an old man in a shirt and tie leans on a window; outside, the view is the sides of tall office buildings
At 89, Dick Rosenberg is still working four days a week. (Photo/Norm Levin)

Philanthropist Dick Rosenberg isn’t resting on his laurels

Part of Trailblazers, a series of profiles of Jewish men and women who build and sustain our Jewish community, supported by a generous donation from Carol and Norman Traeger.

Sitting in his expansive office in the former Bank of America building in San Francisco, retired banking executive Richard Rosenberg says he’s cutting back. He goes to the office only four days a week instead of five, and he doesn’t harbor unmet goals.

“I’m happy. I’m proud of what I do. But it’s probably the time to quit,” he says with a smile.

That’s hard to believe. Rosenberg is deeply involved with top-notch institutions that he has long cared about. He is a distinguished director of the UCSF Foundation and sits on the executive council of the UCSF Medical Center. He serves on the boards of the Marin-based Buck Institute for Research on Aging and the San Francisco Symphony. He’s a trustee emeritus of Caltech and the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island, and on the advisory board of the Shorenstein real estate company.

The entire list of organizations he has served is very long.

The affable 89-year-old, who goes by “Dick,” is a former president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and he also chaired the endowment committee.

He was board president of the Jewish Home in San Francisco, and served on its investment committee and inaugural foundation. Rosenberg’s first gift to the senior care and living facility was a new boiler. “They were dealing with real things instead of abstract concepts,” he says.

The Barbara and Richard Rosenberg Family Center, which opened in 2006 on the Jewish Home campus, reflects the couple’s increased commitment. Both of their mothers were residents of the 148-year-old institution, now called the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living.

Rosenberg applauds the “remarkable” fundraising effort that enabled the nearly completed renovation and remaking of the Silver Avenue facility.

CEO Daniel Ruth says Rosenberg was always available when he needed him and took his roles “incredibly seriously. He came to all the meetings, and we were the beneficiary of his obviously very astute financial acumen.”

People respect him. “When Dick talks, people listen,” Ruth says.

“He is demanding. He is unforgiving. He has really high expectations … He demands transparency, specificity, honesty and integrity — and he is uncompromising.

“He wants the agency to meet its mission both qualitatively as well as financially.”

On the other side of the coin, the Rosenbergs have been “extraordinarily generous financially, as well as creating connections with other board members or donor prospects,” Ruth adds. “We’re very fortunate to be near and dear to them.”

The same can be said for Rosenberg’s association with the S.F.-based Federation, whose endowment grew enormously during his tenure. He calls Phyllis Cook, who headed the endowment fund and became associate director, “the driver for almost everything.”

Rosenberg received the Federation’s Robert Sinton Award for Distinguished Leadership in 2003 (his wife was the winner of the agency’s 2007 Judith Chapman Memorial Women’s Leadership Award), and he was honored by the agency’s Business Leadership Council in 2010.

You can still see the need, everywhere. Your only regret is that you don’t have enough money to support everything.

The engraved gavels and handsome plaques that decorate his office attest to his philanthropic efforts.

He served on the board of his synagogue, Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, gives to the American Jewish Committee and AIPAC — “you name it,” he says — and strongly believes that Israel, where he and Barbara often visited, “needs a lot of support.”

Growing up, Rosenberg was part of a family that was “not in the least bit religious,” he says, “except that my parents ensured that I had a bar mitzvah.”

He credits a friend, former S.F. Federation president Jesse Feldman, with getting him involved with the organization. Another late friend, Larry Myers, got him interested in the Jewish Home, he says.

Like her husband, Barbara Rosenberg also served as president of the Jewish Home — and other institutions and organizations, as well, including Brandeis University, her alma mater.

The San Francisco residents, who have two sons, Michael and Peter, and five grandsons, are natives of Fall River, Massachusetts. “I took her to my junior prom,” Rosenberg says, “and it was a very unsuccessful date.”

Rosenberg joined the Navy and served as an officer in Korea as the Korean War was winding down. In Vietnam, his first assignment was transporting refugees who’d supported the French and were fleeing communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. “You’re not used to crying babies” on board a naval ship, he says, and laughs about decoding a message that turned out to be a recipe for cooking rice the way Vietnamese liked it.

When he returned to the U.S. as a lieutenant, he learned from his mother that Barbara had become a schoolteacher in New York. In need of a date to an admirals party, he gave it another shot and asked her out.

This time, they clicked.

The Navy brought them to San Francisco around 1960, and after he got out of the service, with Barbara six months pregnant, Rosenberg needed a job. Armed with a journalism degree from Suffolk University in Boston, and with marketing courses under his belt (“a rarity among bankers,” he says), Rosenberg landed a bank position and started working his way up.

That led to 22 years with Wells Fargo. Before becoming its vice chairman and director, he headed the advertising department — and made his mark with the stagecoach. The ad was a hit.

Afterward, “I got called to the CEO’s office.” Expecting an “Attaboy!” he instead got, “OK, you had your fun playing cowboys and Indians. I never want to see that stagecoach again.”

“Fortunately,” Rosenberg says, “he retired about six months later,” and the Wells Fargo stagecoach became one of the best-known trademark symbols in the country.

Rosenberg culminated his banking career as CEO of Bank of America, from 1990 to 1996. At the time, the corporation operated in six countries and had 80,000 employees. Rosenberg worked seven days a week.

As a child of the Depression who saved for college by working summers in the Catskills and used the GI bill to help pay for his MBA and law degrees from Golden Gate University, even Rosenberg, a 2007 Horatio Alger Society award winner, was often amazed by his success.

Sometimes, as he headed for the office on the weekend, in a nearly deserted Financial District, “I’d look up at the BofA building and say, ‘God, do I run this?’”

These days, with more leisure time, Rosenberg can indulge his “enormous” passion for reading (“I’m a history buff”) and sometimes pursue his and Barbara’s hobby of collecting Eskimo artwork. His tennis playing has been sidelined, at least for now: He broke his femur about a year ago and isn’t fully recovered, still using a cane to get around.

As for his philanthropy: “I’ve been very fortunate, and there’s a need,” he explains.

“Almost from the day we had discretionary income, you could see the need. You can still see the need, everywhere. Your only regret is that you don’t have enough money to support everything, or to the level that you’d like to. If you believe in philanthropy, you always want to give more.

“Hopefully, both of our sons have been brought up to understand the importance of philanthropy, and do so themselves.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.