Richard Kirschman, innovator for the common good, dies at 85

Art Rogers
Richard Kirschman reading the Light at his then-home in Inverness, with Michael Prokop and Michael Parmely washing windows.  
11/21/2018

Richard Kirschman, a philanthropist and innovator whose sense of humor equaled his commitment to the common good, died on Nov. 6. He was 85 years old.

Richard earned himself the unofficial title of mayor of Dogtown after successfully petitioning the county to restore the forgotten name of the town where he lived for nearly 40 years. 

After retiring from development work in San Francisco at age 35, Richard directed the rest of his years toward entrepreneurial endeavors with no motivation other than improving the human
condition.

“It’s a basic principle of life that many of us first learn in Economics 101: you look for a need and you fill it. But most of us don’t live like that, don’t find things that need to be solved. That is the way Richard thought,” said Mark Dowie, an Inverness resident and longtime friend. “He developed a very inventive mind and invented a lot of things. He invented a lot of things that we will never know about—there wasn’t enough time.”

Richard was born on Long Island in 1932 to Lewis Kirschman, who owned a jewelry business, and Dorothy Freeman, one of the first docents for the United Nations. He had one sister, Ellen Kirschman, a police psychologist and mystery writer in Redwood City.

Richard attended Bucknell University, briefly served in the marines and later the navy from 1955 until 1958. He spent the following years working in real estate in New York City before taking a job for a developer in San Francisco.

His sister Ellen said that in his earliest years, Richard was best described as a troublemaker. His mischief, she added, was often grand in scale—an abandoned car set aflame, a two-week stint away from home and something to do with a shortwave radio and Russia that caused the F.B.I. to turn up at their childhood home.

Not particularly book smart, Richard was an entrepreneur from the start. “He would take dead flowers out of the garbage and try to resell them,” Ellen remembered.

One of Richard’s highest-profile projects was the construction of the Fox Plaza in San Francisco, which he designed to be half residential and half commercial—one of the first of its kind in the city. Knowing the project was controversial (it involved tearing down the Fox Theater), Richard was able to get the plans on the ballot, to make sure the community was behind it.

After San Francisco, he moved to Sausalito and, soon after, further west. He purchased a piece of land in Dogtown in the early 1970s, writing personal letters to a handful of property owners along that stretch of highway in search of an absentee landowner willing to sell. He devoted much of his time to building his dream home, which had five stories and featured first-growth redwood lumber discarded from San Francisco’s Pier 41.

A devoted atheist, he was firm in his beliefs and often provocative, Mark said. Part of Richard’s vision was to retire at age 35, never to have children, and never to marry. He followed through on all but the last. “And that was a true love affair,” Mark said.

Doris Ober, an author and editor, met Richard at a party in San Francisco in the early ’80s. She wasn’t looking for a relationship; she wasn’t looking to change her life. But shortly after they started seeing each other, Doris stayed on in Dogtown, watching the house while Richard spent three weeks abroad.

“And then Richard came back,” she recalled. “I’m not sure we really acknowledged what was happening, it wasn’t a formal thing—I just kind of never left.”

She said eventually her clients in the city started to call her, wondering where she had gone. Nevertheless, for eight years, she kept her apartment in San Francisco. “We used to joke,” she said of she and Richard, “that you can never be sure.”

In her 2010 book, “The Dogtown Chronicles: Our Life and Times with Sheep, Goats, Llamas, and Other Creatures,” Doris paints a picture of their life in Dogtown, where they raised rare breeds of animals such as Scottish Highland steer and San Clemente Island goats. She talks about the passion they shared for the natural world around them.

Toward the book’s end, she writes, “At the top of the steps up to our house the redwood tree given to Richard as a housewarming gift is now 50 feet tall, its lower branches in an intimate embrace with the top branches of the English laurel.… Over the years, we have watched that redwood grow up past our northern bedroom window, and one day not very long ago, Richard noticed that the main staff of the tree had become two—two strong spears, each a foot in diameter where they take off from their common trunk, each already six or eight feet tall. When had that happened? How had we missed it?” 

Richard’s contributions to West Marin are perhaps too numerous to list, let alone describe.

As a property owner, he was charitable. In 1982, he bought several acres of property in downtown Point Reyes Station and subsequently sold off parcels to various local nonprofits, including the Coastal Health Alliance, which built the Point Reyes Community Health Center on the land. 

Besides donations to many local groups, Richard was interested in more creative ways to circulate money to people who needed it.

One of his inventions was the $3 West Marin coin, a currency among local businesses that doubles as a souvenir and a method of raising money for local charities. As a collector’s item designed by Bolinas artist Keith Hansen, the bronze coin celebrates the Point Reyes lighthouse, tule elk, the California poppy, osprey, sand dollar, dairy cow and more.

Whenever a customer keeps the coin, they effectively sequester the value—which, accounting for the production cost, is nearly $2—to a local cause. When merchants buy into the system, they get to choose the charity or nonprofit that they want to benefit. In this way, Richard raised upwards of $50,000 since he introduced the currency in 2010.

“Kirschman knew that [most] visitors wouldn’t be interested in donating to small nonprofits they’d never see again, like local libraries, museums, preschools, Little League, senior centers, summer camps and the like. Nevertheless, he was intrigued by the way tourism stimulated the local economy,” wrote Pat Holt, a friend and editor who recently completed an in-depth profile of Richard.

Pat emphasized the ingenuity of the currency. “Frankly, that’s the puzzler for me: How can it be that if you simply do nothing with actual money or spend it as local currency, you’re contributing to good causes?” 

Richard also served on the Marin County Grand Jury in 1975—a term he ended with a lawsuit against the jury for rubber stamping charges by the District Attorney, whom he argued was biased against the mostly-black inmates at San Quentin State Prison. (A champion of prison reform, Richard once built a replica of the claustrophobic two-man cell in Folsom and San Quentin prisons, loaded it onto a flatbed and towed it around the streets of San Francisco, offering people a chance to experience it.)

Though the suit against the jury never panned out, he did win another, filed in the early 1970s against the navy over the practice of releasing raw sewage into the water from boats stationed at urban ports. As a result, Congress passed the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act, prohibiting dumping.  

“He is an activist who’s been impatient and frustrated with bureaucracies all his life, yet he believes in the power of local community and what it takes to introduce the possibility of radical change,” Pat wrote.

A lifelong traveler, Richard went to India many times and was inspired to help design a new rickshaw that would be easier to pedal. In Romania, he created a prototype hospital for babies with AIDS.  

Doris said that despite his broad reach, he was always very curious about the work of others—eager to help them make their own dreams come alive. Her literary career, she said, would not have been the same without his encouragement.

Richard himself was the author of several books, including a collaborative with Doris called “Thousands of Words You Already Know in Spanish” and his own project, the “PG-13 Bible,” a printing of the text of the first five books of the Old Testament with the most offensive passages “in bold to help parents easily find the parts about slaying, lying, killing, pillaging, stoning, etc.,” Pat explained. “That way, we can all learn how the Bible contradicts itself and is often bloodier, more racist and even stupider than a Quentin Tarantino movie.”

She added, “Like most of Richard’s inventions, it really opens your perspective on life.”

Other fun inventions he brought to fruition include a bitter salve branded “Dogpatch” that would prevent dogs from licking or chewing surgical cuts, avoiding the nuisance of veterinary cones; a DIY fog catcher to help draw moisture during drought; pins and jewelry made out of resistors—tiny bits of porcelain and wire used by electricians to reduce energy flow—as a political statement during the Trump era; and so much more.

His friends all described Richard’s playfulness. Doris pointed out pearls filling a glass bowl on the shelf of his study that he was known to drop into oysters at gatherings—or restaurants. “He had to stop doing that, because I guess people thought it was a health concern,” she said.

Mark said they first met after Richard sat next to his sister on a plane headed for California. “Richard got on the plane handcuffed to his briefcase, like he was a spy,” Mark recounted. “Once my sister was in on the joke, they concocted a plan where she would arrive home to her apartment with him and they would scare the heck out of her roommates, with Richard claiming they were under arrest. Needless to say, I got a call late at night about trouble—and I met Richard shortly after.”

Pat recalled a time when feral pigs had overrun Mount Tamalpais. “How could [Richard] not carve a wooden facsimile of giant boar hooves, which he attached to regular (size 11 men’s) shoes?”

Ellen said Richard’s favorite thing in the world was sitting at his table after dinner, sinking into conversation deep into the night. He liked to talk about ideas, and about the world.

“The practice of seeing a problem and coming up with an idea about how to fix it was also for Richard about seeing injustices and wanting to fix those too,” she said. “I think that my family, Jewish, was not atypical—there was always lots of talk over the breakfast table about world affairs.”

True to his playful and unorthodox nature, Richard wrote his own obituary, which Doris discovered on his desk top. 

“What I will miss most—a ridiculous notion for someone who has never believed in a life after death, gods, angels, or supernatural anythings—is being around to see what comes next. Lots of nexts… Even next with how the world’s troubles unfold,” Richard wrote. “Always oppose war, be kind to each other, make music and art, travel, and speak out against intolerance, ignorance and superstition.”

 

A memorial service for Richard Kirschman will be held at the Dance Palace on Sunday, Jan. 6 at 3 to 5 p.m.