Anyone looking East at downtown from an aircraft landing at San Jose International Airport will see Bob Kieve’s imprint on the city. As its skyline rose in the 1980s, San Jose’s municipal redevelopers had insisted on anonymous rooflines, a prohibition that rankled the longtime independent broadcaster.
You see, Kieve was all about expression. He’d been a speechwriter for President Eisenhower. He recorded opinionated commentaries on civic themes and broadcast them over the airwaves. He hand-knotted colorful bowties and dressed impeccably long after Silicon Valley’s casual Fridays took over the other four days of the week.
Kieve, who died Sunday at the age of 98, believed that signs were critical to economic activity and prosperity, and he set out to change the rules. Today, the logos of Adobe, Zoom and others rise above their corporate headquarters, giving San Jose an identity and signaling its vitality. He updated his Facebook page header four years ago with a photo of a Tokyo street, crowded with people, cars and illuminated signs.
Kieve was born to a German-speaking Jewish family in Jersey City, where his father owned a handkerchief factory. As a 12-year-old, he’d cross the Hudson River to watch the New York Giants play at the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium. He collected the signatures of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and other baseball greats on a ball he gifted to the Giants several years ago and which is displayed at the San Francisco stadium.
Giving away a memento that would have fetched hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction was characteristic of the generous and civic-minded Kieve, who last year tried to donate his radio station KLIV to San Jose State University and the city of San Jose.
Kieve began his radio career in upstate New York before leaving to work in wartime propaganda and then the White House. He came to San Jose in 1967 and purchased the AM radio station KLIV. His Empire Broadcasting Company bought and sold KARA and purchased country music station KRTY, which it continues to operate to this day. KLIV went off the air in January 2019.
Kieve joined the San Jose Rotary Club in 1977 and has been a presence at its meetings for more than four decades. He served as the club’s president from 1990 to ‘91, during which he dubbed it the “Greatest Rotary Club in the World,” a bold claim that gained traction as the 400-plus-member club, one of the world’s largest, restored a historic home in Kelly Park and built an affordable housing project, a rooftop events facility at the Fourth Street Garage and the Rotary Playgarden, a fully-accessible children’s playground.
Kieve was an early champion of Chuck Reed’s successful campaign for mayor of San Jose, and also has been a key supporter of former Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen.
After selling KARA, which netted him tens of millions of dollars, Kieve continued to live simply. He worked at the radio station well into his tenth decade of life, engaged in philanthropy, drove himself to luncheons at the Silicon Valley Capital Club and maintained active involvement in community affairs. He traveled to Seattle in 2018 and Nashville in 2019 as part of the Silicon Valley Organization’s annual study mission to meet with civic leaders in those cities.
“He had a sly sense of humor and a heart of gold,” recalled John Kennett, who worked with Kieve at Rotary and the SVO when it was known as the San Jose-Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce. Tributes poured in as word of his passing spread this week.
The spry and elvish media executive’s work ethic was inspiring to those who knew him and assumed he would somehow just keep on living. Kieve’s attention to facts and details and ability to relate a detailed story before a public audience without notes indicated that his keen mind continued to work apace. His boundless energy and enthusiasm suggested a three-digit retirement age—why not?
Even if all the outward signs suggested otherwise, Kieve knew that all good runs come to an end. Lunching with him last year, he told me, “I’m ready to die.” It was matter-of-fact and spoken not with resignation, but as an affirmation of a well-led life, with no regrets or unfinished business.
Still, disbelief is unavoidable when someone’s been so ubiquitous a part of the civic landscape for so many decades. Just like the look on someone’s face after they met Kieve for the first time and someone mentioned afterwards, “You know, he’s 98.”