Richard N. Goldman dies at 90; co-founder of Goldman Environmental Prize

Richard N. Goldman, a San Francisco philanthropist and civic leader who co-founded the Goldman Environmental Prize to recognize grass-roots environmental activism around the world, has died. He was 90.

Goldman, a passionate supporter of environmental causes, the Jewish community and Israel, died Monday at his San Francisco home, according to his family.

The Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, created in 1951 by Goldman and his wife, an heir to the Levi Strauss fortune, has given away more than $680 million since its inception. But it is the environmental prize, which annually awards $150,000 each to six activists around the globe, for which the Goldmans are perhaps best known.

Established in 1989 in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the murder of Brazilian rubber tapper and environmental activist Chico Mendes, the prize has been described as a green Nobel Prize. But rather than honoring heads of state and renowned scientists, it recognizes grass-roots activists and organizers who challenge the powers that be, sometimes at great personal risk.

Recent winners include a Costa Rican conservationist who crusaded against the practice of shark finning and an environmental attorney in Bangladesh who fought for more regulation of her country’s dangerous and environmentally hazardous ship-dismantling industry.


In 1995, an award went to Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian author who protested the ravages of oil development in his country. The same year he was convicted of murder in an internationally condemned military trial and hanged.

“Richard and Rhoda realized that the environment meant more than the United States,” said Amy Lyons, the prize’s executive director. “In order to protect the environment, you really have to take it on at the global level.”

Goldman defied easy categorization. He was a Republican and businessman who founded a successful insurance brokerage. But he supported abortion rights and gay rights. He thought most philanthropists were too cautious. And in his late 80s, he drove a Honda Civic hybrid.

“I think the interesting contradiction was Richard Goldman was a creature of the American establishment,” said Carl Pope, chairman of the San Francisco-based Sierra Club. “This was the ultimate insider consistently recognizing the ultimate outsiders.”

Born April 16, 1920, and raised in San Francisco, Goldman grew up taking walks with his father in Golden Gate Park and camping and hiking in the Sierra Nevada. He loved Lake Tahoe, where he had a home.

“The other influence was my mom, " said son John D. Goldman. “She recycled before the word was invented.”

In a 2009 interview, Goldman told the San Francisco Chronicle: “When Rhoda and I got married, it sounds corny, but we said we wanted to make the world a better place.”

A great booster of San Francisco, Goldman gave millions to the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Ballet. He served on the city’s Public Utilities Commission and Port Commission and was chief of protocol under Mayor Frank Jordan, a position he particularly enjoyed.

“When he walked into a room you knew he was there,” John said. “He was a strong-willed individual and was not afraid to share his opinions.”

Remembering Goldman’s tussle with Presidio management over installing solar panels at the fund’s offices in the former Army post, Lyons said Goldman “knew what he wanted and he usually got what he wanted. Sometimes it was just [through] sheer force of will.”

In a statement, actor Robert Redford said Goldman “was among the first of a new breed — wealthy entrepreneurs who engage in social responsibility. Richard’s commitment to social justice as it relates to the environment was passionate, committed and, more importantly, successful.”

The son of San Francisco lawyer Richard Samuel Goldman and Alice Wertheim Goldman, Goldman graduated from UC Berkeley and served in the U. S. Army from 1942 to 1946.

Goldman’s wife, Rhoda Haas Goldman, a great-grandniece of Levi Strauss, died in 1996. Their son Richard W. died in 1989.

In addition to John, of Atherton, Calif., Goldman is survived by son Douglas E. of San Francisco; daughter Susan R. Gelman of Chevy Chase, Md.; 11 grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and a sister, Marianne Goldman of San Francisco.

A memorial service will be held Friday at 10:30 a.m. at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.