Just a Hamishe Guy

by Pat Launer February 28, 2011


In anticipating a meeting with a billionaire, trepidation exceeds expectation. Will he be harried and monosyllabic? Dryly scientific? Smug and self-serving?

Irwin Jacobs is none of these. What he is most of all is…charming. He may be a tiger in business, but he’s a pussycat in person: soft-spoken, with a strong New England accent, a ready laugh and a twinkle in his eye. He’s unpretentious, apparently comfortable with who and where he is. Still, he never loses sight of where he’s been, and that keeps him humble and unprepossessing. It’s a delight to sit and listen to the life stories he willingly shares.

We’re in his La Jolla home office, surrounded by books and a glorious ocean view. He notes that his interest in classical music began “when I made my mother take me to see ‘Fantasia’ four times.” This was the beginning of the passion that encouraged him and his wife to give $120 million to the San Diego Symphony in 2002, the largest bequest ever to a symphony orchestra.

The early days

Jacobs spent his youth in New Bedford, Mass., about 60 miles from Boston, a town of about 100,000 with a “relatively small Jewish population.” His grandparents, Russian immigrants, were active in the Orthodox synagogue. He became bar mitzvah at the Conservative shul. Years later, he was married by the Hillel rabbi at Cornell University, where he met Joan, his wife of 57 years.

When they became engaged, Irwin was still a student.

“I said to Joan’s father, ‘Money’s not important to either of us.’ I was much more excited by new ideas. I’m lucky I got the go-ahead from him!”

Jacobs has never lost his excitement about new ideas.

“As a kid, I was always interested in math and science and always enjoyed tinkering. We had a shortage of materials during the war. I’d take wires off the top of milk bottles, use cigar boxes and batteries to build various devices.”

He was also an avid photographer.

“We had an old coal bin in the basement,” he recalls. “I set up a darkroom down there. Once, I went on a field trip to Boston and put together the pictures to sell to my classmates.” Ever the entrepreneur!

“We lived about two miles from the small local airport,’” he says. “I’d bicycle over and look at the airfield. Now, once a year, I go back. The first time I landed in my own plane at that airport was really something!”

Jacobs continues providing support and scholarships for the schools he once attended, including Carlos Pacheco Elementary School, which used to be Mt. Pleasant Street School. Now, it’s “the poorest school in a poor city.”

On one memorable trip, Jacobs recalls, “I took 10 students and flew them to Nantucket for the day. This is one of my favorite stories,” he confesses. It was mine, too.

“I took them to an ice cream parlor and told them they could have anything they wanted. They were thrilled, and after they got their ice cream, they asked, ‘How much did all that ice cream cost?’ I said ‘About $80.’ And they exclaimed, ‘Are you a millionaire?’ They weren’t impressed with the private plane or the rest of it,” he says, chuckling. “But the ice cream they could understand and appreciate!”

School daze

Jacobs was always smart, always precocious. He skipped fourth grade and graduated high school young. But his high school guidance counselor didn’t quite encourage his interests and talents.

“It was 1950,” Jacobs remembers. “He said there was no future in science and engineering. He suggested the Bristol School of Agriculture.”

Good thing Jacobs didn’t listen, or the cell phone, science and engineering worlds, and the San Diego community — Jewish, artistic and secular — would look a whole lot different today!

But he did pay attention to that guidance counselor in one way.

“He said, ‘If folks are in the restaurant business, they go to the Cornell School of Hotel Administration.’”

Jacobs’ parents happened to own The Harbor, a New England seafood restaurant. So it seemed like the right thing to do. He started out in hotel administration, thanks to scholarship money. Joan, who was in the School of Home Economics, was also on scholarship.

“That’s one reason we provide scholarships to others,” Jacobs asserts. “We don’t forget.” They’ve supported students at High Tech High, SDSU, UCSD, M.I.T., Cornell and the Technion in Haifa, among others.

Needless to say, he ultimately transferred out of hotel administration, graduating from Cornell in electrical engineering. He went on to earn masters and doctoral degrees at M.I.T., where he taught from 1959-1966. For the next six years, he was a professor of computer science and engineering at UCSD; the School of Engineering now bears his name. Along the way, Jacobs co-authored the textbook, “Principles of Communication Engineering” (1965), which is still in use today.

Sowing the seeds of philanthropy

Jacobs’ four sons experienced some “tight circumstances,” he says. “It’s good to go through those stages.” But he worries that his grandchildren won’t have that broader perspective. “You need to appreciate the opportunities you’ve had. You need to remember your roots and not take things for granted.”

Jacobs has been generous in remembering his roots, focusing his and Joan’s giving on “education first, and cultural activities, Jewish activities and community support.”

The list of groups and organizations they support is extensive, from museums to theaters, music institutions to hospitals and medical schools, as well as Jewish Family Service, the Jewish Community Foundation, the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center and its J*Company youth theater, which seems to have a Jacobs grandchild in nearly every production.

“We’re all part of this community,” Jacobs says. “It’s very important to give time — and funds — to local organizations. The main thing is to get involved.”

Recently, Jacobs joined other billionaires, including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, in signing the Giving Pledge, a commitment to donate most of their money to philanthropic causes.

“It’s a good idea. We all want to encourage others by our own example and leadership. Here at home,” Jacobs adds with a chuckle, “Joan and I hoped our gift to the Symphony would encourage audiences to come out and see why these crazy people gave so much money!”

The present and the future

Irwin Jacobs seems like a contented and grateful man.

“Things have turned out better than I could ever anticipate,” he says.

He’s proudest of his family and grandchildren, of having “grown two major businesses [Linkabit and Qualcomm] and made a lot of jobs available here and around the world.”

At 77, he still travels a lot, reads a lot (“I thought I’d have more time for reading”), attends performances and serves as chairman of the board at the Salk Institute (“so I could learn more about modern biology and research”).

As he reminisces, he recalls the summer he spent as a cook at the Kittansett Golf Club in Marion, Mass. One day, he had to take over for the chef.

“A group came in and wanted lobster thermidor. I had no idea how to make that! I called my parents’ restaurant and got specific instructions. After dinner, the diners said it was the best they’d ever had. And they bought every pie and cake I’d made!”

Does he still enjoy cooking? No opportunity, he says. “My wife won’t let me in the kitchen!”

But he could probably still make a mean lobster thermidor if he wanted.


One thought on “Just a Hamishe Guy

  1. Jacobs and Viterbi basically invented modern mobile telecommunications, those who want to boycott Israel and the Jewish people should take their mobile phones and computer modems and routers and throw them into the rubbish bin.

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