Phyllis Moldaw | April 27, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - April 27, 2012

Phyllis Moldaw

'Seeing the potential' and reaching out

by Chris Kenrick

Phyllis Moldaw observes that she's "come full circle" in Palo Alto, where in the 1950s she and her husband, Stuart, started their family.

Stuart Moldaw — an entrepreneur who went on to found Ross Dress For Less and Gymboree, among other retail winners — launched his first venture, Country Casuals, at Palo Alto's Midtown Shopping Center in 1958.

Last week, Phyllis Moldaw sat for an interview at the Moldaw Family Residences, the new senior housing complex at the Taube-Koret Campus for Jewish Life, less than a mile from where the couple first made a home more than a half-century ago in the Greenmeadow neighborhood.

The Campus for Jewish Life housing was named for the Moldaws after a major gift from the family in 2008, the year Stuart Moldaw died.

"I feel very privileged and honored to have this award," she said of the Lifetimes of Achievement honor.

"But I'm not standing alone in receiving it."

Moldaw has served as board president of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, as board member of the Moldaw Family Residences, and as a major supporter of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Communities in Schools and other organizations.

She and her husband helped fund construction of the Moldaw-Zaffaroni Clubhouse for the Boys & Girls Club in East Palo Alto, which holds classrooms, a full-size gym and indoor and outdoor play spaces that serve as a daily after-school base for hundreds of East Palo Alto children.

"You can't put a price on it. I don't know how to describe it, seeing these young people having a home away from home where people understand their lives," she said.

Moldaw participates in major clubhouse activities, including the annual "Youth of the Year" competition, in which teenagers speak before a large audience of family, classmates and donors about their experiences and views of the world.

"The struggles they face in their lives and the obstacles they've overcome is remarkable," said Moldaw, who has served on the speech-judging panels.

As the December holidays approached one year, shortly after her husband died, Moldaw found herself wishing she could take someone to the Nutcracker at the San Francisco Opera House, a tradition she had always loved with her two daughters and four grandchildren.

"It's such a magical moment, and then I realized: The children are right here at the Boys & Girls Club."

With help from the staff — and new outfits courtesy of Ross Dress For Less — Moldaw for the past three years has taken 18 girls from the club to a matinee Nutcracker performance of the San Francisco Ballet.

"The girls walk into the Opera House, and they feel like they're in a palace or a castle. Their wonderment is precious," Moldaw said.

Moldaw largely credits her husband for the family's philanthropic initiatives.

"He could see needs. There are some people who see the big picture, and they have the confidence and courage to step where other people wouldn't think of going. I was fortunate to have had 57 years with that special person," she said.

"He could see potential in people they couldn't see in themselves. When he passed away I got hundreds of letters from people saying he changed their lives."

In a 2006 memoir intended for his grandchildren, Stuart Moldaw laid out the perils and opportunities confronting people of economic privilege.

"The advantage of financial well-being can make a person indulgent, rob him of the true measure of meaningful accomplishment and allow him to live a shallow life," Moldaw wrote.

"Or it can give him the ability to make a difference in the world that cries out for compassion, action and commitment."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at


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