In the arts, social services, journalism, education and the fight against homelessness, the late Rowland Rebele leaves behind a legacy of community support in Santa Cruz County stunning in its breadth and commitment.
Rowland Rebele’s father was a banker who, at one time, had a low opinion of the newspaper business. He told his son, who had developed a passion for newspapering while at Stanford University in the early 1950s, that the only newspapermen he had ever known were either broke or alcoholics.
Nevertheless, Rowland — through his undergrad years at Stanford, a stint in the Navy, and two years at Harvard Business School — continued to nurse a dream of running his own newspaper. When he found a struggling weekly in the Central Valley town of Coalinga for sale, he jumped at it. And standing right there behind him, ready to loan him the money to get started, despite a deep skepticism about the whole industry, was his father.
Judging by the decades of community support he provided in the arts and human services in Santa Cruz County, the lesson that Rebele — who died Nov. 25 at the age of 93 — took away from his father’s support was clear: Faith in people and respect for their passions are more important than doubts or questions about any other outside factor.
Rebele proved to be a big success in the newspaper business, and the day that he and his wife, Pat, moved their family to Rio Del Mar turns out to be, in hindsight, one of the most significant days in Santa Cruz County’s history. For more than four decades, up to the present moment, the Rebeles have been contributing direct financial support, guidance and direction, business advice, volunteer energy, and social connections to a dizzying number of organizations and individuals, mostly in the arts, education and homeless services.
Since they settled locally in the late 1970s, the Rebeles have likely donated tens of millions of dollars to local charities, nonprofits, arts groups and scholarship funds. UC Santa Cruz, Cabrillo College, the Community Foundation, Arts Council Santa Cruz County and many other foundational institutions in this community have all received sustained support from the Rebeles. Rowland Rebele — known as “Reb” to just about everybody in town — served on several boards of organizations, assisted in formulating business plans and provided invaluable encouragement, in everything from financial to emotional support, to any number of artists, journalists and service workers.
What a philanthropist looks like
Perhaps even more significantly, Rebele modeled what an engaged and committed philanthropist looks like. To take but one example, Julie James, the artistic director of the Santa Cruz-based Jewel Theater Co., said that the Rebeles were not only early financial supporters of Jewel even before the company took residence in the Colligan Theater at the Tannery Arts Center, but Rebele was always checking in with James to address problems or brainstorm ideas. And, most important of all, Reb and Pat were always there at Jewel performances, second row center.
“He was always so authentically interested,” said James. “Especially during COVID and after COVID, he’d say, ‘How are things going, Julie? How do you see the future? What do you think is going to happen?’ He was just always earnestly interested in going forward.”
Philip Collins, the director of the longtime musical organization New Music Works, said no individual has kept NMW afloat over the years more so than Rebele. Just this year, said Collins, Rebele unexpectedly increased his season sponsorship to NMW and told Collins, “I’ll sponsor you as long as you need or want me to.”
The Rebele Family Shelter near the intersection of Highway 1 and River Street stands as a monument to the Rebeles’ commitment in lending a helping hand to people experiencing homelessness. The Rebeles were devoted members of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist in Aptos. Phil Kramer, the CEO of Housing Matters in Santa Cruz, said that Rebele’s impulse to house the homeless came from a deep-seated Christian ethos.
“I’ve heard him say, ‘We are our brother’s keeper,’” said Kramer. “He considered himself incredibly fortunate. He was a smart, hard-charging businessman; publishing is a hard business. But Reb really saw himself as someone who had been fortunate and therefore he was obliged to help and support people in need, and people less fortunate.”
A mentor in journalism
Matt Wetstein, the president of Cabrillo College, said he was present a few years ago when Rebele visited Brad Kava’s journalism class at Cabrillo, not only giving the students financial merit awards, but letting them know he was reading their work. “It was done from a spirit of what people call in social science a ‘strengths-based’ or ‘asset-based’ approach,” said Wetstein. “He saw the good in what they were doing — he always saw the good in the people. And when he was giving feedback, he was always operating from the positive: ‘Boy, is this really good quality work.’”
The realm of journalism, for obvious reasons, was near and dear to Rebele’s heart. Ken Doctor, the CEO of Lookout, said that Rebele was instrumental in helping to get the news organization launched in the fall of 2020. The two had met around Rebele’s work at the Bay Area-based First Amendment Coalition, but Doctor said that he nevertheless felt a bit nervous asking his friend for support, particularly in a news environment in which the newspaper industry seemed to be in a steep decline. Still, when Doctor presented his vision, Rebele responded positively.
“He was literally the first person I talked to about [the idea for Lookout],” said Doctor of that pitch meeting at an outdoor table at Cafe Cruz. “And he immediately glowed. He got that glint in his eye. He was very supportive from that moment on, unlike many other people who said, ‘Those days are over. I don’t think that these things can work. I’m not sure if people even want local news. I’m not sure you can make a free-standing and sustainable operation out of it.’ None of that. He just said, ‘This is great. And I know you, and I know your writing. And I think you could do it.’
Even with that encouragement, said Doctor, Rebele wanted to understand more fully the vision for sustainability and profitability at Lookout: “He was very specific in what he wanted, which introduced some early discipline for me in that process. It was a yes – and ‘Please get me your three-year plan.’”
A great American life
Rebele’s biography suggests an archetype of the midcentury Great American Life. He was born and reared in San Francisco during the Great Depression, and met Pat when both were still in middle school. (He and Pat, who at 94 survives her husband, had planned to celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary in June 2024.)
From the Jesuit-founded St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco, Rowland then went on to Stanford, where his work on the campus newspaper The Stanford Daily sparked a lifelong love of the newspaper game. After Stanford, a stint in the Navy during the Korean War was sandwiched between his two years at Harvard.
From there, he purchased the Coalinga Record. After paying back his father’s loan, he then purchased other small newspapers in San Diego County and a few others across the U.S., most notably the Paradise Post in the Gold Country foothills. After a year abroad living in the U.K., the Rebeles and their three children moved to Santa Cruz County in 1979 (the Rebeles’ children, Marianne, Andrew and Chris, were each adopted as infants). In his youth, Rowland had visited Santa Cruz, where his aunt lived, and he had positive associations with the area.
Once settled in Rio Del Mar, Rebele turned his attention to community involvement. “He did some consulting,” said daughter Marianne, “and he had his papers. But he wasn’t doing the day-to-day anymore, and he was always community-minded, so he had more time to get involved locally.”
And that involvement essentially didn’t let up for more than 40 years. At UC Santa Cruz, for example, the Rebeles established an endowment at the university’s library and an endowed chair in the History of Art & Visual Culture, as well as contributions of support to the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, the UCSC Arboretum and other campus-affiliated organizations.
At Rebele’s alma mater of Stanford University, the Rowland and Pat Rebele Journalism Internship Program has provided cash stipends to hundreds of young would-be Stanford-educated journalists to work at news organizations. Recipients of the scholarship have gone on to work at The New York Times, The Wall St. Journal, The Washington Post, Reuters, ProPublica and other news outlets, including Lookout. Rebele’s journalist support has also included a long-standing Rebele Scholars program for Cabrillo College journalism students.
The Rebeles have also given substantial support to the Aptos Community Youth Program to empower underserved young people at Aptos Junior High and Aptos High School.
“Besides giving advice and putting his money where his mouth is,” said Jewel’s Julie James, “Reb was like your best manager. He was such an energetic advocate. He talks up the people and the things that he supports, and always tries to connect people: ‘Julie, you should meet so-and-so.’ For so many things, he was just an amazing ball of energy.”
Pounding the table
In many arts organizations, the Rebeles were one of or the single most engaged and committed donors. “He was our largest individual donor for years,” said Linda Burroughs, the president of the board of directors at the Santa Cruz Symphony. “I’ve been on the board for 30 years and every minute of that time, Reb was part of it, whether he was on the board himself or as a supporter of it. If we ever needed a word of wisdom from somebody, he was one that I would call and ask his opinion about things.”
And those opinions were often expressed forcefully. Burroughs was one of a few people I spoke to who mentioned Rebele’s habit of literally pounding the table and often spitting out R-rated language when expressing frustration: “I used to caution people that if it was their first time in a room with Reb to please don’t take it personally, because it’s just his personality. He was passionate, and he never sugar-coated things.”
As the CEO of Community Foundation Santa Cruz County, Susan True interacts with philanthropists and donors from all over the county. She said that Rebele was unique in the sheer breadth of his philanthropic interests. “It’s funny,” said True, “because he could be foul-mouthed and irreverent, and yet very deeply spiritual at the same time. St. John’s [Episcopal Church] was such an important part of his connection to the community. I mean, he cared about how the light came into the sanctuary, because he felt it opened our spirits to a greater purpose.”
“He was so smart and had such intellectual curiosity and rigor,” said Housing Matters’ Phil Kramer. “He could look at our financial statements and could interpret them and understand what they mean, but he could also be eager to learn new ways or approaches in solving homelessness.”
In a distinctly “It’s A Wonderful Life” kind of way, Rowland Rebele has left behind an influence that is impossible to quantify. In some alternative reality in which the Rebeles moved somewhere else in 1979, it’s certainly credible that many touchstone organizations in the community might not exist, or at least exist in different forms.
In September, at its first concert of the 2023-24 season, the Santa Cruz Symphony honored Rebele with a pronouncement from the stage that read, “He personifies the symphony with his extraordinary dedication, monetary support and passion for everything that he does in life. Due to his commitment and vision through the years, the symphony has survived. Reb, you are our friend, devoted fan and we owe you our existence.”
“There’s a pinball effect in all of this,” said Lookout’s Ken Doctor, “and it’s what makes Santa Cruz culture different, having a lot of these institutions in a relatively small city and small county. There’s essentially an ecosystem here that allows people to support each other and recognize each other, so that the community, I think, continues to punch above its weight. Without what [the Rebeles] did, this would have been a different place.”
Susan True said that Rebele’s continuing influence in Santa Cruz County and beyond is almost immeasurable. “How many families have been in and out of the [Rebele Family Shelter], or will be into the future? How many students have gotten his fellowship and launched a career in journalism? You know, how many funds that he established at the Community Foundation that are now nurturing grassroots work in the community?”
In true journalist fashion, last year Rebele wrote some background information to serve as his own obituary. In it, he wrote of his wealth, “We’re giving it all to charitable causes because we’ve been given so much and so many in our society have been given so little in comparison. It’s really as simple as that. It’s only right to give back.”
“The Shapers” is an ongoing series of profiles of the people who have shaped and continue to shape Santa Cruz County’s unique culture and spirit. Got an idea for an artist, businessperson, community organizer, media personality, government official, or public figure who you think is core to Santa Cruz County, we’d love to hear about it at firstname.lastname@example.org.