Dagmar Dolby, woman of style and substance
Dagmar Dolby is one of the city’s most respected philanthropists and activists, for causes ranging from the SF Symphony to reproductive rights to Alzheimer’s disease. Dagmar met the love of her life, Ray Dolby, while Ray was a postgraduate fellow at Cambridge University in 1962. Three years later, Ray founded Dolby Laboratories, which pioneered myriad advances in sound technology.
In 1976, the couple moved to San Francisco, where they raised their two sons, Tom and David, and built Dolby Labs into the global powerhouse it is today. At age 80, Ray died of leukemia while battling Alzheimer’s, a cause which remains near and dear to Dagmar’s heart. Dagmar and her family recently—and generously—donated $21 million to establish the Ray Dolby Brain Health Center at California Pacific Medical Center.
Dagmar, whose Pacific Heights home brims with photos of her four granddaughters, invited me over for hot tea and candid conversation on a recent afternoon. No topic was off-limits, from how she coped with Ray’s painful diagnosis to her enduring delight at the legacy of the company that bears her name.
You grew up in Frankfurt during the 1940s. Tell me a little bit about your childhood. It was postwar Germany, which was a pretty depressing place because, of course, everybody was in dire straits. They had to rebuild their lives. My family was very fortunate, in that our house stood. It wasn’t bombed. But all around, every other house had been hit by some of the bombs. … Everybody was very anxious and, when I had children myself, I thought, Gosh, my mother was 28 years old when the war ended, and her happiest years were taken. But I would say by the time I was a teenager, life seemed perfectly normal and I don’t think it really stuck with me.
You encountered your future husband during a summer session in Cambridge. What do you remember about that meeting? We met as you meet as a student: at a party. I think his special attraction was that he was an American, and he spoke ever so much more slowly than the British people, so I could really understand him. We had a very nice romance going, but then I had to go back to [Heidelberg University] to continue my classes. He had applied for a job in India for UNESCO [the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization], so the following spring, he shipped out there. … I went to visit him and we ended up driving back [to Europe] overland. Then I had to come back and finish [school]. I graduated, then we got married in ’66.
Where were you married? We were married twice, actually. We were married in London at the Kensington Register office, and then we went to Germany. I really wasn’t interested in a church wedding, but at the same time, I didn’t want to cheat my parents out of that.
Tell me about the early years of your marriage in London and the founding of Dolby Labs. Did you have a role there? We were actually traveling all over the world for conventions and business meetings in those days, and so I found things to do at the company such as being the archivist and the librarian and things like that. … In that first year in London, I was put to work putting electronic components into circuit boards from a schematic and then soldering them. We had received a repeat order and couldn’t hire workers fast enough. I was the “night shift.”
You did public relations as well? I did, because I knew everything that was going on anyway. We didn’t have children and we would sit there together, practically every night, burning the midnight oil. Then we’d go home and I’d have to cook dinner. No takeout in those days!
What else do you recall from those early days? One year we came back from a trip—and these were all business trips—and lo and behold, a group called the Grateful Dead had come and bought a piece of equipment. We had no idea who the Grateful Dead were. But then the whole music scene changed so much that we ended up having all these rock musicians buying our equipment.
Moving to San Francisco: culture shock? Actually, not so much. It was much more of a culture shock for people coming from the East Coast, because they expected everything to be the same. I didn’t expect things to be the same, and I really felt at home here, always. … I really loved London and felt comfortable there. But around the time we decided to leave, England was not the most pleasant place to live. It was not that friendly toward foreigners and it was just a good time to leave. At that point, we had children, one child, and wanted to have him grow up in this area. San Francisco is such a friendly place. You make friends pretty quickly and neighborhood parties—remember those? Actually, they still exist.
Four years before his death in 2013, Ray was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. This must have been devastating. It was. Getting that diagnosis was worse than when he died. He used to have an expression—saying “the stuffing was knocked out of me”—and that’s really how I felt. I knew that our life would never be the same again. What was going to come next? It was very hard, and I felt the disease was so stigmatized. I felt so secretive about it, as though I really couldn’t talk about it. I had nobody to talk to. Then, bit by bit, I loosened up and was able to talk, first to the very closest friends. … Then there was the [Walk to End Alzheimer’s], where I would send out a letter to maybe 150 people just to say, “This is what I’m doing now because … .” That helped tremendously, because you can imagine the outpouring of support. That’s what inspired me, what drives me to keep wanting to talk about this issue.
You were afraid of the stigma against Alzheimer’s. For yourself, or your husband? Really, for him. I was very conflicted about speaking about it to other people, and then one day it hit me that I would actually be doing him a favor by speaking about it. Because people wouldn’t think that he was suddenly going nuts. That there was a disease.
Since going public with Ray’s
diagnosis, you’ve been tireless in your efforts to raise public awareness, lobby Congress and fund research for Alzheimer’s. Are you feeling that the fruits of your labor are somehow being realized? I have to say that on the advocacy front, I’m very optimistic that more people are able to talk about it. More people know where to seek help. The Alzheimer’s Association is just a prime source. That makes me feel really good, because I did not know where to go.
Where did you go? Well, Ray was diagnosed at [California Pacific Medical Center] and, basically, he was given one medication and that was it. I was in denial. Ray, himself, never accepted the diagnosis—that was an additional problem. Finally, I linked up with Dr. Catherine Madison, who now runs the Brain Health Center, and I realized that I better get on this train. I better learn about the progression of this disease.
What advice would you give to somebody dealing with this issue right now? I don’t know that there is one piece of advice. But I think a very important one is to meet the person where they are and not to try to make them better. It’s a disease that doesn’t have a cure.
The Academy Awards are held in the Dolby Theatre in LA, and Ray received a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2015. How does that make you feel? It feels wonderful! And at the Dolby Theatre, they named the ballroom the Ray Dolby Ballroom.
That’s where the Oscars after party happens? Yes, the Governors Ball. He saw this [in 2012] and smiled! He liked it! He didn’t mind. In his normal days, he would have said, “Oh! What nonsense is that!”
This interview has been edited and condensed. For further details on the Alzheimer’s Association, visit alz.org. Meanwhile, Dagmar Dolby will be honored May 2 at San Francisco Village’s Transforming Lives and Community Luncheon. See sfvillage.org for more information.
The Lightning Round
If I had a magic wand I would…
Make sure that my four little grand-daughters just become strong, independent, brave women.
I feel happiest when…
I’m with my family. Either my family or my close friends. I think especially for an only child, the friends become very, very important.
The biggest risk I’ve ever taken…
Traveling to India on the MS Victoria in 1964.
My biggest regret is…
That the day doesn’t have more hours.