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Remembering Joan Jacobs’ Legacy

Irwin Jacobs reflects on his life together with his wife of 70 years
Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs setting where his wife Joan Jacobs used to sit in their La Jolla home
Photo Credit: Matt Furman

“Joan liked her coffee black,” Irwin Jacobs says of his wife, Joan Jacobs, who had passed away at the age of 91 just two weeks earlier. “We spent a lot of time here in the kitchen.”

The two were married nearly 70 years, together even longer than that. “We met at Cornell when we were 17,” Jacobs says. “I took her to a fraternity party in 1951. It was kind of a blind date—I knew of her, but we hadn’t met. We started going together after that.”

Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs with his wife Joan Jacobs known for her philanthropic work
Courtesy of Salk Institute

They married in 1954 and moved to La Jolla in 1966, having four sons along the way. Jacobs was a professor of engineering; Joan worked in schools and in the travel industry. When Jacobs decided to quit his tenure-track position to eventually co-found Qualcomm, Joan mostly supported the move. The couple had no idea they’d end up with a net worth of over $1 billion.

They began donating hundreds of millions of dollars to arts, educational, medical, and scientific causes across San Diego, including more than $100 million to the San Diego Symphony after its bankruptcy in the 1990s.

“That was her idea,” Jacobs says.

Today, Joan is largely remembered for her philanthropy. The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Performing Arts Center, the Jacobs Medical Center—all are tied to her vision.

Irwin Jacobs, founder of Qualcomm, standing infront of a portrait of him and his wife Joan Jacobs
Photo Credit: Matt Furman

“What I loved about her was, I came from a small town—New Bedford, Massachusetts. She came from New York City—Washington Heights—so she had a bit more sophistication than I did,” Jacobs says with a lingering Atlantic accent. “She was lively and outgoing. I was shy. She filled in the blanks.”

“And she was a good traveling partner,” he continues. “Our favorite thing was going to cities and walking. Visiting art museums, galleries, music, theater. Paris, London, Amsterdam. Her favorite place to go was probably New York City.”

But they always found their way home, back to the kitchen.

“We ate three meals together at this table every day,” Jacobs says. “This is where we drank our coffee.”

By Mateo Hoke

Mateo Hoke is San Diego Magazine’s executive editor. His books include Six by Ten: Stories from Solitary, and Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life Under Occupation.

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