Remembering PACER Center Founder Paula Goldberg

It might seem like being called a “Venus Flytrap” might be an unflattering nickname, but when Kathy Graves speaks of Paula Goldberg, she means it in the best way possible.

“She embraced our family,” Graves said. “She had a way of getting you in and not letting you go.”

Goldberg, the co-founder and long-time executive director of PACER Center, passed away at 79 years old on May 15 after a long illness. She had moved to California to be closer to her son, Robert, daughter-in-law, Sheryl Sandberg, and her grandchildren.

Goldberg is a native of Rochester, Minn., where she learned from her parents the importance of supporting her community. Her mother, Helen Friedman, was a Yiddish interpreter who would often take Paula along when she provided interpretation at the Rochester State Hospital.

Paula went on to become a teacher in Minnesota and Chicago, and in 1977, she and Marge Goldberg (no relation), who met at a meeting of disability rights advocates, founded the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights, aka PACER Center, in 1977. With Paula’s background in education and Marge’s experience as a lobbyist for special education, and her lived experience as the parent of a child with a disability, the partnership thrived. 

“We wanted to improve educational opportunities for children with disabilities and educate parents about the few special education laws,” Paula said. When PACER received its first federal grant, Paula and Marge became co-executive directors and hired several volunteers as part-time staff.

“She started with seven women in the back of an electrician’s office on 47th and Chicago, I think their first grant was $150,000,” said Rob Goldberg, Paula’s son. “Now its got a multi-million annual budget and 70 full-time employees. She really had a vision for both growing the organization and growing the funding that was needed to provide the value that the organization could provide.”

Rob and his brother, David (z’l), weren’t children with disabilities, but Paula devoted the last 45 years to helping children that had disabilities.

“I’m in that club, where this cause burns white hot for me,” said Don McNeil, a long-time friend, PACER board member, and interim chief operating officer. “But why Paula? She told me was that she was not an entrepreneur to make money, but an entrepreneur, to make things better for children. She started as a special education teacher. And look how she took that entrepreneurial spirit and built what she built. It’s hard for people to understand this: [PACER] Center is right here in our backyard, but it is really the epicenter in the entire world on special education issues.”

Said Rob Goldberg: “My brother talked about that on CNBC, that we got our entrepreneurial spirit from our mom, because she founded this nonprofit, and she saw a need in the marketplace,” he said. “And it wasn’t a marketplace of [making a] profit, it wasn’t about self-aggrandizement. This is about a need for parents.”

Rob Goldberg said that both his parents were involved in activities to make the world better.

“My parents were always involved with helping people, and helping people because it was the right thing to do,” he said. “It was a phrase that was said in our house quite often.”

Graves, also a PACER board member, first utilized the organization’s services for her son,  Sam, when he was three years old. She brought him a computer center at PACER’s old location at 48th and Chicago.

“He sat down at this computer and used this tracking ball, and it was like this miraculous thing,” Graves said. “It sounds kind of funny now, but the technology was pretty new and this was 25 years ago.”

Goldberg immediately brought Graves into the PACER fold, helping out on the annual benefit, and enlisting the help of her husband Hazen, who’s a lawyer, when needed. 

“It was just a beginning of a long relationship,” she said. “And PACER has helped us a million ways over the years, figuring out services for Sam and, now as he gets older, housing options.”

In 2016, Sam, who has cerebral palsey, was the first recipient of the Otto Bremer Youth Leadership award. The award was presented at the PACER annual benefit, which coincidentally was the night that Sam graduated from Augsburg University.

“He rolled across the stage at Augsburg University and got his diploma, graduating Cum Laude, then that night he went on stage and was given this award,” she said. “It was one of the most wonderful, moving events. It was all because Paula really saw in him something special.”

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Meta (Facebook’s parent company), was married to Dave Goldberg for 11 years before he suddenly passed away in 2015. She wrote in a Facebook post announcing the news Sunday night, and told a story about how Paula helped her cope with the loss of Dave

“A few months after we lost Dave, she, Rob, and I were in his closet facing the surreal task of cleaning it out. I turned to her with tears pouring down my face and asked her how she was possibly ok doing this for a son after doing it for a husband,” she wrote. “She said to me and to Rob that while Mel and Dave were gone, she was alive – and she would keep on living, and we should too.”

Sandberg, who is getting remarried this summer, wrote of her sadness that Paula will not be there to dance at her wedding.

“Her strength is part of how I was able to keep on living and find new love,” she wrote. “Her legacy lives on in PACER, in her son Robert and in her grandchildren.”

McNeil said he was impressed with how Rob and Sheryl took care of Paula when she was in California for the past few months.

“Rob did everything right by her. He took care of her. He has her out there in California, where she’s nearby, where the grandkids could see her regularly,” he said. “I’ve told Rob that a year from now he’s gonna look back, and there’ll be no regrets. He will take a great deal of pride in what he has done. His dad and his brother certainly would be taking pride in how well Rob did.”

Said Rob: “She did a lot to help people. It was not instead of being a great mom, or instead of being a great wife or a great grandmother. She did it as well.”

Paula Goldberg is survived by her son, Robert; daughter-in-law, Sheryl Sandberg; and grandchildren. She was preceded in death by her husband Mel and her elder son David, an entrepreneur and business leader. Funeral services are scheduled for 12:30 p.m., Monday, May 23 at Adath Jeshurun Congregation. The burial is private. Shiva is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Adath on Monday. The family is working to plan an event to honor Paula around the PACER Benefit, which is slated for Nov. 5.