Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - May 6, 2011

Bill and Carolyn Reller

Senior-housing advocates and entrepreneurs

by Chris Kenrick

In 2007, three years into Carolyn Reller's battle with a brain tumor, she and her husband, Bill, were approached to be honored with the Avenidas Lifetimes of Achievement award.

As board president of Avenidas decades earlier, Carolyn Reller had been among the creators of the award — and firmly disagreed later when the qualifying age was dropped from 70 to 65.

"She was a person of a lot of things, and one of them was principle, sometimes expressed as stubbornness," Bill Reller recalled of his wife, who died a year ago at 68.

"When they approached us for the award in 2007, I said, 'You know, Carolyn, this might be our last chance.'

"The handwriting was on the wall," he said, referring to her terminal diagnosis. "It was a hard thing to say to her.

"But she said no, she was not yet 70 — it didn't make any difference."

This year, when Bill Reller again was approached for the award, Avenidas agreed that his wife, posthumously, could be honored along with him.

The award presentation is May 15. Carolyn Reller would have turned 70 in June.

"She still would have turned it down — I'm sure of it," he said.

Born and educated in the Midwest, Bill Reller had stumbled upon Palo Alto as a Gray Line Bus Tour passenger during a brief stopover as he prepared to ship out for a U.S. Army stint in Korea.

The short bus tour was all it took.

Thirteen months later, Reller was back as a student at Stanford Business School — and has never left.

Upon graduation he turned down an East-Coast corporate job to strike out in Palo Alto real estate and recalls that "life wasn't easy, business wise."

He remembers meeting with downtown landlords who seemed powerful to him at the time, wondering what it would feel like to have lived in Palo Alto for five whole years.

"I thought if anybody had been here five years, they must be really established and really know the community," he said.

Reller borrowed a down payment from his mother to buy his first house — priced at $11,000 on Palo Alto Avenue. It turned out to be a honeymoon cottage when he married Carolyn in 1963.

By 1982 — three children and two houses later — the Rellers landed in a gracious center-hall colonial on a huge Crescent Park lot.

Carolyn ran the household while Bill developed condominium projects in Palo Alto and dealt in real estate investments — including a Christmas tree farm — elsewhere.

Both took on serious volunteer and nonprofit board commitments — Bill with the Peninsula Open Space Trust, the Palo Alto Board of Realtors, the Palo Alto Community Foundation and the YMCA; and Carolyn with the Junior League, the PTA, Stanford University Hospital and the Children's Health Council.

"We just never really thought about alternatives (to Palo Alto)," Reller said.

"Carolyn was raised in Burlingame — her parents were right here and her brother in San Mateo — and she didn't want to go anywhere. I didn't either.

"And after awhile you become sort of provincial — I wouldn't even have wanted to move to Menlo Park."

Outside of family, the couple's biggest project — and Carolyn Reller's legacy — has been the senior housing complex Palo Alto Commons.

The pair originally conceived of the development because they were seeking nearby housing for their own mothers, who were approaching 80 at the time. Neither of the mothers lived long enough to move in.

The Reller family built and has operated the 121-unit facility on El Camino Way since 1990.

Palo Alto Commons took two years to fill, Reller said.

"It was a struggle."

But the need has grown since. The facility recently won city approval for a new, 44-unit addition to the complex, aimed at "younger" seniors, whom Reller described as people in their 70s.

Palo Alto Commons was Reller's last big project. These days, he enjoys traveling the world.

And he still occupies the house he and Carolyn shared for 29 years. During a recent interview, the living and dining rooms were full of floral arrangements left over from a fundraiser Reller had just hosted for Pathways Hospice, an organization that provided care for Carolyn in her final years.

He has nine grandchildren, three from each of his children.

"Since I'm alone now, I've really come to appreciate the people my children have become — their families, the people they married, are all just super people.

"I feel so extremely fortunate for that. They are all caring people — a great reflection of their mother."

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