By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer
For years, he was associated with downtown’s biggest icon.
But by the time he died in 1993, Marvin Kobacker had spread his influence and philanthropy across northwest Ohio.
Mr. Kobacker, who led Tiedtke’s Department Store downtown for years, dedicated the latter part of his life to community service, at various times heading the Toledo Museum of Art, the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, and what would become the United Way of Greater Toledo.
Mr. Kobacker, described as a kind-hearted, generous man, was one of the leading lights of philanthropy in Toledo this century.
“He had an enormous amount of compassion for other people,” said Lois Churchill, chairman of the advisory committee of the Kobacker Center, the child psychoeducational center at the Medical College of Ohio. “He always had the most pleasant smile for everyone.”
A native of Mount Pleasant, Pa., Mr. Kobacker started out in the family business founded by his father, Jerome, and uncle, Alfred. The elder Kobackers had started a chain of department stores in Ohio and New York. In 1925, the Kobackers bought Tiedtke’s from the Tiedtke brothers and made it the centerpiece of their 13-store chain.
Mr. Kobacker received an economics degree from the University of Michigan and went on to get a master’s in business administration at Harvard. He fought in the Navy during World War II, then returned to Toledo to take over Tiedtke’s. He became vice president in 1946, then president in 1952.
To Toledoans over age 30, memories of Tiedtke’s are invariably sweet; those under 30 have to settle for the legends. As the biggest downtown department store at a time when downtown was the city’s shopping center, Tiedtke’s is usually recalled through a series of smells: Freshly roasted coffee, sweet-smelling candy, cheese, rolls.
“It was the center of a popular culture, and it represented something in the community,” said Rabbi Alan Sokobin, rabbi emeritus of the Temple Shomer Emunium, who worked with Mr. Kobacker on many projects in the Jewish community.
Forever bustling, Tiedtke’s was for many the symbol of downtown and a meeting place. Mr. Kobacker contributed to the store’s atmosphere: On many days, you could find him behind the counter assisting a customer or helping out on the floor during busy parts of the day.
“He never sat in his office,” his son John said. “He worked hard on the floor, and that rubbed off on the employees.”
In 1961, Mr. Kobacker sold the family’s department stores to Federal’s, a Detroit-based chain. Seven years later, he moved up from president to chairman of the board, in part so that he could have more time to spend on community work. Tiedtke’s closed in 1972.
He had been involved in civic work throughout his adult life, his son recalled. “I remember one time my dad took me down to the store one Saturday in the middle of December,” he said. “There were all these kids eating there. I knew something was different because normally there would have been a lot of parents there, too. He said, ‘These are all the kids from all the orphanages in Toledo.’ Every year, he brought them down to Tiedtke’s, gave them lunch, and gave them all $10 so they could do their Christmas shopping.
“He was very clear: When you’re very fortunate, you have a responsibility to those around you to share it,” he said.
The cause closest to his heart was the Toledo Museum of Art, his son said. He was associated with the museum for decades, serving as its president for four years in the 1970s. In 1970, he and his wife paid for a furnished 17th-century room from a French chateau to be installed at the museum.
The arts always had a particular appeal for Mr. Kobacker, who was president of the Toledo Symphony Orchestra. His wife Lenore, nicknamed “Noni,” had been a pianist who majored in music in college, which may have influenced Mr. Kobacker’s appreciation of the arts.
When Bowling Green State University was wanted to build a performing arts center in the late 1970s, Mr. Kobacker stepped forward with a $300,000 donation. The 850-seat concert hall in the arts center is named Kobacker Hall.
But just as important to Mr. Kobacker was his involvement in treating mental and emotional problems. In 1964, he led a citizens committee for 20 northwest Ohio counties that lobbied the state to form county mental health boards across Ohio. He served as the second president of the Lucas County board of mental health and mental retardation.
He gave $1.2 million for the foundation of a special center at the Medical College of Ohio to treat children with emotional troubles. Now the Kobacker Center, it provides schooling and inpatient care for dozens of troubled children in the Toledo area.
“He had a tremendous sense of compassion for youngsters who had some emotional concerns that, addressed correctly, could help them lead very productive and normal lives,” said Larry Burns, MCO’s vice president for institutional advancement.
His involvement in the community seemed to know few bounds. He was president of the Community Chest, which became the United Way of Greater Toledo, and several other groups.
His faith was very important to him. At various points, he served as president of every Jewish group in Toledo, Rabbi Sokobin said. In 1981, he founded the Toledo Jewish Community Foundation, an endowment organization for Jewish organizations in the Toledo area.
One of his most remarkable projects was the Kobacker Institute, which for more than 30 years assembled Toledo clergy from all faiths for meetings and open discussions. “It was the premier opportunity for clergy of different faiths to exchange ideas,” Rabbi Sokobin said.
Many Toledoans have given large sums of money to worthy causes, but Mr. Kobacker always made sure the relationship was not just financial. “His philanthropy wasn’t just writing a check,” Rabbi Sokobin said. “He was a conveyer of ideas and deep idealism.”