Irving Rabb; held key posts at Stop & Shop, Beth Israel

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / August 26, 2011

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For all Irving Rabb accomplished, he freely admitted he would have liked to do more in pursuits beyond the world of business.

“I’m a frustrated doctor,’’ he told BI News, a publication of Beth Israel Hospital, in 1971. “I almost went to medical school twice, but got only as far as working as an orderly for Beth Israel during World War II.’’

Instead, he became a healing presence with Stop & Shop, the supermarket chain his family founded, and with institutions ranging from Beth Israel to a host of organizations serving the region’s Jewish community. In each role, friends and family said, he helped resolve disagreements, always with an eye toward improving the future.

Mr. Rabb, who formerly was vice chairman of Stop & Shop and chairman of the Beth Israel board, died Tuesday in his Cambridge home while sitting in his lounge chair watching “NewsHour’’ on PBS.

He was 98 and though his mind stayed sharp, his health had failed rapidly in the past two months.

“Everyone loved him,’’ said his daughter, Betty Schafer of San Francisco. “He was the one at Stop & Shop who mediated the labor disputes.’’

Dr. James Rabb, a physician at what is now Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, said his father “really had the ability to empathize with people with different points of view and to come to a Solomonic decision with relation to these things. That’s a really special skill, especially in big business.’’

Along with considering medical school, Mr. Rabb attended Harvard Business School before devoting himself to the family business.

But as an undergraduate at Harvard, he studied fine arts, a passion he expressed in part by serving as a trustee for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

“He was remarkably broad in his interests and in his involvement, not only with the Jewish community, but in art,’’ said Mitchell T. Rabkin, CEO emeritus of Beth Israel. “He was a wonderful collector with excellent taste.’’

Mr. Rabb first became a Beth Israel trustee in 1956 and served as board president from 1967 to 1970, working all the while to lift the hospital into the realm of competitors such as Massachusetts General Hospital and what became Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

At Beth Israel, “he was committed to taking an institution with some islands of excellence, but which was generally regarded as pretty much second-tier in the Harvard orbit, to one that became a peer of MGH and the Brigham,’’ Rabkin said. “It was his leadership and insight that helped me and the others to move it in that very important direction.’’

The Rabb family, meanwhile, had few peers in its support of Jewish concerns in Greater Boston. Mr. Rabb’s decades of work included chairing the 1951 Israel Bond drive in Boston, the first such conducted in the country, and formerly serving as president of the board of Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

“Irving represented all of the traditions of the past for CJP and was totally open to the future, dedicated to the next generation of leaders,’’ said Barry Shrage, the organization’s president.

“He was not interested in anything that would slow down progress.’’

Mr. Rabb, Shrage added, “was a thoroughly cultured gentleman in every sense of the word’’ whose extended family “used its philanthropy to raise the level of life in Boston and the Jewish community.’’

And yet for “all of the success of Stop & Shop, there were no pretensions at all,’’ Rabkin said. “He was very much down to earth.’’

Born in Boston, Irving William Rabb was the youngest of four children. He grew up in Boston and Brookline, graduating from Boston Latin School in 1930.

“For somebody who was very successful, he was not an angry man,’’ said Mr. Rabb’s son, who lives in Weston. “When he was very young, his mother had a postpartum depression and he went to live with an aunt for a few weeks, and the few weeks turned into eight years. I think he had a lot of practice mediating between disagreeing parties at the time.’’

That wasn’t the only challenge Mr. Rabb faced as a young Jewish man growing up in Boston in the Great Depression.

“He was touched by anti-Semitism when he was younger,’’ Shrage said.

“Here was this handsome, athletic, brilliant man, and he was very aware there were places he couldn’t go. As a result, he achieved even more, not only in the Jewish community, but in the general community.’’

After graduating from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in 1934, Mr. Rabb spent a year at Harvard Business School before leaving to work in his family’s grocery store business, which gave Boston its first supermarket in 1935.

Sent to Springfield for a few months of seasoning away from the home office, he met Charlotte Frank, who was known as Dolly.

“He was dating someone who was a friend of my mother’s,’’ his daughter said. “They all gathered at somebody’s house one night and he never took out that other girl again. It was really a 65-year romance.’’

The Rabbs married in 1938. Mrs. Rabb died in 2003.

During World War II, Mr. Rabb added to his workweek by volunteering at Beth Israel, a time he recalled in remarks prepared for the hospital’s annual meeting in 1991.

“Every day presented a new set of problems for our business and by Friday night, I was a weary young man,’’ he wrote. “But six hours of contact with a hospital full of sick people is enough to make one forget one’s own problems. By midnight, I was remarkably refreshed in a sense, physically tired, but grateful for my own good health and inwardly gratified that I might have helped the patients and the staff in some small way.’’

Those experiences may have informed his commitment to organizations later in life.

“He felt that philanthropy was a way of looking at the world,’’ his daughter said. “And that had to be taught, and he was very eager to be one of those communicators who worked with the younger generations.’’

In addition to his daughter and son, Mr. Rabb leaves six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. today in Temple Israel in Boston. Burial will be Adath Yeshurun Cemetery in West Roxbury.

“Irving was in love with the idea of community and felt he had a deep responsibility to serve the community,’’ Shrage said. “It was something he enjoyed and loved doing, but he felt people had a responsibility to give back to the community.’’

Family, however, was always Mr. Rabb’s most important concern.

“The idea of familyness - that feeling one gets when one is within the family, being part of it and being appreciated - he really liked that over anything else,’’ his son said. “As he got older, he just liked to sit around as the kids were playing. He just liked being there and feeling the warmth.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at

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