Gap founder Donald Fisher leaves stamp on community

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Donald Fisher was walking around the new Jewish Community Center of San Francisco in 2004 when a blank wall caught his eye.

“This is a very white space,” he said. “Why don’t I give you a LeWitt?”

And just like that, the Gap founder, who had already given a $1 million gift to the JCCSF’s capital campaign, promised that an original painting by famous artist Sol LeWitt would adorn the wall.

And that was that. After Fisher contacted him, LeWitt designed an image for the JCC, and in May 2005, his crew came to San Francisco and painted the wall.

Donald Fisher

“What an incredibly generous gift that is so much a part of our building now,” said Lenore Naxon, then the development director and now the director of the JCCSF’s Eugene and Elinor Friend Center for the Arts.

Fisher, a major philanthropist and founder of the retail giant that made jeans a true fashion statement, died Sept. 27 after a long battle with cancer. The third-generation San Franciscan was 81.

“Don was one of the most generous people in our community,” said Warren Hellman, a fellow philanthropist and childhood friend.

The men knew each other “pretty much all our lives,” Hellman said, and became close friends when they were students at San Francisco’s Lowell High School.

“Don comes the closest of anybody I know to being a man for all seasons,” Hellman said. “He was a fantastic athlete, a very generous philanthropist and a tremendous family man.”

In 1969, after a successful career as a real estate developer, Fisher founded the Gap with his wife, Doris, after they had a frustrating experience at a store while trying to exchange a pair of jeans that didn’t fit. That year, the Fishers raised $63,000 to launch a jeans and music store on Ocean Avenue in San Francisco called “the Gap” (named for “the generation gap”).

Today, Gap Inc. includes such brands as Banana Republic and Old Navy and operates 3,100 stores in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Japan and Ireland.

“He was a no-nonsense kind of person, which was probably why he was so successful in business — he’d move the conversation to the heart of the matter fairly rapidly,” said Rabbi Stephen Pearce of Congregation Emanu-El, where Donald and Doris became members in 1965. Each had attended Emanu-El as children.

Although Fisher wasn’t a regular synagogue attendee, Pearce said, “he was a strong supporter of the congregation. He wanted to make sure it would be here for other people.”

Fisher was a longtime supporter of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, and also gave much of his money to organizations and initiatives that supported public education and the arts.

In 1977, the Fishers started the Gap Foundation to support the local communities where Gap Inc. does business. The foundation focuses on nonprofits that help underserved youth in developed countries learn the skills needed to build a career and a future, and women in developing countries build critical life and work skills.

The Fishers were charter funders of and continue to support the KIPP charter schools, a national network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public schools in underserved communities. KIPP stands for the Knowledge is Power Program. Over the years, the Fishers gave $100 million to KIPP and to Teach for America.

Fisher also loved art. He commissioned “Cupid’s Span,” the 60-foot-high San Francisco sculpture of a red and yellow bow and arrow by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. It has stood on the Embarcadero since 2002.

“He had an eye for beauty,” Pearce said.

Most recently, just before Fisher died, he and his wife agreed to give their 1,100-piece collection of contemporary art (valued by one expert to be worth nearly $1 billion) to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A section of the Fisher Collection will be part of a MOMA exhibit scheduled to open next summer.

“He had one of the great, if not the greatest, privately owned modern art collections in the country,” Hellman said. “It is the ultimate charitable act that he has given it to the Museum of Modern Art.”

The Fishers’ children grew up involved in the JCCSF’s sports programs, and several of their grandchildren also participated in JCC sports. In fact, when Donald Fisher got his first tour of the new JCCSF — the one that led to the LeWitt painting — he was there to attend his grandson’s basketball game.

The Fishers were one of about 30 individuals and foundations to donate

$1 million or more to the JCCSF’s

$83 million capital campaign. The Fishers’ gift gave them the naming rights for the second-largest public space in the building, which is now called the Fisher Family Hall.

Fisher is survived by his wife, Doris; sons Bill, John and Bob; and 10 grandchildren. He is also survived by two brothers, Jim and Bob Fisher.

Memorial services were private. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the KIPP Foundation, 135 Main St., Suite 1700, San Francisco, CA 94105; and the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Francisco, 55 Hawthorne St., Suite 600, San Francisco, CA 94105.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.