Richard N. Goldman: 1920-2010: Philanthropist a model of generosity, vision and integrity

When she was 16 years old, Susie Goldman got the talk. Her father, Richard Goldman, sat her down to explain that the time had come for her to start donating money to good causes.

“He said, ‘It’s time for you to start writing checks,’” she recalled. “I had a small bank account as a teenager, but he got me started on the path of thinking about personal philanthropy.”

Richard N. Goldman photo/courtesy of cal athletics

Richard N. Goldman, the man who spearheaded the world-renowned Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, died Nov. 29 in his San Francisco home, after a lifetime of extraordinary personal philanthropy. He was 90.

His funeral is scheduled to take place at Congregation Emanu-El, the synagogue he belonged to his entire life, at 10:30 a.m. Friday, Dec. 3.

Goldman’s legacy as a force in local and global philanthropy is assured, his good name in the Bay Area Jewish community never to be forgotten.

“He learned from an early age that those blessed with resources have an obligation to give back,” said Susie Goldman Gelman of Chevy Chase, Md. “It was simply part of his DNA.”

“He was a guy of absolute integrity,” said Ernie Weiner, a family friend and former Bay Area chapter director of the American Jewish Committee (a post offered to him by Goldman in 1971).

“That was his hallmark. At no time over the years did I see anything other than a steel-like quality of principle.”

Poring over the lengthy list of Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund grantees, one begins to comprehend Goldman’s passion for bettering the world. Launched in 1951, the fund has given millions –– $680 million to date –– to a wide array of grantees, and launched the renowned Goldman Environmental Prize, which annually awards $150,000 to six grassroots environmental activists from every continent.

This year alone, the Goldman Fund gave more than $12 million to Birthright Israel, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, Hillel, the Israel Project and other Jewish agencies. Goldman also gave multiple millions to Bay Area institutions and environmental groups.

“At a fundraiser at his home one time, he said it’s easy for us to be helpful because we have the means,” remembered Rabbi Brian Lurie, who first met the Goldmans when he served as an associate rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El. Lurie went on to become CEO of the Jewish Community Federation, where he worked closely with the agency’s president –– Goldman.

Added Lurie: “He was a role model for caring.”

Said current federation CEO Jennifer Gorovitz, “We are very saddened that he’s gone because he represented such a high level of mentorship to leaders of this organization and others in the community. That’s not something you easily replace. It leaves a void.”

The son of a prominent San Francisco lawyer, Richard N. Goldman was born April 16, 1920 in San Francisco, where he grew up and attended public schools. As a youth, he enjoyed spending time in the wilderness with his Boy Scout troop, which likely sparked his early interest in environmental conservation.

He attended U.C. Berkeley before serving in the Army from 1942 to 1946. In 1949, he founded and served as chairman of Goldman Insurance Services, which was sold to Willis Insurance in 2001.

The former Boy Scout married former Girl Scout and Levi Strauss heiress Rhoda Haas, and in 1951, the two established the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund.

“They made quite a team,” said son Doug Goldman of San Francisco. “They joined together in seeing that an important part of their lives was making the world a better place, and they took that very seriously, as evidenced by the vast philanthropy they subsequently engaged in.”

But family came first for the Goldmans. Despite the rigors of running business and philanthropic ventures, Goldman routinely took his wife and four kids camping, hiking and fishing, experiences his daughter treasures.

“You can look at my dad and feel he was larger than life, and he was,” said Gelman, “but he was very much of this life, of this world, very present as a father, a husband, a friend.

“As a daughter, he made me feel so loved. We all knew we were the most important thing in the world to him,” added Gelman, who served as a board member of United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations.

Said son John Goldman of Atherton: “[My parents’] purpose with the fund was to act on their beliefs, to make an impact on communities and society at large and to inspire others to do what they could to make a difference. That to me was the overarching framework by which they led their lives.”

Though a philanthropic institution such as the Goldman Fund is legally required to spend down only 5 percent of its assets annually, Goldman insisted on allocating more, and for most of the last several years, he did.

In 1990, he and his wife established the Goldman Environmental Prize. Since its inception, the prize has awarded $13.2 million to 139 recipients from 79 countries, and is considered one of the most prestigious awards of its kind.

“He was surprised at how successful it ended up,” said Amy Lyons, executive director of the Goldman Fund and the Goldman Environmental Prize. “It was just an idea he had, and it took off at just the right time. He was always humbled meeting the prize winners, who were ordinary grassroots people.”

He didn’t stop with the Prize. Goldman also donated $5 million for land acquisition in Alaska to help preserve that state’s pristine wilderness.

In addition to the environment, Israel and Jewish causes topped the list of Goldman’s philanthropic passions. Over the years, the fund has distributed more than $196 million to Jewish affairs programs in the United States and Israel.

Since 2000, the Goldman Fund has also given more than $6 million to Birthright Israel, including $500,000 last July. Susie Gelman is especially proud of her father’s $4.4 million contribution to Jerusalem’s Goldman Promenade, a park built in 2002 on the Government Hill Ridge overlooking the city.

He also helped fund early on The Israel Project, which works with the world’s news media to help ensure fair and balanced coverage of Middle East affairs.

“He felt a strong affinity to Israel,” Gelman said. “His first trip was in 1953, and he made at least 100 trips to Israel. He wanted to make one more.”

Locally, Goldman was one of the most prominent donors in San Francisco’s Jewish community. His fund’s lead gift of $10 million got the remodeled Jewish Community Center of San Francisco off the ground, and the center now has the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Center for Adult Living and Learning.

In addition, the Contemporary Jewish in Museum in San Francisco includes a 3,500-square-foot multipurpose room called the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Hall.

He and Rhoda were lifelong member of Congregation Emanu-El. He contributed more than $31.5 million to the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and recently established a $5 million endowment at Congregation Emanu-El to secure the senior rabbi position there for decades to come.

He didn’t only go for the big philanthropic opportunities. When it came to Jews in trouble, Goldman wasn’t one to stand idly by — not even if those in need happened to be federal prisoners.

In 1998, learning of Jewish women inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin who felt forgotten by the Jewish community, Goldman exhorted his staff: “Let’s do something to help.” The fund then earmarked nearly $3,000 to buy Jewish materials for the prisoners.

In 1981, he served as president of the S.F.-based federation, a post later assumed by his son John. “He didn’t have to give me any advice,” John Goldman said. “On the wall of the federation boardroom I looked up to see portraits of my grandfather, my dad and other relatives, and I said to myself, ‘I better not screw up. They’re always watching me.’ ”

Goldman was also a major donor to his alma mater,  giving more than $39 million to U.C. Berkeley, including $15 million to the Richard and Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy and $10 million to a new Student Athletic High Performance Center. In 2000, he spearheaded a $3.5 million renovation of Cal’s track and field stadium with a $1.5 million lead gift, after which the field at Edwards Stadium was named Goldman Field in honor of Richard’s late father, Richard Samuel Goldman.

All his adult life, Goldman loved sports, in particular Cal sports, even though he never was much of an athlete during his undergrad days.

“He thought he could throw the javelin,” recalled Doug Goldman of his father’s undergraduate days at Cal. “One day he’s practicing, and someone else threw a javelin, which landed very close to him. He realized the potential danger and that ended his track career.”

Cal wasn’t the only local university he funded. In 1997, San Francisco State University received a $1 million gift from the fund to establish the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Chair in Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility. Then in 2007, a $3.75 million gift from the fund — at the time the largest endowed chair gift the history of the California State University system — helped elevate SFSU’s Jewish Studies from program to department status.

The fund also gave $3.3 million to Stanford University to establish an environmental studies program. The endowment will fund a new faculty position in Jewish Studies focusing on the scholarly study of Israel.

His business interests often intersected with his love of the Bay Area and sports. In 1992, Goldman was one of several local businessmen who organized the purchase of a controlling interest in the San Francisco Giants, thus keeping the team from moving to another city.

The big reward came a month ago when the Giants won the World Series. Goldman joyfully watched the final game on television with his family, and was on the stage at City Hall a few days later when the city celebrated the championship in grand style.

Despite what appeared to be a charmed life, Goldman endured his share of heartache. He lost his eldest son, Richard, to cancer in 1989, and his beloved wife, Rhoda, at age 71 in 1996.

“My dad was a real fighter,” Gelman said. “It may look like life was easy for him. He suffered  a lot of personal loss, but he never gave in to that. It never kept him from moving forward with a positive outlook. I don’t remember him complaining, getting bitter or being bogged down by anything life threw at him. He was the glue that held the family together.”

Goldman was as close with his 11 grandchildren as he was with his own kids, and he made sure they understood the importance of philanthropy. In 2000, he set up a Grandchildren’s Fund, accessible to each child upon reaching the age of 18. As of 2009, the Goldman grandchildren had awarded nearly 300 grants totaling more than $2 million to their favorite charities.

Until about a year ago, Goldman continued to frequent the Goldman Fund offices in San Francisco, meeting with grantees and staffers. “He assembled a great staff that he trusted,” said Lyons. “We worked closely with him. I think he left a huge legacy, locally and globally.”

Just last week, Goldman was part of a big family Thanksgiving meal at his home in San Francisco’s Presidio Heights, a memory his daughter will not soon forget.

“This is a moment we’ve all been dreading and now it’s here,” Gelman said after his death. “It’s heartbreaking because we lost someone so dear to us, so precious. He created a lifetime of good works.”

Richard N. Goldman is survived by a sister, Marianne Goldman of San Francisco; sons John Goldman and Doug Goldman; daughter Susan Gelman; and 11 grandchildren.

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.