Robert A. Schoenberg, 1944-2021

Robert A. Schoenberg founded the LGBTQ Center at the University of Pennsylvania and led the center for 35 years.

Robert A. Schoenberg, 76, passed away on August 2, 2021 at KeystoneCare, a residential hospice in Wyndmoor, PA, after a courageous battle with cancer. Born in Erie, PA on August 14, 1944, Bob graduated from Erie’s Academy High School and received his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Rochester. He received his Masters Degree in Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania in 1968 and worked in his early career at the Elwyn Institute and at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children. He returned to Penn in 1976 and, while working full time, earned a Doctorate of Social Work in 1989. In 1982 he was named the University’s first point person for lesbian and gay issues, only the second person in the nation with such responsibilities at a college or university. That position evolved into what is now Penn’s LGBT Center, which he led for 35 years.

“We mourn the loss of a beloved Penn pathbreaker,” said Penn President Amy Gutmann. “To be the first of anything takes enormous bravery and resilient pride. Bob was among the very first staff members at any U.S. college or university to be devoted entirely to LGBTQ support and advocacy. He lived for our students and was devoted to helping them find their voices and to live authentically. He was committed to the full life of the University and never missed a Convocation or Commencement. Most of all, we at Penn loved Bob and Bob loved Penn, always pushing Penn to be better. He was so very proud of the diverse and inclusive Penn that he helped to create. Such a force he was that we named the campus building housing our LGBT Center in his honor so that future generations of students will know his name. His legacy will live on always.”

During his more than three decade tenure at Penn he was a mentor to hundreds of LGBTQ+ students. He is remembered with fondness for his advocacy for the full spectrum of LGBTQ+ students. Among other achievements, he helped create the first HIV/AIDS brochure on any college campus in the early 1980s and lobbied for employee domestic partnership benefits at Penn, which were instated in 1994. Notably, he raised $2.5 million from Penn alums and friends, including a lead gift from Vincent Griski and David Goodhand, to secure a physical home for LGBTQ+ students. In 2002, the LGBT Center opened the doors of the Carriage House at Penn, providing meeting space, a library, gender inclusive restrooms, and numerous programs for the growing LGBTQ+ student population. Due in part to Bob’s committed work over many years, Penn has consistently ranked as one of the most LGBT-affirming universities in the nation. In his honor, the LGBT Center’s building was named for him upon his retirement in 2017, and is now known as the Robert Schoenberg Carriage House.

“Bob truly was a pioneer,” said Erin Cross, director of Penn’s LGBT Center. “He helped create the LGBTQ+ student services field laying the foundation for the over 200 LGBTQ+ campus centers across North America. His legacy will live on through all who use their services, but especially those who are part of the Penn LGBT Center’s family. Our touchstone for LGBTQ+ issues has passed, but we will carry Bob in our hearts as we continue his fight for equity and justice.”

In 1986, Bob was a key leader in Philadelphia’s LGBT Community’s response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and with Anna Forbes and Jim Littrell he founded ActionAIDS, now ActionWellness — one of Philadelphia’s preeminent health service and advocacy organizations. 

“The Action Wellness community is deeply saddened at Bob’s passing,” said Executive Director Kevin Burns. “Bob’s wisdom and commitment to core Social Work values and ethics were vital to the founding of Action Wellness formerly Action AIDS and continue to be a central part in our organizational culture. Bob remained a treasured volunteer with Action Wellness, and will be greatly missed. Rest in power, dear friend.”

He was an editor, with colleagues from UCLA and Penn State, ofOur Place on Campus: LGBT Services and Programs in Higher Education” (Greenwood Press, 2002). He also helped found the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals, a nationwide coalition of the leaders of LGBTQ+ initiatives and centers at colleges and universities. He was proud that Penn had organized the second such center in the nation.

Sue Rankin, co-founder of the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals, said “Bob was a dear friend and colleague whose legacy is his passion and dedication in creating safe, brave campus environments for LGBTQIA and non-binary students. His scholarly work laid the foundation for campus centers across the country. His contributions are immeasurable.”

He served with distinction on the Community Advisory Board of Penn’s Center for AIDS Research, the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund and on the Board of Directors of the Council for Relationships. He has left his significant historical archives to the John J. Wilcox Jr. Archives at the William Way LGBT Community Center in Philadelphia, where it will be of great assistance to scholars and activists interested in local, regional and national LGBT history.  As he embraced his role as an elder in the LGBT communities of Philadelphia, he was proud to serve on the founding board of the LGBT Elder Initiative in Philadelphia. 

“Bob brought the same passion to the LGBT Elder Initiative that he had infused into so many other organizations and projects to help our communities,” said Heshie Zinman, co-founder of the LGBT Elde Initiative. “His incredible knowledge, dedication, and leadership were integral to the creation of the EI. He was an inspirational leader and a loving friend. We will miss him dearly but are so grateful for the legacy he leaves behind. Rest in Power, dear friend.”

Though he pursued his career with a devoted, persistent energy, Bob also found time for other passions. He tried to eat at nearly all of Philadelphia’s top restaurants, but few could eclipse his neighborhood favorites, such as the Cedar Park Café in West Philadelphia and Saen in East Stroudsburg. He competed with family and close friends in all types of board games, though Scrabble was typically his contest of choice. He composed precisely worded emails and texts, and he would never pass up the opportunity to comment on grammar mistakes and oddities. And he loved finding a quiet moment on his porch in the Poconos.

Bob also consumed culture of all kinds, from Opera Philadelphia to reality television, but he especially loved the movies. When speaking at his retirement celebration in 2017, Bob referred to the occasion as his Academy Awards. As his family and friends knew then and now, Bob was the consummate leading man and a superhero to so many.
Bob was the son of Mack and Rose Levick Schoenberg. He is survived by his brother, Leonard Schoenberg, and sister-in-law, Roberta, of Fairfield, New Jersey and his sister, Susan Forman, and brother-in-law, Jeffrey, of Mayfield Heights, Ohio. He also leaves his beloved nieces, nephews, grandnieces, grandnephews, former students, and friends from all over the world.
Memorial donations can be made in Bob’s honor to the following organizations: Penn’s LGBT Center; Action Wellness; the John J. Wilcox, Jr. LGBT Archives located at the William Way LGBT Community Center; Lambda Legal; the LGBT Elder Initiative; and the Donald Millinger/Gary Clinton LGBTQ Endowed Fund at the University of Rochester.

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