaw saw opportunity in California, moved his family here in 1955 and started his first company in 1958, Country Casuals at the Mid-Town Shopping Center in Palo Alto.

Moldaw is survived by his wife, Phyllis; daughters Carol and Susan; and four grandchildren. The family requests that any memorial gifts be made to the Moldaw-Zaffaroni Boys and Girls Club of East Palo Alto, Eastside College Prep School in East Palo Alto, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.