by Jacqueline Fulmer, Ph.D., Director of Omnidoll Research
Pioneering mass media toy reviewer and early childhood studies author, Stevanne Auerbach, Ph.D., known to her readers and viewers as “Dr. Toy,” passed away in San Lorenzo, CA, on Wednesday, October 19, 2022, at age 84, due to complications from stroke.
Stevanne Auerbach was an accomplished speaker, consultant, and author, who had trained in child development and special education. Her works ranged from the esoteric: editing volumes on early childhood studies; to the practical: handbooks on the Peace Corps, careers in Home Economics, physical education for differently abled children, and the search for quality childcare; to the creative: a children’s book (The Alphabet Tree, 1988), a novel (The Contest, 2009), a book of poetry (Petals, 1973), and a screenplay. Her title, “Dr. Toy,” dated to her first assignment with Creative Playthings in 1968, where she developed its first education marketing program. She became one of the first mass media “toy reviewers,” evaluating toys, publishing articles, and appearing on radio and television in American markets from coast to coast, from 1986 to 2018. When her distinctive gold foil “Dr. Toy Award” stickers appeared on retail products, consumers would know that they were purchasing a quality toy that would enrich their children’s lives.
To have known Stevanne was to experience her enthusiasm for the value of play in everyone’s lives and her generosity in helping people at every stage of their lives.
Stevanne is survived by her husband Ralph Whitten, daughter Amy Beth Auerbach, grandson Josiah Metz, and sister Judy Schwartz (Martin Schwartz).
Stevanne was born to Jeane Sydney Rosen Stockheim and Nathan Carl Stockheim on September 22, 1938, in New York City. She was raised in Juniper Park in Middle Village, a newly developed neighborhood in the borough of Queens in New York City. Her mother spent most of her career working in public health, and her father worked as a firefighter and math and science teacher.
Stevanne took an early interest in teaching during high school and at Queens College in Flushing, NY, graduating with an A.B. in Education in 1960. After graduation, she taught elementary school for the New York Public School District. During her teaching years in NY, Stevanne married a designer, Arthur Auerbach, in November 1961, and they moved to Maryland. Stevanne worked for the Commissioner of Education, where she reviewed reading programs throughout the country. One of Stevanne’s earliest career accomplishments took place during this period, and one of which she was particularly proud: She approved the first grant for the Children’s Television Workshop show, Sesame Street. Also during her time in the D.C. area, she produced the first report on the necessity of physical education for the developmentally disabled for the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation, research which contributed later to the development of the Special Olympics.
During her years living and working in the nation’s capital, Stevanne experienced both highs and lows in her personal life: the joy of giving birth to her only child, Amy Beth, in 1966, and the dissolution of her first marriage to Arthur Auerbach in 1968.
Armed with an M.A. in Special Education from George Washington University (1965) and more teaching experience under her belt, Stevanne and Amy Beth headed to San Francisco in 1970. There. Stevanne interned in child development with the Far West Laboratory in Berkeley
During her doctoral years, Stevanne married a second time, to Dr. Donald Fink, a San Francisco pediatrician, from 1973 to 1979. Their courtship and subsequent experience as a blended family inspired Stevanne’s 1980s screenplay and later novel, The Contest (2009).
In the 1980s, Stevanne worked on childcare issues in San Francisco, helped with the creation of the Children’s Council and the San Francisco Child Abuse Council, and produced the first city-wide Year of the Young Child Conference. She also produced a program, “Child Care Crisis,” for KQED/Open Studio with Loni Ding. While pursuing her writing career in all of its facets, Stevanne organized the silver anniversary of the literary magazine of the Beat Movement, Beatitude, (Volume 33, 1985) and organized the Centenary Celebration of Henry Miller (1991).
Perhaps the most important development of the 1980s for Stevanne was the opening of her toy museum at The Cannery in Fisherman’s Wharf. In 1987, Stevanne founded and served as director of the San Francisco International Toy Museum, which she considered to be one of the world’s first interactive toy museums. More than 50,000 children visited the museum between 1986 and 1990, when financial difficulties exacerbated by the Loma Prieta earthquake forced it to shut its doors. This was a special period in her and her daughter Amy’s lives, during which they worked together on this project that was close to both of their hearts. Stevanne would try to reopen the toy museum in later years, as the International Toy Museum of Oakland, CA, but lightning could not strike twice.
Despite the challenges caused by a fire that destroyed her home and the office of her Institute for Childhood Resources, as well as the loss in 1990 of her toy museum, the next decade held great happiness. In 1996, Stevanne married Ralph Whitten, a forensic analyst for the San Francisco Police Department, and she also became grandmother to Amy’s son, Josiah.
At this stage in her career Stevanne shifted from scholarly writing to educating parents on the best ways to approach childcare and, most especially, playtime. She began writing the toy advice columns and reviews that would make her famous as “Dr. Toy.” One particular program, “Dr. Toy’s 100 Best Children’s Products,” was featured in Early Childhood News (1992-93), Family Circle (1986), Parenting magazine (1987), King Features Syndicate (weekly for five years), and every year since 1994 on www.drtoy.com. “Dr. Toy’s Guide” was one of the earliest toy review websites on the Internet. Fledgling toy makers expressed gratitude to her over the years for the many occasions when she had shown a spotlight on their creations. Sometimes she provided more than support. In the mid-1980s, she assisted in the development and promotion of an early digital pet, the XTRONX Winkie (1984), a wearable “computer friend chip” that communicated with blinking red and green LED lights.
Stevanne wrote sixteen books for parents, professionals, and children including The Whole Child, Choosing Child Care, Dr. Toy’s Smart Play/Smart Toys: How to Select and Use the Best Toys and Games, Toys for a Lifetime, and the compendium The Toy Chest. International editions of Smart Play/Smart Toys were published in Germany, Greece, India, Indonesia, Israel, Korea, Russia, China, Croatia, Egypt, Spain, Thailand, and Turkey. From the 1980s through the late 2010s, she wrote scores of articles about play and toys for national and regional magazines, newspapers, and websites, such as the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, the Detroit Free Press, Playthings, Parenting, Parents, Family Circle, Working Woman, Huffington Post, Toy Directory, and many others. She was a featured guest on radio and television programs throughout the country and outside of the US, including being interviewed by Jane Pauley on The Today Show.
In her work advocating for the importance of play, Stevanne was a member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, American Society of Journalists and Authors, American Specialty Toy Retailing Association, International Toy Research Association, The Association for the Study of Play, The Toy Association, and Women in Toys. One of her favorite honors received during her career was when she received the 2007 Women in Toys entrepreneur “Wonder Woman Award.”
Simultaneously to Stevanne becoming more deeply involved in the world of toys, she founded the environmental group, San Francisco Butterfly Lovers Association (later Butterfly Lovers International, a member group of NABA). Her dedication to the preservation of butterflies stayed with her throughout her life, culminating in a book and a world record. In 2015, Stevanne published a collection of illustrated essays titled, My Butterfly Collection. She then achieved a Guinness World Record in 2017 for the “World’sLargest Collection of Butterfly-Related Items.” The bulk of this collection was acquired in summer 2022 by the Bohart Museum of Entomology, University of California, Davis. In May 2022, an artist who had helped move the collection, Isabella “Izzi” Niewiadomski, created an interactive exhibit that featured elements of Stevanne’s collection and honored her decades of butterfly advocacy.
Many other institutions benefited in 2022 from Stevanne’s donations. With the assistance of Dr. Jacqueline Fulmer helping to organize, preserve, and rehome her life’s work, the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY now has a comprehensive set of Stevanne’s papers and materials. Stevanne took great satisfaction in knowing that her name, as well as her title “Dr. Toy,” would be associated with not only the Bohart and the Strong, but also with the Museum of Computer History in San Jose; the Internet Archive; the San Francisco International Airport Museum; the Latimer Quilt and Textile Center in Tillamook, Oregon; the Henry Miller Memorial Library and the Emile Norman Arts Foundation in Big Sur; and a new “Dr. Toy” archive that is being set up in Finland by the renowned play theorist, Dr. Katriina Heljakka.
The breadth of her interests was so vast, that a documentary filmmaker, Jonathan Ruchlis, is currently working on a project about Stevanne’s career and collections. From her adolescence on, Stevanne threw herself completely into every academic, business, familial, and civic goal on which she trained her considerable will. Even outside of the toy industry, she would frequently write to people whom she wanted to encourage, both the famous, such as Vice President Walter Mondale and artist Robert Crumb, and the obscure, such as her letter writing campaign to secure resources for her elderly neighbor, a retired bank teller. Stevanne sent letters, wrote editorials, and gathered support for the eradication of realistic toy weapons, as well as for the vindication of a mental health professional whom she believed had been unfairly imprisoned for a traffic accident. She always worked to “stay relevant” in her writing, which led her to explore the latest digital technology as such advances came along. Even through her later days, though bedridden due to paralysis from the neck down, she would dictate emails, texts, and new ideas with her iPhone’s voice-to-text function. Her passion for bettering the world really knew no bounds.
During her later struggles, she was comforted by the constant support and companionship of her husband Ralph. Before her health declined, they enjoyed many travels together, as she would bring Ralph along on toy-related conferences and work trips as her droll “photographer.” When travel was no longer possible, they watched movies together, both ready with film recommendations the next time one spoke to them.
During her last weeks, Stevanne’s conversation ranged from her career, to her many friends, to spiritual matters, to love. At one point, she awoke from a nap and said very clearly, “Ralph will protect me.” Stevanne and Ralph were very lucky to have found each other and to have spent these decades together.
Stevanne’s loved ones, friends, and former colleagues will remember her fondly, as will all who believe in the power of play to enrich all lives.