Frank Winston, Emperor of ideas and spirit, dies at 74

Shortly before Frank Winston was honored last month as the mover and shaker behind Giants Jewish Heritage Night, a reporter who hadn’t previously met him asked if he was going to prepare any remarks.

“Me? Don’t you know who you’re talking to? I never need to have a speech ready,” Winston replied.

Indeed, Winston was a man of nimble wit, never at a loss for words, ideas or stories. But most significantly, he was a man of action.

The gregarious and spirited Pacifica resident, known affectionately in that seaside burg as the “Emperor of Pacifica,” died Sept. 11 in San Francisco after suffering a heart attack two days earlier. He was 74.

Winston, a former attorney, never met a cause, a committee or an organization that he couldn’t wrap his mind — and his big arms — around. And once he did, the ideas came fast and furious.

“His was a mind that could turn out 60 different ideas a minute,” Barbara Arietta said at his Sept. 15 funeral at Congregation Beth Israel-Judea in San Francisco, which was attended by more than 150 people in the middle of a work day.

“It was exciting to just sit and listen to his ideas — and even more exciting to act on them,” added Arietta, who served with Winston on the board of the Pacifica Historical Society. In fact, just weeks before he died, Winston and Arietta had dressed in the 1908 garb of two Pacifica luminaries and greeted visitors on a tour of the city’s famed mystery castle.

Winston had a long history of taking an interest in an existing organization — or creating a whole new entity on his own — and running with it.

In 1965, for example, Winston showed up as a first-timer to a meeting of the Golden Gate B’nai B’rith lodge in San Francisco. He became active right away, joining several committees and accompanying the group to a convention in Las Vegas. He was named program chairman almost immediately, and shortly thereafter became lodge vice president. It didn’t take long until he was elected president.

“Most notable were his creative and unique program ideas, and his talent for publicizing those in the Jewish and local press,” remembered Harry Gluckman, who helped launch the Golden Gate lodge in 1964. “He helped our lodge triple its membership in the first two years.”

Years later, Winston went on to become the regional president (covering Northern California and Hawaii) for B’nai B’rith International. He also served as regional president of the American Jewish Congress, launched the first Jewish sports hall of fame in Northern California and helped turn the San Francisco Giants’ idea for a Jewish Heritage Night into a much-anticipated annual event that inspired the Golden State Warriors to start one, too.

“He was a very special individual,” said Joel Brooks, former director of the AJCongress’ San Francisco office. “Some would call him a maverick. He was not like much of the leadership of the Jewish community. He was very much his own person, one of the most creative individuals I ever encountered in my 30 years of Jewish community service.”

Winston was born in Oakland on Oct. 3, 1933. His father, Lew, was an auctioneer and owner of a furniture store who also helped run a vaudeville theater in town. His mother, Marie, was a bon vivant known for wearing enchantingly daffy hats.

Winston attended Oakland High School and his family belonged to Temple Beth Abraham. A firebrand even as a youth, he served as president of both the Beth Abraham and Temple Sinai youth groups — at the same time. As a teenager, he also served as the leader of his local AZA chapter.

Winston attended U.C. Berkeley as an undergraduate and earned a law degree from Georgetown University, after which he joined the U.S. Air Force as a staff attorney. In the early 1960s, he set up shop in San Francisco as a defense attorney, later wedding his secretary in what proved to be a short-lived marriage.

For a while, Winston’s business card was a facsimile of the front of a Winston cigarette package, which he had to scrap when the company threatened to sue him.

“He still had one of those cards in his wallet when we spoke a couple of weeks ago,” Gluckman mused. “So do I, right in my Rolodex.”

Winston’s eccentricity was part of his charm. While pushing ideas for Pacifica’s 50th anniversary celebration last year, he proclaimed himself Emperor of Pacifica and started showing up around town wearing a rose-colored jacket, crown and scepter and making decrees. Kids rushed up to have their picture taken with him.

And for years, Winston insisted his name be written in all lowercase letters (frank d. winston), which always sparked a stylebook debate in the j. newsroom.

Noted Arietta: “For a man who preferred that his name be written without capital letters, his impact on other people’s lives was definitely in big, capital letters.”

In the late 1960s, Winston quickly joined the fight of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jewry, defending people who chained themselves to fences and once leading a group of 300 lawyers to the USSR.

Winston served as president of several local attorney organizations, including the Lawyers’ Club of San Francisco in 1982. He was also a radio host, amateur actor and writer of skits and plays.

When he moved into an assisted living home in Pacifica four years ago, Winston wasn’t ready to slow down. He took over as president of the Pacifica Democrat club, wrote the “Frankly Speaking” column for the local paper and became perhaps the most active member the Pacifica Historical Society had ever seen, first launching a cable TV show (which he hosted) and then seizing the planning reins for the city’s 50th anniversary celebration.

People were highly skeptical of the TV show idea when he proposed it in 2006, but “Footprints of Pacifica” recently celebrated its 50th episode and has won two West Coast cable awards.

About the only thing Winston liked to downplay was his physical condition. Afflicted by diabetes, he was confined to a wheelchair the past five years after having his toes amputated because of a

circulation problem. The disease also affected his sight, leaving him almost totally blind.

After his heart attack Sept. 9, few friends even knew he was in San Francisco’s Kaiser Hospital, although he did get a visit from longtime friend Rabbi Yosef Langer of Chabad of S.F. (immortalized by Winston as the Giants’ “Rally Rabbi”). Langer buoyed Winston’s spirits by blowing the shofar in the intensive care unit and telling him that the Oakland Raiders have agreed to a Jewish heritage tailgate party on Oct. 19.

“He was not in the best of shape, but he really came alive with the news about the Raiders,” Langer said. “He was really excited about that.”

Winston is survived by his only sibling, Tom, who lives in Vacaville; an aunt, two nieces and several cousins. He will be interred Monday, Sept. 22, at Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Dixon.

A video of his funeral can be seen at, and Pacifica is planning a celebration of his life on Oct. 4, but time and location have not been determined. For details, call Kathleen Manning at (415) 509-6685.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.