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Dr. Dale Jacobs, 1940-2020

Beloved New Jersey Psychiatrist Succumbs to Cancer

By Ken Kurson, September 17 2020 4:07 pm

My favorite photograph of my uncle, Dale Jacobs, reading with my son, Steven. (Ken Kurson)

My uncle Dale Jacobs has died. He was not a famous man. And other than close relationships with a couple of political families, such as dear friends Blair and Gordon MacInnis, he wasn’t really involved in politics. Yet he deserves a proper obituary in a New Jersey publication because Dale Jacobs was a great New Jerseyan.

Dale Jacobs (known as “Doodie” to all family and those who knew him from his childhood in McKeesport, Pennsylvania) moved to New Jersey in the early 1970s after completing medical school. The force of his personality and charisma eventually drew both of his sisters — including his older sister (my mother) and his younger sister (my aunt Bonnie) — to the state.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

Dale and his wife Renee first moved to Cherry Hill to begin a practice. But they were soon drawn to Morris County, by the incredible beauty of the area, its historical significance, but also its proximity to the cultural treasures of New York City. He set up shop in Morristown, eventually building his dream home on five gorgeous acres on Washington Valley Road.

I was so proud to visit that house. It was precisely the kind of New Jersey place that people who didn’t grow up in New Jersey visit and exclaim, “This is not what I picture when I think of New Jersey.” In my mind’s eye, I can see my cousin Becky on her horse Freckles trotting circles in the ring in their backyard. Becky followed in her father’s footsteps and also became a doctor, basically entering the family business of helping people.

Uncle Doodie loved such a wide variety of things that it’s hard to believe he loved each with total passion. The symphony. 2nd Ave Deli. Montauk. University of Michigan basketball. Gardening. Motorcycles. He was ludicrously devoted to his patients and yet showed up at every single family wedding, bar mitzvah, and funeral. When I was named “Journalist of the Year” in 2014, it broke my heart that my mom, who had died a year earlier, hadn’t lived to see it. But there in the crowd were my two uncles and two aunts, just like always.

When my uncle was so sick that he eventually weighed less than my tiny aunt, they asked me to try to figure out medical marijuana for him, in hopes that it would give him a bit of appetite. That’s not really my thing so I asked a friend. He immediately hooked me up with some gummies and chocolate, and when I looked inside the package, I saw a note to my uncle. It thanked him for treating his child’s ADHD. It read: “Our son will be entering high school this year in all honors classes. That wouldn’t have been possible without you.”

There are people all over Northern New Jersey who can tell exactly the same story.

For 50 years, my uncle treated mental health problems for people throughout the state. Because of the nature of psychiatric work, you don’t always know who the patients are. But sometimes it would crop up. One time I was doing media for a congressional candidate in Illinois. He went on to win and he called me from Washington to relate a funny coincidence. His brother had needed psychiatric care for a child in New Jersey. In interviewing my uncle and eventually hiring him, it emerged that his brother the Illinois congressman had hired a New Jersey guy to run his campaign. My uncle beamed when he related the story at Rosh Hashanah, how proud he was that the “brilliant political consultant” turned out to be me. Even if they weren’t always pleased about the people I worked with, they were super proud of me.

Uncle Doodie, Tante Yitta, Aunt Renee, Pesach in Morristown, 2009. (Ken Kurson)

My aunt and uncle did not share my political views. I spent every single Pesach, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with them since moving out here in 1993 (and plenty before that). At one memorable Passover in 2000, my mother brought a new fellow she was seeing. It became clear that I strongly disagreed with Janet Reno’s decision to send Elián González back to Cuba at gunpoint. (I still do.) My mom’s date said, “Who are you to decide what’s best for this child?” I replied, “Who are you, period?” We never saw the date again. My uncle loved it.

As I write this, I am flooded with personal memories of a truly excellent human being. The guy who was there for my mother when she got divorced was there for me 33 years later when I got divorced. And a hundred times in between. Like when my family moved into his house during Hurricane Irene in 2011. My aunt and uncle were health fanatics. That’s one of the reasons his demise is so hard to process. I remember sneaking down in the evening to try to find anything resembling candy or cookies in their kitchen. It was hopeless, but I caught a glimpse of the two of them snuggled up on the couch watching some dopey show about who can dance the best. They liked each other so much and their 50-plus year marriage provided a model for our entire family.

It was my uncle who called to tell me it was the end for my mother, and to get on the phone with her immediately because it wouldn’t be weeks, it wouldn’t be days, it would be hours. He and I cried together, and I called my mom and she and I cried some more. But oh, how we laughed as well. Her memories of their childhood together had plenty of painful moments. But the prevailing ones were of joy, and her memories of her little brother were undiluted in their warmth and love.

My mother and her brother grew up with nothing. My mom was born in Czechoslovakia, and when her family fled the Holocaust in 1940 aboard the USS Washington, my grandmother was pregnant with my uncle. That dynamic, having been conceived in the old world and born in the new, was a lasting metaphor for Dale Jacobs’ life. My uncle never got a cell phone, never had an email address, never used a computer. He was about human connection. We used to roll our eyes at his aversion to technology. Now I envy it.

This was a guy who wrapped tefillin every single day but wound up rejecting much of the structure of organized religion. This was a guy who was there for his patients even as coronavirus began decimating our state, and even as his own body was ravaged by pancreatic cancer. One time I visited their family in 1982. That was 8th grade for my cousin and me – a time of maximum self-consciousness. My uncle made me go to middle school with her for a day. We were both in agony. It was one of the best things I did in my entire childhood, pushing through that kind of fear.

By the time my kids started arriving, my uncle, always so busy that the crazy calendar my aunt kept on her wall was literally filled to the point of unreadable, made time for them. My dad was dead and their mother’s dad was out of the picture, so my kids didn’t have a grandfather. My uncle took on that role. One time he took my son to the movies. Steve had selected Thor, and I guess it was too intense for a 9-year-old. When his nerves started to give, he asked Uncle Doodie, “Can I snuggle in with you?” They watched the rest of the movie with their arms around each other. Uncle Doodie loved telling Steve’s mother and me that story. He saw deeply into the minds of children. And the more difficult a time they were having, the more rachmanes he would show. He got not only what these kids were doing, and what regimen would help, but why they were doing it, why they were feeling the things they were.

There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of New Jerseyans living happy, productive lives today who wouldn’t even be alive were it not for my uncle’s care. That’s a meaningful legacy.

A couple weeks ago, I visited him on Washington Valley Road for the last time. His yard is insane. You have to see it to understand, but if you did you’d get such an insight into this joyful, fascinating, eccentric guy. It’s covered in crazy art made from soda cans and bamboo poles, and reflects his late-in-life commitment to becoming an artist. He never stopped working until just a couple months ago when it became impossible. So this was not some “I think I’ll dabble in art during my retirement” thing. This was a full-on commitment to becoming a sculptor while treating patients full-time.

New Jersey has lost one of its best people. I’ll miss this guy forever.

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2 thoughts on “Dr. Dale Jacobs, 1940-2020

  1. When I attended W&J College, I didn’t know anyone. As an Asian American, I wasn’t allowed to join most fraternities which were big at the time. I felt isolated. Doodie Jacobs befriended me, even took me to his home where I experienced matzoh ball soup and Jewish temple for the first time. I will never forget his kindness and friendship. I only regret losing touch with him after I transferred after my Sophomore year.

    1. Mr. Kashiwahara, thank you so much for sharing this lovely comment. You remember my uncle exactly as I do — kind and empathetic. I am sorry you lost touch with each other but having grown up on his vivid stories of all the people who touched his life, I feel certain that he remembered you with equal fondness. Thanks again for sharing this, Your fellow “KK” — Ken Kurson

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