The Jacobs Women: Helping Build a Legacy

jacobs affifie in tannersville 1920

The Anatomy of an Entrepreneur, the late Joseph J. Jacobs’s memoir, is dedicated to his wife Violet “Vi” Jabara Jacobs, of whom he wrote: “With a modesty that belies the great woman she is and loyalty that I cannot live without, Vi is the heart in the anatomy of this entrepreneur. Because of her, I breathe.”

Vi was not, however, the first woman to help set the course of Jacobs’ life. That distinction belongs to his mother, Affifie, who gave birth to him in 1916 and raised him in Brooklyn’s tightknit Lebanese-American community. Although she never learned to read or write, Affifie was resolutely ambitious for her children, and when he contemplated quitting school in order to take on a fulltime job, it was Affifie who insisted that he complete his college education at what was then known as the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. (Probably few current students—even those who know of Jacobs’ incredible generosity to his alma mater—grasp that the fortunes of their school might have been very different had it not been for one fiercely determined Lebanese matriarch.) Jacobs’ sisters Evelyn and Helen were equally instrumental in his education: the two were among the most successful designers of lingerie in the country, and they readily funded his Poly tuition.

In the late 1930s, however, Jacobs met the woman who would inarguably affect his life the most profoundly. Vi Jabara was both charming and pretty, and Jacobs, then a graduate student at Poly, was immediately smitten. Vi settled dutifully into the role of helpmate even before their 1942 wedding, typing eight copies of Jacobs’ 180-page thesis (in the days before Xerox machines) and coaching him in the German and French he needed to earn his Ph.D. The word dutiful unquestionably continued to describe her after the wedding. In 1947, when her husband set out to found Jacobs Engineering, which later became one of the world’s most successful engineering firms, Vi worked alongside him, providing secretarial services and unwavering support. Although her contributions were invaluable, she was characteristically modest about them. With no mention of her own toil and sacrifice, Vi told one journalist, “I am so proud of what Joe has accomplished. Every time I look at the name Jacobs Engineering atop the headquarters...I get a thrill.” For his part, Jacobs frequently acknowledged that he could not have prospered in life without Vi playing a traditional role by his side. “Her faith, pride in me, and respect for me were not something to be trumpeted. They were a given,” he wrote.

If Jacobs enjoyed the benefits of having a traditional wife and helpmate in Vi, he discovered a new breed of women in his daughters: Margaret, Linda, and Valerie. Smart and independent, the three grew into political liberals and feminists. In the preface to Jacobs’ second book, The Compassionate Conservative, the trio wrote, “At times, our [family] discussions became loud and heated, with him calling us irrational and us calling him insensitive. During one such battle, he accused us of being opinionated, and we responded, “Where do you think we learned it?’”

Jacobs, cognizant of the pitfalls of forcing offspring into a family business, encouraged his daughters to follow their own passions. With little interest in engineering, Meg became a social worker; Val chose to establish a private practice as a marriage and family counselor; and Linda became an archaeologist and scholar of the Middle East. Gratified that each of their daughters was making her own way in the world, Joe and Vi nonetheless wanted the entire family to participate in one important joint project: in 1989 they established the Jacobs Family Foundation, so that each of the five members of the immediate family could have an equal say in philanthropic matters.

Jacobs’ alma mater proved a gratifying opportunity for giving. Poly, as Jacobs wrote in his memoir, “was primarily for bright disadvantaged kids, as I had been, who would be the hungry entrepreneurs of the future.” Linda and her father both ultimately sat on the school’s Board of Trustees, and as two-time chair, Joe Jacobs was instrumental in guiding the school through some of its most challenging financial trials. So generous and far-reaching was the family’s support that in Changing the World: The First 150 Years, a history of what is now known as the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, nine pages are devoted to the topic.

With Linda administering a trust that bears her mother’s name and the chairmanship of the family foundation rotating among Val; her husband, Norman Hapke; and their children, the Jacobs family’s commitment to bettering the world continues. (Meg passed away in 2012.) In his memoir, Jacobs refers lovingly to his daughters’ dedication to the human good and the pride that engendered in him. “I suppose that’s as close an approach to immortality that anyone is allowed,” he presciently wrote, “and that shall be my epitaph.”