Ken Oshman, benefactor of Oshman Family JCC, dies at 71

Ken Oshman celebrated his 71st birthday last month with family and friends in a skybox at AT&T Park. They cheered on the Giants in a win over the Mets.

Ken Oshman

Oshman knew he was gravely ill. He knew his time was short, but he was not about to let that spoil a family outing. The Atherton resident and Silicon Valley pioneer excelled in just about everything in life, which he lived fully to the very end.

Businessman, family man and Jewish community philanthropist, M. Kenneth Oshman succumbed to cancer on Aug. 6 in Palo Alto.

His name will always be remembered for the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, which exists thanks in part to his multimillion-dollar lead gift.

“When the JCC was desperately in search of a permanent home, Ken Oshman made an extraordinary gift to help launch our building campaign,” CEO Alan Sataloff said in a statement. “Thanks to Ken’s vision and ongoing commitment, the Oshman Family JCC has become the nexus for the Jewish community that we all once dreamed of.”

It was a grand act of generosity, but far from his only one.

“He did so much in his life,” said son David Oshman. “He really did try to help out others: friends businessmen, acquaintances. When he got involved in something, he went head first.”

Among his career highlights, Oshman founded two successful Silicon Valley companies (ROLM and Echelon), served on the boards of numerous corporate and nonprofit entities, and mentored countless Silicon Valley hopefuls.

“He really was a kind person who looked out for other people,” said Barbara Oshman, his wife of 49 years. “He had an absolutely brilliant mind and was a quick study, but he didn’t ever flaunt that. He didn’t need to because he was so secure in who he was.”

For one who grew up with modest means, Oshman went far in life. He grew up in Rosenberg, Texas, a small Houston suburb with an even smaller Jewish community.

He met his future wife, Barbara Daily, when the two were children attending each other’s birthday parties. They dated during their high school years, and by the time they went to college — he to Rice University, she to the University of Texas — they were pledged for life.

Graduating summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, Oshman planned on attending Harvard Business School. A friend came up with something better, recruiting him to work for Sylvania in California.

“They made him a wonderful offer,” remembered Barbara Oshman. “A full-time job at Sylvania and time off to do graduate work at Stanford. The minute we decided to come to California, it was a big weight off our shoulders.”

After earning a Ph.D. at Stanford, Oshman co-founded ROLM, an early Silicon Valley telecom equipment company. He served as CEO and president from 1969 to 1984, when ROLM merged with IBM. Oshman became an IBM vice president.

By then he was a titan in the business community, but no matter how busy with work, Oshman made sure that on weekends, he was full-time family man-in-chief.

“It was exciting,” remembered son David Oshman. “There was always something going on. We’d go fly a kite, take a day trip, ride a bike. It was a good time. He would lead his life in an exemplary manner for us kids to learn from.”

He was a role model to his friends, too. Mervin Morris, 91, remembers Oshman as a “terrible golfer” but an exemplary human being.

“He could hit a ball as long as anyone,” said Morris, who played golf with Oshman on courses all over the country and in Britain, “but you never knew what direction it was going. He was one of the best friends any man could ever have.”

The Oshmans played an active role in South Bay Jewish life. They were members of Congregation Beth Am (and served on its board), and were regular donors to the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. “Ken was passionate about being Jewish and supporting Jewish causes,” Morris said.

Starting in 2000, the Oshmans closely followed plans to develop the $147 million Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life. They intended to make a difference with their $10 million lead gift to the JCC.

“We decided that this was one thing that would really benefit the Jewish community in the area, as well as the non-Jewish community, Barbara Oshman said. “We were really happy to make this possible.”

The Oshman Family JCC opened its doors in September 2009.

By then, Oshman had been diagnosed with cancer. Yet he refused to let disease slow him down. “He was stoic about it,” said his son David. “He never complained. Until there was no choice, he didn’t let it dictate his life at all. It was amazing how little it changed him.”

Mervin Morris observed that as well.

“I never met a man of greater intelligence and integrity, or a better friend,” said Morris. “He was all good things.”

Ken Oshman is survived by wife Barbara Oshman of Atherton; sons Peter Oshman of Atherton and David Oshman of Palo Alto; brother Rick Oshman of Houston, Texas; and four grandchildren.

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.