Wearing a shirt and tie and a gigantic live snake wrapped around his neck, Jim Jacobs stands in a library surrounded by several smiling children.
James Henry Jacobs Jr. at the Berkeley Public Library. Courtesy of his family

James Henry Jacobs Jr. passed away in San Francisco peacefully surrounded by music on May 24, four days before his 93rd birthday.

Known as Jim, he was born on May 28, 1930, in Flushing, Michigan, to James Henry Jacobs Sr. and Alice Serene Rhue Jacobs, second born of eight children. In the early 1930s his family moved from Flushing to Sandwich West, Canada. His early education began in a humble one-room schoolhouse. His family then moved to Windsor, Ontario, and he attended Victoria Elementary School. In 1939 his family moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan, where he attended Harriet Street Grammar School. He worked on the family farm, had various summer jobs, and learned an appreciation for music, literature and language from his parents. He went to Ypsilanti High School and was later inducted into the Ypsilanti High School Hall of Fame for being a catalyst, along with his brothers, to the school’s “Glory Years” in football. After graduating in 1949, he continued working for Michigan Union Cafeteria and then the Ford generator plant.

In 1950, he moved to San Francisco and started his associates degree at City College of San Francisco. In spring 1951, he began learning Japanese at the SF Buchanan St. YMCA and started pen-palling with people in Japan, one of whom became a longtime friend. While attending CCSF he was drafted into the U.S. Army (20th division) during the Korean War Conflict. In 1953 he completed basic training at Fort Ord and was joint-enlisted in the U.S. Navy. In January of 1954 he was admitted to Army Language School at the Presidio Monterey, and completed the 12-month language training in just three months.

After a short assignment in Tacoma, Washington, he was shipped out and arrived in Japan May 1954 serving as an interpreter. While in Okinawa, he sought out a dojo to learn judo and consequently became a student of Buddhism. In 1956 he was part of the only foreign team in Japan’s history to beat Japan in judo on their own soil. In December of 1956 he was honorably discharged from active duty as Specialist Second Class. His judo practice stayed with him after leaving Japan and he prestigiously achieved rank of 6th Degree Black Belt (6th dan of the Kodokan and U.S Judo Federation), became a youth Judo coach, and received numerous awards and accolades.

In 1958 he completed his undergraduate in Japanese Studies at UC Berkeley after transferring from UC Los Angeles. He continued his studies at UC Berkeley, being the only African American in his Masters of Library Science program and became Berkeley Public Library’s first African American librarian in 1960.

During the 1960s he pioneered the effort to desegregate the Berkeley Public Library’s collections, began the Summer Reading Program, and supported gender and cultural representation by featuring books with minority protagonists. One of the books he featured during storytime that became so popular he could never keep on the shelves was Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp by Mercer Meyer. In addition, he would use songs to teach literacy and had a particular interest in the storytelling magic of folk music. He dedicated 30 years of service to the community with excellence, care and compassion for all learners and interests before retiring in 1990. In October 2021, he received a City of Berkeley Proclamation signed by the Mayor honoring him for his service and impact on so many generations of Berkeleyans.

Jacobs, sitting in a coat and tie and nice dress shoes in a library. He's playing guitar as a group of rapt sitting children watch.
James Henry Jacobs Jr. had a particular interest in the storytelling magic of folk music. Courtesy: Berkeley Public Library

In 1951 Jim met Alice Ann Fontenot through a mutual friend and bonded over their common interests in the arts and fluency in French. After Jim proposed to Alice at Nikko’s restaurant on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco, they were married on Nov. 4, 1961, at St. Dominic’s Church, and remained devoted to each other for over 60 years. They had many adventures over the decades, enjoying the finer things in life including the arts, travel and entertaining family and friends at their home in San Francisco. Jim had a sophisticated palate and enjoyed cooking and baking for family, friends, co-workers and neighbors, especially for the holidays. Holidays and special occasions were often remembered for his fruit cake, gumbo and gifts of books.

Jim was a “Renaissance man” with many talents and knowledge, but remained humble, approachable, and maintained a healthy sense of humor. He continued his lifelong love of learning by going back to CCSF for Religious Studies and Theology in his 60s. He could talk to anyone about anything, was a philanthropist, and continued to be an educator even in his final months, teaching anyone who was willing to learn the song “Life is Like a Mountain Railroad” by Patsy Cline. Many lives have been touched and enriched by Jim Jacobs; he had the ability to make those around him feel “seen” and valued. He was a loving husband, kind brother, dutiful son and wonderful uncle. He will be missed but his legacy of peace, generosity and love will live on.

Jacobs was preceded in death by his soulmate, Alice Fontenot Jacobs, his siblings Benjamin Jacobs, Ruth Jacobs, Paul Israel (né Eugene Jacobs), and William Jacobs. He is survived by his sisters Elizabeth Hawley, Roubi (née Marva) Crozier, Marlene Sanford, and a host of nieces, nephews, and in-laws.