Kelly: Steve Sokolof, multimillionaire's son, chose life of humility - Omaha.com
Published Monday, March 25, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 11:11 pm
'Not exactly a chip off the old block'
Kelly: Steve Sokolof, multimillionaire's son, chose life of humility

The son of a multimillionaire Omaha businessman long ago turned his back on materialism and took to the streets.

For four decades, he chanted a daily mantra as a robe-wearing Hare Krishna.

Father and only son endured a long estrangement, though the rift eventually eased.

And so at the 2004 funeral of Phil Sokolof, son Steve — or Siddha Vidya Prabhu — got up to speak. The congregation at Temple Israel, where Steve had been bar mitzvahed in the Jewish faith at 13, sat in tense anticipation of what he might say.

But he disarmed everyone with warmth and humor.

“I'm Steve, Phil's son,” he said softly, and then added wryly: “Not exactly a chip off the old block.”

Attendees laughed warmly, and the son spoke gently of a dad whose career and life were so different from his own.

After the funeral, “Siddha Vidya” returned to Miami and his ascetic lifestyle.

Now the father-son saga has come to a close. Steve, who will be remembered at a 1 p.m. memorial service today in the Omaha synagogue of his youth, died in Miami on March 11.

No, Phil and Steve weren't much alike. Phil became nationally known for fighting cholesterol — even buying a $2.5 million commercial in a Super Bowl — and lived to 82.

Steve died at 64, but friends and relatives once feared he might not live even to 24.

In early adulthood, he fell heavily into drug abuse. His sister, Karen Sokolof Javitch, recalls him then as “a lost soul.”

Out of the blue, though, Krishnas found him — and transformed his life.

***

The widely known Sokolof family lived comfortably because of Phil's success as founder and president of Phillips Manufacturing Co. Inc., a leading maker of metal strips and other steel pieces used in drywalling.

Steve, who played piano, graduated from Westside High in 1966 and went off to the University of Iowa, where he roomed as a freshman with a cousin and close friend, David Jacobson.

“I grew up with Steve,” said Jacobson, chairman of Omaha's largest law firm, Kutak Rock. “He spent a lot of time at our house, and we loved sports and the Beatles. Steve was probably the smartest, most charismatic and engaging person of everyone I hung out with.”

After a year at Iowa, Jacobson transferred to Nebraska and Sokolof to Missouri. Steve grew his hair long, began using psychedelic drugs and never graduated. He took part in an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Washington, D.C.

His draft board in Omaha granted him a deferment for psychological reasons.

By 1970, Steve and friends made a cross-country trip to attend rock concerts, one of which included Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

“We had grown somewhat apart,” Jacobson said, “and it was very obvious that the excesses of the '60s had clearly gotten to him. His friends were worried.”

Steve's sister, Karen, two years younger, was attending the University of Texas at Austin when Steve visited her in 1972.

“We adored each other, but he had changed a lot,” Karen said. “He couldn't handle what he called the material world. He also couldn't handle our dad. Stevie was a lost soul and didn't know what to do with his life.”

As he sat in the grass on the Texas campus, he was approached by a group of chanting Hare Krishna devotees.

The movement is formally called the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, with core beliefs based on traditional Hindu scriptures. Hare Krishnas espouse unity and peace, with such spiritually regulating principles as no intoxication, no illicit sex, no gambling and no eating of meat, fish or eggs.

Steve was immediately drawn to the Krishnas.

“He found purpose and meaning,” Karen said. “I felt lucky that he was alive and off drugs.”

Steve's anti-establishment ways had already driven him apart from his establishment father. But the son's embrace of Hare Krishna was too much for Phil.

Said Jacobson: “Phil was devastated.”

***

Phil's wife, Ruth, was a longtime teacher of the blind and visually impaired. Her name lives on today, among other ways, in the Ruth Sokolof Theater at Film Streams, the nonprofit art-house movie theater in north downtown.

When she died in 1982, Steve returned for the funeral — his first time back in Omaha in a decade.

After that, he usually would visit for a week each summer.

“When we would go out,” said Karen, a composer and playwright, “I'd ask him to change to a shirt and pants to make the family more comfortable.”

He would do so. Attending a Westside High class reunion in “civilian” clothes, he joked that, with his shaved head, he was “the only guy there who was bald on purpose.”

If Phil and Steve didn't immediately bury the hatchet over their differences, their relationship at least mellowed.

“It was a gradual reconciliation,” Jacobson said. “It became better as the years went on.”

Long before their falling out, Phil had suffered a near-fatal heart attack at 43, in the mid-1960s. It was the result, he said, of a fat-laden diet of greasy food.

He eventually sold his business and became a crusader against high cholesterol. In 1985 he started the National Heart Savers Association, took out full-page newspaper ads and worked behind the scenes in Congress and with government agencies.

One ad in 1990 criticized the use of animal fat in fast food as “The Poisoning of America.”

He received credit for spurring passage of the federal law requiring nutrition labels on food in grocery stores.

Dr. William Castelli of Boston, former director of the Framingham Heart Study, called Sokolof a true American hero.

“He has done more than all of us doctors and researchers,” Castelli said, “to sensitize this country that the major culprit in the high-cholesterol epidemic is saturated fat.”

Phil appeared in his own Super Bowl ad in 2000, which a San Francisco writer called “some old guy talking about heart pills.”

Phil called it “the most expensive single public-service ad in TV history.”

In all, he estimated that he spent more than $15 million of his own money to fight cholesterol.

***

Steve, or Siddha Vidya, had become a leader, too.

He was known as “the backbone of the temple” in Miami, arising daily for years for a 4:30 a.m. program. He went out every day to South Beach, downtown Miami or Coconut Grove, chanting, seeking donations and distributing books of transcendental literature.

Wrote one Krishna friend: “He's honest, humble, intelligent, gracious, steady and very much appreciated by the community of devotees in Miami. ... In the many experiences I saw of him entering places, I rarely saw anyone becoming irritated by his presence.”

Siddha Vidya and his wife, Christine, had a son. They named him after his grandfather in Omaha — Phillip Morton Sokolof. “Philly” is now 12.

As a priest of Hare Krishna, “Sid,” as Krishna friends called him, almost always wore a robe. But for his father's funeral, out of respect, he wore a suit and tie.

At the synagogue, in a moment that brought chills to many, the Krishna priest who long ago had turned away from the faith of his father, drew his hands together in prayer.

In Hebrew, he recited the opening words of the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead: “Yis-ga-dal v'yis-ka dash ...”

Afterward, Steve told me: “I never quite measured up to what my father wanted me to be. He pushed me and I didn't respond. He worked until the end. That was his whole life, his pleasure. I wish I could have one-tenth the determination he had. He was extraordinary.”

***

Krishna, Steve explained, is a name for God. Chanting “Hare Krishna” is intended to bring out a natural, pure state of mind.

He and his wife, who was from New York, met at the Krishna temple in Miami in 1991 and married in 1995. Phil then set up a trust fund to help support them.

About six years ago, Steve was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He continued to pass out literature on Miami streets until a few months ago.

He took a bad fall in late October and hurt his back. He recently had pneumonia and died of complications from a brain aneurysm.

His remains were cremated and, by Hare Krishna tradition, will be taken to India and sprinkled into the Ganges River.

“He was an extremely sensitive, spiritual person,” said Christine, or Chrissie. “He was known worldwide, famous for his devotion to Krishna and his compassion for all the souls in the world. He lived his life for other people.”

Devotees flew in from great distances to Miami for his memorial service, which was preceded by drumming, dancing, singing and chanting. One account of the service said a physician told of people in “Africa, Australia, Europe” who knew of Siddha Vidya Prabhu as a Krishna scholar.

Growing up in Omaha, Steve Sokolof couldn't have envisioned the life that awaited him. Most assuredly, neither could his father.

“Phil had great aspirations for Steve,” David Jacobson said. “But I don't think Steve ever showed any interest in the family business. He found peace and comfort and a calling in something he truly loved and believed in. And it probably saved him.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1132, michael.kelly@owh.com

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly

mike.kelly@owh.com    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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