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Woodside fighter to improve MTA dead at 58

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Dr. Stephen Dobrow complained at a Metropolitan Transportation Authority hearing last winter that the agency never listens to suggestions from the people who ride the subway daily.

“The connections in Queens have been left out,” Dobrow said of the MTA plan for the 63rd Street Tunnel Connector.

Despite his assertion of MTA indifference, Dobrow nevertheless waved in the air a sheaf of papers containing many pages of suggestions and recommendations he said would improve the project.

Dobrow, who died at his home in Woodside Jan. 13 at the age of 58, spent four decades making suggestions on how to improve rapid transit in New York City and fighting for the average straphanger. He had not only conviction but a profound knowledge of his subject.

He was a professor of electrical engineering at Fairleigh Dickenson University in Teaneck, N.J. but in many respects transit was his life.

“His archives had to be seen to believed,” said George Haikalis, a transit consultant and friend, who said Dobrow had all the information filed and knew where to find everything. “We certainly hope these papers will be preserved, perhaps turned over to a library.”

Dobrow's brother, Sydney, said the family had not decided what to do with his transit materials.

Dobrow's sister, Cynthia Radol of Fresh Meadows, said her brother's archives on transportation had “practically taken over” the family home in Woodside, where her mother moved 62 years ago.

“He had transit schedules charts, photographs, manuals, analysis studies, articles, and anything and everything else connected with public transporta­tion,” Mrs. Radol said.

And when did this interest start with her brother?

“Probably very early childhood,” she said. “We lived near the Long Island Rail Road and as a little boy, he was fascinated by trains and played with electric trains.”

Dobrow’s voluminous knowledge of the New York City system involved both the intricacies of the lines, trackage and rolling stock and the history of not only subways but streetcars and elevated lines that had been gone for many decades.

“He was one of a group of students at Cooper Union who were transit activists and it was then —he was under 20 — that he established The Committee for Better Transit,” said Haikalis. The organization is still active.

Dobrow’s zeal to oppose that which he felt was wrong along with his sense of satire nearly got him in trouble in 1972.

Dobrow was taken to court by the New York City Transit Authority over leaflets the TA said Dobrow sent through the mail and plastered on walls of subway cars.

Dobrow had been concerned because doors of the new R46 subway cars were locked while the trains were moving,

“Do not panic,” passengers were advised in the fliers. “Your Transit Authority is concerned about your safety. If you are mugged, the Transit Police will be there as soon as they can unlock 16 doors. Please try to anticipate being mugged.” A note to muggers: “Please mug passengers while in stations and, in the spirit of fair play, give your victim a chance to escape.”

Lawyers for the Transit Authority said the agency was concerned that the fliers bore the TA emblem. But they said they decided to file forgery charges against Dobrow only after learning that a local Queens newspaper took the leaflets seriously and editorially criticized transit officials.

Dobrow apologized in Queens criminal court on June 22, 1972 and charges were dropped.

James F. Blair, chairman, and Beverly Dolinsky, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said they mourn “the untimely passing of our esteemed charter member and friend. His wit, intelligence and encyclopedic knowledge of our transit system will be sorely missed.”

The transit advocacy agency Straphangers Campaign said Dobrow would be missed both by his colleagues and “by the millions who gained from his lifelong pursuit of more and better subway, bus and commuter rail service.”

Dobrow graduated from Stuyvesant HS, Cooper Union and earned both a master and doctorate in engineering at New York University, heading a research project for the United States Air Force while at NYC, his sister said.

Dobrow, who was the eldest of three children, is survived by his brother, Sydney, his mother, Sylvia, and Mrs. Radol.

Reach contributing writer Philip Newman by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 136.

Updated 10:26 am, October 12, 2011
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