There are times in life when you meet a person so special—intelligent, kind, accomplished, modest, witty, and decent—that you know how fortunate you are for his or her friendship. That’s how we all felt about longtime trustee Donald Tober. And that’s why we are all so very saddened by his death last Friday.
I realize now how much he anchored us. There’s been an amazing outpouring of memories and feelings of loss from board members and staff. Many expressed how distraught they feel. One trustee said he felt “unmoored.” Trustees described him as “a star,” “one of a kind,” “exceptional,” “unforgettable,” “everybody’s favorite,” and “a prince of a man.”
I met Donald some 20-odd years ago at a Saturday morning tour of St. John the Divine. We got talking. He told me how he loved to explore the City on weekends. I told him about the Conservancy. Shortly after that, he expressed an interest in joining the board.
Donald came on the same time a new board chair was elected. Donald suggested the two of them have regular lunches as “newbies” so they could learn together. It became a fast friendship and it wasn’t long before the chair realized how much he was learning from Donald.
Donald was the first one to step up and offer help when the market crashed in 2008. His example helped pull board support together.
Being placed next to Donald at events was a coveted seat of honor. He could charm and amuse anyone. The year we honored Norman and Norris Mailer as “Living Landmarks,” they arrived at the gala so early no other guests were there. As I frantically wondered how to keep them comfortable, Donald and his dynamic wife Barbara walked in. I knew I was saved. I ushered them right over to the Mailers and the two couples were soon laughing and chatting away. After another gala, Board Members congratulated Donald for bidding $5000 for a glass of New York City water that had been auctioned off by an honoree. His response: “I thought it was gin.” When we honored Donald and Barbara as “Landmarks” in 2019, their friends formed a gigantic cheering section filling half the ballroom.
Donald devoted so much time and resources to us that it was easy to forget he was a philanthropist with wide-ranging interests and busy running Sugar Foods, which he built into a major company. One trustee shared an article noting that Donald paid all his employees during the Great Recession, even though demand was down. He also refused to modernize production using robotics because it would have resulted in mass layoffs. Donald respected everyone.
“Mr. Tober would say ‘please call me Donald’,” one staffer wrote. “But I could never greet him with any other title than Mr. Tober. He deserved that respect.”
We all respected Donald. We also loved him. The Conservancy was blessed to have him with us.
Peg Breen, President
The New York Landmarks Conservancy