Farewell to a good and great man

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On a Friday in the middle of this month, New Yorkers were shocked and saddened to learn that Donald Tober had suddenly taken his own life on a very early Friday morning. He had been suffering from Parkinson’s.

I came to know Barbara and Donald Tober in the mid-’90s attending charitable events in New York. Separately and together, they were easy to meet, both naturally gracious and friendly. Their marriage looked to be a remarkable partnership, a sharing of interests, of values, of humor; and they loved New York. They were the kind of people that make New York the amazing city that it is.

Barbara and Donald Tober doing what they loved best.

In 2006 I came to know them better when they hosted a birthday dinner dance for Donald who was celebrating his 75th at Cipriani 42nd Street. There were four or five hundred guests and a full orchestra to provide the music. It was a dazzling black-tie event, but both welcoming and comfortable. And the birthday boy, in addressing his guests, explained that it was a good number to celebrate.

I was then at an age where 75 seemed far away and old! Sitting at table, taking it all in, at first I wondered if there would be a lot of dancing considering many of the guests were “older.” But after some brief but interesting speeches by some of Donald’s longtime friends, between dinner courses, the dance floor was crowded. It was a celebration and the music played on and on. I could see that Donald was doing what he really liked to do with Barbara — which was to get up and dance.

It was at that night that I first learned Donald not only loved music but had a grand piano in their apartment which he often played at the end of the day when he came home from the office.

The last time I saw Donald was earlier last year. He and Barbara were celebrating an anniversary, perhaps the 45th. He told me how he’d been married before and when he got divorced — he was about forty and thinking he was going to be a single man for the first time in his adult life — he told himself he’d have to get out and go to places as a single man. He wasn’t sure it would be for him, but he’d give it his best. Thankfully, within a very short period of time, he happened to meet Barbara who was the longtime successful editor of Brides Magazine.

On first getting to know Donald, Barbara, who had been married before, asked him: “Are you always like this!?” To which he replied in his kindly matter of fact, “What you see is what you get.” And so it was.

However, aside from business and his love of music, Donald and Barbara were really two dynamos — like Fred and Ginger on that dance floor — independent in their thinking and accomplished in their lives. Besides having a busy business and social life, they were deeply involved in several philanthropic activities including as a founding member of Citymeals on Wheels and the Museum of Arts and Design.

Living Landmarks Donald and Barbara Tober (with Living Landmark DPC behind) at the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s 2019 celebration, one of the many arts and cultural organizations that Donald supported.

I could also see that despite their very active social nightlife, it was never all-consuming. Their philanthropies were demanding undertakings but they were naturally industrious. They also maintained a horse farm in Columbia County where they had time for each other, and frequently spent weekends riding and entertaining houseguests. Oh, and they were avid skiers up until fairly recently.

Donald was in the food business. Perhaps his most popular product which he marketed and distributed was Sweet’N Low (and more recently Sugar in the Raw.) His company — Sugar Foods — was started by his father in the 1940s. After graduating from Penn and Harvard Law, in his late 20s he joined his father in business. The business really came to prominence back in the 1960s when the then revolutionary Sweet’N Low became part of the language, and could be found on every restaurant table and counter everywhere.  But he always maintained that “family feeling in the way we do business.” Donald is largely credited with making it one of the most widely known products because of its name and its pink packaging.

“Donald was a warm and charismatic leader whose incredible spirit and dedication left an indelible impression on all who were privileged to work with him. He remains a moral and ethical compass to us all. His passion to learn, to teach, and to create will remain with all of us,” shared Stephen Odell, who was Donald’s long-standing partner in the business.

Donald was one of those brilliant people who, if you met him and knew nothing about him, you’d think: a nice guy. Over the years, that perception was confirmed many times. He was naturally courteous and congenial. He was very much a part of the goings-on but his wasn’t a dominating personality. He was a leader — successful, thoughtful, serious — with a natural sense of authority. And a dreamer. The horseback riding and the music he loved, particularly the contemporary music of his age — the American Songbook — confirmed it.

When the news of his passing came out on that Friday afternoon mid-month, that he had ended his life by jumping from the top of his apartment building into its courtyard, many wondered why he hadn’t chosen a quieter, softer method. But Donald was a sensible man through and through. Up until the advanced and debilitating stage of Parkinson’s, he had had a wonderful life, even a great life. Only two months from his 90th, he had been blessed. I could imagine that moment, at his then now advanced age, already bearing the tortures of this terrible illness, he chose a quick and decisive solution; and quick for everyone around him.

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