Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - November 12, 2010

Guest Opinion: Why I'm supporting Palo Alto schools, even at 92

by Sam Webster

After 92 unbelievably terrific years — five decades of them lived in Palo Alto — I just mailed in my first check to support Palo Alto public schools through Partners in Education (PiE, at www.papie.org), the local public-education foundation.

I felt absolutely great doing it.

Even though my wife, Kim, last attended Paly in 1938, and my youngest child graduated from Paly nearly 40 years ago, all of them got an outstanding "private-school caliber" education in the local public schools, for free.

I realize that I've taken that for granted for far too long. While Palo Alto parents are getting used to writing checks to support the schools, there aren't enough of them to cover the growing budget gaps in school funding. As someone who's literally been in the trenches of tough battles, as a retired colonel in the U.S. Army, I can tell you that great victories are never won by fresh troops only. It's time for my generation to lend a hand.

After our kids graduated from the Palo Alto public schools, most of us opted to stay on here even though we could have cashed out on our homes and moved to Idaho, the Sierras or the Nevada desert for a cheaper lifestyle. We stayed because we couldn't imagine another community offering the same stimulating community involvement and intellectual environment as Palo Alto.

Palo Alto's greatest resource is its brilliant people, not the sky-high home values fueled by the reputation of its public schools — although my generation was able to trade on that to net a remarkable lifestyle.

My first connection with Palo Alto was through my dad, Samuel Harvey Webster, who attended Stanford University in 1903. He moved to Kingston, RI, where I was born in 1918, to take a professorship at the state college. He would shock the locals by saying: "In Palo Alto, when the sun goes down you need a top coat, even in summer."

When I met my gorgeous wife, Kim Sibley, in Grant Hall at the Visitor's Center at West Point, three days before I graduated, she was dating another cadet. When I learned she was from Palo Alto, which my dad had been raving about for years, it sealed the deal: I knew I was going to marry her.

Kim's class at Paly included Bill Lane, longtime co-publisher of Sunset Magazine, and many outstanding students that helped make this city great. Kim was an early recipient of the generosity of the Palo Alto community toward education: Her Simmons College tuition was paid for by a scholarship from Palo Alto philanthropist Elizabeth Gamble.

In 1941, Kim and I headed to Palo Alto to get married and shortly afterwards, I found myself deployed with the U.S. Army in Italy, staring into the faces of German soldiers holding the high ground in the hilltop abbey at Monte Cassino, and later sending troops into battle at Anzio Beach.

I stayed on in the Army, serving multiple military tours, moving my family from one military base to another: Ft. Benning, GA, where Sanford Jr. was born; Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas, where son Jim was born; and Ft. Belvoir in Virginia, where Sarah was born. I retired as a Colonel in 1962, and Kim and I finally were able to live in Palo Alto. We moved here without a penny in our pockets, and were thrilled to make a fresh start in this city. We knew our kids would get an unbelievable public education here with top teachers, alongside lots of brilliant kids whose parents worked at Stanford and in the nearby innovative businesses.

Sanford, then a teenager, started at Paly, and Jim and Sarah both went to Addison School. Everyone in my family, except for me, graduated from Paly.

But we never thought about the need to support the schools financially. Nobody asked for money for schools and they didn't need it. As a tribute to the wonderful teachers in the Paly English Department, Kim and I fund an annual poetry/short story contest, which we began in 1969 — but it didn't occur to us that the schools needed our help beyond that.

I've had the benefit of watching generations of high-school graduates from Palo take the world by storm with their achievements, and we all know from living here that Palo Alto students are not ordinary. While some California public schools are drop-out factories or churn out students in the bottom percentiles of the nation's graduates, Palo Alto is like an island, filled with brilliant young minds bursting with potential.

My kids went to Stanford, Cal and Harvard thanks to our schools. My son, Jim, is an author of works for young adults. My daughter, Sarah, is a professor at Skidmore College.

From Sanford, Jim and Sarah's Paly friends between the classes of 1967 and 1971, I can point to State Senator Joe Simitian, former Palo Alto Mayor Gary Fazzino, Texas A&M professor of biochemistry and biophysics Jim Hu, U.S. senator from Oregon Ron Wyden, Nationwide Children's Hospital pediatric neurosurgeon Corey Raffel, Georgetown professor of psychology Deborah Phillips, Kaiser Permanente vice president and senior counsel Victoria Bleiberg, Justice Department Terrorism Litigation senior counsel Doug Letter, and young children's book author Suzy Blackaby. And those are just a few. They all got their foundation for their remarkable lives in Palo Alto schools.

Palo Alto schools may rank at the top of state and national lists for SAT scores, national merit scholars and academic excellence, but the school district has had to cut programs and staff just like everywhere else. Now, elementary school aides, art, music, sports and college-counseling programs in Palo Alto public schools are largely supported by PiE and booster programs run by parents.

PiE has been tapping parents for donations and last year raised almost $3 million. But it's not nearly enough, and now PiE is reaching out beyond parents to the.

I've decided to answer the call to action for my generation because we've benefited more than anyone from our exceptional schools. We rode to the sounds of the guns in Europe and Asia in the big war. Now the time has come for us to lend a hand again, this time to protect quality in our local schools and make sure today's remarkable Palo Alto children have the same educational opportunities our kids did.

Sam Webster is a Palo Alto businessman focused on real estate and agriculture investments. A lifelong athlete, he participated in the 1946 Wimbledon Championships and was a nationally ranked senior tennis player until he was 75. In the 1980s he organized the Sun Porch project in Palo Alto to provide housing and supervision for wayward boys and girls. He also was a strong supporter of the Avenidas Senior Center. He received the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce Tall Trees Award and the Avenidas Lifetimes of Achievement Award.

Comments

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 12, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Sam - thanks for a great letter! You really understand how our District benefits everyone, even before or after they have kids in the schools. Thanks!


Posted by Member, a resident of another community
on Aug 31, 2011 at 10:38 pm

How lucky for PAUSD! Congrats! I work for Stanford University and truly enjoy the beauty of Palo Alto each day! I live in Redwood City where it's culturally and financially diverse--this diversity brings the community together and keeps us humble. My son is so happy to be attending Adelante Spanish Immersion Elementary School (where he's super proud to be learning another language!); we don't score the highest, but our community is strong! Sadly 51% of the families are below income; we nearly have to beg for $300/year per family to make ends meet and our classes are up to 32 kids now! If others are feeling generous out there, please help us (contact our principal Linda Montes). I understand everyone needs help, but perhaps this plea may strike a cord. Muchas gracias!


Posted by Stay on topic, geez, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 1, 2011 at 12:35 am

How lame to ask for people to donate to YOUR school when the article is about donating to PAUSD.

Wonderful article by Sam; a pleasure to read.


Posted by RE: Stay on topic, geez, a member of the Palo Alto High School community, a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 1, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Geez, have some compassion, whoever placed the comment from PAHS community! You have just made yourself sound snooty, obnoxious, and uneducated because you're one of the privileged to live in Palo Alto. Open your eyes and get our of your bubble!


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