When he first moved his family from Minneapolis to Naples in 1998, John Allen remembered walking Fifth Avenue South, exploring his new neighborhood. He would start at the Inn on Fifth and wander down past 5th Avenue Coffee Company where he noticed a group of men, usually sat around a table shooting the breeze. At the center was Dolph von Arx, a fellow Midwest transplant 20 years Allen’s senior.
“It was clear Dolph was the deacon, was the minister of the table,” Allen said. “After he saw me a couple of times, he invited me to sit down, and I had the outrageous good fortune of him becoming my best friend in Naples.”
Von Arx was magnetic that way. He drew people in, energized them and commanded their full engagement, their best selves. Entering von Arx’s circle meant glomming onto causes nearest and dearest to his heart and that of the community. And somehow, von Arx managed to further these causes in a way that felt fun and exciting, even if the work itself was daunting.
“When Dolph would take up a cause, whether that was the hospital or the Conservancy or the Humane Society if Dolph was involved in it, he was such a respected steward that other people would sign on,” Allen recalled.
Von Arx died Dec. 7 at the age of 88, having left his mark–both tangible and intangible–on the causes he championed and the people he knew. In Naples, he and his wife Sharon are perhaps most easily recognized for their contribution to the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the von Arx Diabetes Center at NCH Healthcare System and the von Arx Adoption Center at Humane Society Naples.
But von Arx wasn’t just the kind of philanthropist who cut a check when the mood struck. Local leaders were most impressed by the amount of time and effort he dedicated to those causes. He loved rolling up his sleeves and putting to use his decades of experience at such companies as Unilever and Planters Lifesavers Company.
“He spent a lot of time working around real difficult issues,” said Rob Moher, president and CEO of the Conservancy. “He was not someone who just came around eight times a year to chair a board meeting.”
Moher pointed to when von Arx flew him and a handful of Naples and Conservancy leaders to Juno Beach one day when von Arx was “upset about something FPL was doing.” And at the grand opening of his namesake wildlife hospital, Moher recalled that von Arx asked to name an animal enclosure after his wife to the tune of $1 million.
“It just goes to show you the kind of relationship they had,” Moher said.
The von Arx daughters agreed. For them, Sharon and Dolph were inextricable. “The Dynamic Duo.” “Team von Arx.” They supported causes close to both of their hearts and had fun doing it.
At home, the von Arxes always had a handful of dogs running around. And Sharon recalls that her husband even learned to love cats after a homeless kitten took up residence for a few nights while Sharon worked to place it with a family.
“Dolph was a true friend to animals,” agreed Sarah Baeckler, chief executive officer at Humane Society Naples, who noted that the adoption center he and Sharon sponsored has overseen more than 1,000 adoptions since its 2019 opening.
One day in early January when Valerie von Arx and Vanessa von Arx Gilvarg ran around town printing programs for their father’s Jan. 21 memorial and making other arrangements, they joked with each other that he would have been proud of them for checking so many things off of their to-do lists. He was a huge proponent of lists. Pros and cons lists, five-year plans, et cetera.
“There was no idle time with him,” Valerie said.
“And yet they were relaxed,” Gilvarg said of their parents.
“It wasn’t an uptight place,” Valerie said, describing their home growing up.
“Well, relaxing for dad was reading a book cover to cover,” Gilvarg said.
Von Arx was constantly in motion, which is the only way he was able to cram so much into a single lifetime. He was a Navy vet, a NATO flight instructor and a lifelong tennis player. He twice served as grand marshal for the Daytona 500, and twice a year he sent Valerie, his youngest, boxes of candy while she studied at college, far from home and missing her parents. Each time he returned from a business trip abroad, von Arx brought home gifts for his children: cashmere sweaters from England, amber from South America, pearls from Asia, and somewhere along the way, a machete for his son.
“I’m not sure how they would get that through security today,” Gilvarg joked.
“But he was always thinking of us,” Valerie added.
Later on, von Arx would take his family – all three children, their spouses, his wife and seven grandchildren – on regular vacations where he imparted his love for other cultures, his curiosity about the world, and his empathy for people from all walks of life.
Von Arx died two weeks shy of his 65th wedding anniversary.
“We’ve been saying ‘Mom, you are, present tense, the luckiest woman in the world,’” Gilvarg said. “We are all so lucky to have known him.”
For more news stories like this, subscribe to The Naples Press.
The Naples Press is a weekly broadsheet newspaper dedicated to locally produced news for Collier County, Florida.