Obituary: George S. Wolfberg, the Consummate Community Leader

April 22, 1938 – February 5, 2020

George Sander Wolfberg, the most important and wide-ranging leader in Pacific Palisades the past 25 years, died on February 5. He was 81, and had been married to his wife, Diane, for 55 years. He always gave her pink and white carnations on their anniversary, February 9.

Born on April 22, 1938, in Los Angeles, George was an All-City swimmer and a member of the student council at Los Angeles High School. He received a degree in Political Science from UCLA in 1961, where he was a member of the swim team and a staff writer for the Daily Bruin.

He earned a master’s degree in public administration from USC in 1971. He also served his country in the Air National Guard (from 1961-1967), where he learned how to volunteer.

A staunch supporter of UCLA athletics, George held season basketball tickets for over 60 years, was a regular attendee of women’s and men’s soccer, and volunteered to gather statistics during football games at the Rose Bowl for more than a decade. Through 2019 he was still meeting regularly with his Pi Lam fraternity brothers (for whom he served as President).

Wolfberg’s career was dedicated to the City of Los Angeles, beginning as a public pool lifeguard. At his retirement in 1996, he was a Chief Administrative Analyst in the City Administrative Office, well known by mayors and city council members going back to the administration of C. Norris Poulson.

His college roommate was longtime City Councilman Joel Wachs, who says: “In City Hall, George was a rock of integrity and a font of knowledge which I and others who cared about our city always relied upon.”

Wolfberg considered one of his career highlights to be oversight of the City’s selective contracting policy to bring pressure upon South Africa to end apartheid, for which Nelson Mandela came to Los Angeles to specifically give thanks. Wolfberg also helped prepare the City’s successful bid to host the 1984 Olympics and traveled alongside David Wolper to serve as subject matter expert on the City’s facilities.

He obtained one of the first personal computers purchased by the City to prepare the 1984 Olympics budget. He also contributed hundreds of volunteer hours to make the L.A. Olympics a success and ensured upgrades were in place throughout the City in preparation for the Games.

Wolfberg was responsible for the birth of women’s Olympic cycling, which came about due to language he added committing Los Angeles and the IOOC to present the women’s road race as an exhibition sport in 1984.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will feature eleven women’s cycling events. George was also part of the committee working for years to secure the 1994 World Cup Soccer for Los Angeles and traveled to the World Cup in Italy in 1990 to research facility needs.

Wolfberg worked closely with friend Ellen Stern Harris, who created the California Coastal Conservation Act establishing the California Coastal Commission and guarantees that Californians can access and enjoy our coastline and beaches. He campaigned against private beachfront property that would limit such access.

After he and Diane moved to Santa Monica Canyon in Pacific Palisades in 1972, George became active with the 20-year No Oil campaign, which eventually defeated efforts by Occidental to build oil rigs near Potrero Canyon, across PCH from Will Rogers State Beach.

George was an enthusiastic longboard surfer and there was a saying in his office when he took an occasional sick day: “Surf’s up!” He kept in touch with many of his former staff.

After retiring, Wolfberg was recruited by Raphael Sonenshein to provide his expertise to the Los Angeles Appointed Charter Reform Commission, which, along with the Los Angeles Elected Charter Reform Commission that operated simultaneously and with the same mandate, created a “unified charter” proposal for the 1999 ballot. It resulted in the first successful and comprehensive update to the city’s 1925 charter.

The new Charter enacted the creation of a citywide system of neighborhood councils with the goal of promoting public participation in City governance and decision-making processes to create a government more responsive to local needs.

Wolfberg served on the boards of both the Pacific Palisades Community Council (16 years, including three terms as president) and the Santa Monica Canyon Civic Association (more than 20 years as president). He was a dedicated,  well-informed, ever-optimistic leader in local efforts to obtain infrastructure improvements, secure sensible land-use issues, preserve public parklands, create new systems to support those living without homes, and bring about improvements in safety, aircraft noise pollution, and sustainability.

Knowing Wolfberg’s skill at giving both sides of a controversy equal opportunity to express their opinions in open forums, City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski appointed him chairman of the Potrero Canyon Community Advisory Committee, and he worked on this contentious project for decades.

He advocated for greater public access to beaches via this future City park, including a bridge over PCH to link the beach bike path to the park for pedestrians and cyclists.

Lisa Cahill, a field deputy for Councilmember Mike Bonin said: “After the Potrero committee submitted its recommendations report in 2008, George  worked to ensure that the committee’s recommendations were heard by all the City departments, helping to hold them accountable, to ensure that the final project honored the community’s desires.

“More than being merely representative of the community’s requests, however, George had a vision and an adherence to the creation of a public park that will serve all Angelenos. everyone in L.A. I think his love of the ocean and being outdoors helped motivate him—I get the feeling that he wanted to share this beautiful part of the world with everyone.

“I deeply admired his intelligence and dedication to what makes sense. He had a tenacity in standing up for what is fair and right and was deeply committed to public safety.

“I personally would have been lost without George and the Potrero committee, and I often used George’s smile and his approval as a type of barometer, to know that I was doing a good job and that we were on the right path. The best thank-you note I ever got from any constituent was one from George. All it said was ‘Good job!’ I absolutely treasure it.”

Wolfberg worked closely with Councilman Bonin’s office on other issues that came before the Palisades Community Council. In August 2019, while in the ICU, he was texting and emailing key City staff and officials to encourage their attendance to vote to fund a new skateboard park at the beach at the bottom of Temescal Canyon, an historic skating site.

George advocated with the City for years to identify and mitigate sources of bad health grades for the beach at Will Rogers, ultimately getting a bad sewage pipe replaced and sewage rerouted to the El Segundo treatment plant. He was also an important member of the ongoing PCH Task Force, which meets quarterly to address the various challenges facing this vital highway.

Mike Bonin summed up Wolfberg’s staggering accomplishments last year, telling an audience: “I, the community, and the City of Los Angeles that George served so damn well for so damn long, love him. I am so deeply indebted to him for his leadership and his service — and for the manner in which he led and served.

“From project after project, issue after issue, George has led and served with fierce determination, great warmth, big goals and a smart and specific vision to achieve those goals. He has been a friend, mentor and inspiration to more people than we can count.”

Wolfberg served the community as a volunteer in many capacities. In the 1960s, he and Diane volunteered with Fair Housing doing sting operations on racist landlords by approaching them with housing applications after the landlords had unlawfully turned down applications by persons of color.

He was a driving force in AYSO Region 69, serving in various positions from coach and referee to Registrar and board member for 45 years. He became a nationally ranked referee who was still refereeing soccer games for teenagers at the time of his 80th birthday. He recruited many parents in the region to train as referees and coaches. In addition, he served on both the LA City and LA County Bicycle Advisory Committees, about 25 years apart.

He worked with Santa Monica Canyon and Rustic Canyon residents to restore the historic Uplifters Ranch eucalyptus grove and hand-watered new trees there to nurture them for many years. These efforts helped George win long overdue Citizen of the Year honors in Pacific Palisades. Last December the Community Council also honored him with its Pride of the Palisades award.

Following the 1992 riots, Wolfberg was appointed by the City as commissioner of the Watts Friendship Sports League. He served for ten years and raised over $100,000 in funding. It was the first youth sports league sponsored by the City. One example of George’s forward thinking: he created a program to serve free breakfast to all of the participants before sports started on the weekends.

Wolfberg’s final impact was to elevate the need for a comprehensive urban forest plan, leading to the August 2019 appointment of Rachel Malarich as the City’s first Forest Officer, a cornerstone to what’s being called L.A.’s New Green Deal and is tasked with reaching the goal to plant 90,000 trees by 2021. As Community Council president, George was instrumental in creating the Palisades Forestry Committee in 2019.

Family and friends knew Wolfberg as something of a renaissance man. An avid chef who could recreate international feasts, he was also a ceramic artist at the Venice Pot Shop (a cooperative) as well as a Malibu Surfrider Beach longboard surfer in the 1960s and 1970s.

In addition to his wife, Diane (Davis) Wolfberg, George is survived by daughter Anya McCann (and Richard McCann), sons David (and Lin Lin Oo) and Michael Wolfberg, grandsons Yeshaia van Leeuwen, Alex Wolfberg and Jonah Wolfberg, and granddaughter Avital van Leeuwen. He is also survived by brother Theodore (Ted) Wolfberg, sisters Jacqueline Smith and Saundra Wolfberg and seven nieces and nephews.

Funeral services were held on February 7 at Home of Peace Memorial Park. George can be remembered through donations to Planned Parenthood.

 

–Bill Bruns

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8 Responses to Obituary: George S. Wolfberg, the Consummate Community Leader

  1. Paul Glasgall says:

    Bill
    A spectacular obituary. I must add that George was an important component of the LADWP reservoir committee formed to make a decision on the best way to move forward in revamping the Sante Ynez Reservoir. He will be fondly remembered by me for his steadfast support and input on a wide variety of community issues.

  2. Nina Kidd says:

    What a lively, and impressive, obituary, Bill.
    Trust you to do a job worthy of the man. Thank you.

  3. Barbara Marinacci says:

    A remarkable obituary of a most remarkable man! Pacific Palisades was so fortunate to have him here. Great thanks to both Bill Bruns and Circling the News.

  4. avital says:

    this is my favorite obituary i have seen so far, this really does him justice. thank you so much bill. my favorite part is the line about how all u needed to know you were on the right track in life was george’s little smile of approval. a thank you note that just says “good job!” being the most memorable thank you of your career is about as george wolfberg as it gets. i laughed out loud… ive has many of those moments. . i’ll miss that man so much.

  5. Andrea Bell says:

    I didn’t know George, but was certainly blessed by his contributions to our community. George Wolfberg Canyon Park sounds like a fitting tribute to a very generous man.

  6. avital van leeuwen says:

    i do want to add just one little addendum to my comment ! i don’t think george would have called himself the most important anything… something that always stood out to me about him is how he placed the same value on everyone no matter their position in society. he taught me how vital each and every person and their individual job is in any community… without the post officers, the people who drive garbage trucks, the gardeners who water the plants, the people at the dmv, the people who cook our school lunches, the folks at the social services office, and each and every person who benefits from these civic operations, the system would not be quite the same. a leader is only as good as his team. george saw equal value in all of us. i love him for that.

  7. Finn-Olaf Jones says:

    Fantastic obituary for a great man and a straight-shooter….you always knew you were going to get a hearing and a direct, often amusing, but well-thought out response for any question or concern you brought to George. All of us who love the Palisades have George to thank for making it such an amazing and beautiful community.

  8. Bill Bruns (old time Life Mag colleague).

    Good Job!

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