Talk to the people who knew and loved Herb Rosen and you may begin to form the mistaken impression that he worked in the construction industry. But Rosen, who died June 19 at age 79, did not construct buildings with his hands; he formed them with his heart.
During the 54 years he lived in this Jewish community with his wife and inspiration, Rita, Herb Rosen was responsible for building both organizations and buildings, most notably the Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle in Bellevue and the Seattle Jewish Community School in the Northend.
And they didn’t just share their money — built through successful business ventures including Skipper’s Seafood ‘n’ Chowder House — Herb shared his intellect, his business acumen and his enthusiasm with any community leader or organization that asked for his assistance.
“I’ve heard people say he had the best business mind of anyone they had ever met. I think he applied that to his philanthropic work,” his son, Stan Rosen, said last week. People would come to his office just to talk things over, about business or philanthropy. “Sometimes he would help them financially, but always with advice,” Stan said.
He was also famous for his approach to meetings, his son remembers: “He just told it like it was. He didn’t pull any punches. I don’t know that he was always welcomed at meetings. He didn’t always go along with the popular votes.” Stan says his father was consider cantankerous by some, but he always had the well being of the community in mind when he gave his opinion.
Public speaking became a passion for Herb after an embarrassing moment involving his Bar Mitzvah speech, according to Stan, who said his father shared the following story with him. Herb had memorized his comments, which he was supposed to give at his house, but he got stuck about a quarter of the way through. He started again and then a third time but just couldn’t make it through. “He vowed he would learn to speak. He took debate and speech [clases] and ultimately became an excellent speaker,” Stan said, adding that Herb went on to win several awards for his debating abilities.
“He was a great leadership role model for me. You emulate what you see. I could see that he was involved in the community. There was no other way [for me]. I became president of the JCC exactly 20 years after he was president,” Stan says.
He and his sister, Judy de Jonge, and Stan’s wife, Michele Rosen, have all been inspired by Herb and Rita’s commitment to the community and have become community leaders themselves.
Herb and Rita met at an AZA convention in Vancouver right before he went away to serve in World War II and they married soon after he completed his service as a lieutenant in the Army. “He was a wonderful dancer,” Rita recalled, when asking to share things not everyone would know about Herb. He also loved to play cards and read a lot.
Rita says she encouraged Herb, who she says was a workaholic when he was younger, to turn some of his attention toward volunteer work. “I felt he was capable and I felt he should do something with it,” she remembers.
Stan says the beginning of his father’s volunteer work was also related to a life-changing moment in 1966. At age 42, Herb suffered a serious heart attack, which required an extensive period of recovery. To keep him mind busy during his rehabilitation, he got involved in the JCC campaign, which started, coincidentally, the year after he and his partners sold his first big business success, Consolidated Distributors, a record distributor, to ABC Records in 1965. “It was a seminal moment in his philanthropic career,” Stan says, adding that he made a major gift to that JCC campaign and hasn’t stopped giving since.
He also turned quickly to his next successful business venture, Skipper’s, which grew to become the fourth-largest seafood chain in the country, with 218 outlets in the Northwest and British Columbia. He sold the company in 1989 to National Pizza, the franchiser of Pizza Hut and Burger King.
Rita says Herb had worked hard ever since his childhood, when he sold magazines and newspapers. He saved all his money so he could do things and also to help out his parents, who were not well off. His father came to Seattle in 1905 and immediately formed his own business picking up other immigrants at the railway station and taking them to their destinations. After this experience running an early taxi service, he noticed the immigrants luggage and decided he could build a better suitcase. He started Durabuilt Luggage, which became a national company.
Herb Rosen’s efforts in the Jewish community can be seen mostly in our classrooms, according to Carol Starin, director of the Jewish Education Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. No man has been more involved in funding teacher training than Rosen, Starin said, adding that every Jewish teacher in the community who has even attended a conference or a workshop has been touched by his generosity.
He was integrally involved in the establishment of the Jewish Day School, helped the Seattle Jewish Community School get started years later and helped broker the deal that allowed Temple B’nai Torah to build its new synagogue on the JDS campus in Bellevue. He has served as the president of the Jewish Community Center, Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation and the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.
“Herb and Rita Rosen are models to our community. Their involvement gives meaning to their lives. It’s not just a matter of giving money. They are not raising money for Jews — they are raising Jews,” Carol Starin said in a speech honoring the couple’s contributions to the Seattle Jewish Community School.
Herb is also survived by his son-in-law, Krijn de Jonge, and five grandchildren. Donations in his memory may be made to the Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle, 15749 N.E. Fourth St., Bellevue, WA 98008; or the Seattle Jewish Community School, 2632 N.E. 80th St., Seattle, WA 98115.