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May 18, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Ellen and Tom Wyman: Grass-roots efforts make big changes Ellen and Tom Wyman: Grass-roots efforts make big changes (May 18, 2005)

by Sue Dremann

Downtown Palo Alto would be a very different place without Ellen and Tom Wyman.

Instead of the upscale small-town ambience defining Palo Alto today, residents would be walking amid a metropolis of high-rises taller than the "waffle" building on University Avenue and Cowper Street. The city once planned to build a 19-story hospital on Bryant Street where Avenidas Senior Center is today.

Fittingly, the Wymans will be honored with an Avenidas Lifetimes of Achievement award on May 22. The couple is being honored for their four decades of volunteerism and activism in the Palo Alto community.

In their handsome Palo Alto home, a collection of antique ceramic tiles graces their living room mantle. Ellen and Tom collect the tiles, which adorn every room in the house. Drawers are filled with examples from their travels around the world, some hundreds of years old.

Tom, a member of the Oughtred Society, a fellowship of slide-rule historians, has an extensive collection of slide rules which he is happy to show to a visitor. He also starts up his collection of antique steam engines, delighting in the turning gears and pumping pistons.

They have published on the subjects they collect; have traveled the world, seen the commonality of humanity in diverse peoples in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon and England. They have raised two children, a boy and a girl. Palo Alto is a wonderful place to call home. The Wymans have had a rich life, they said.

But the richness of their lives isn't in the things they've acquired. Their real satisfaction has come from their grass-roots contributions to the city they love.

This is Ellen's resume: League of Women Voters; Palo Alto Civic League founding member; PTA; Santa Clara County Grand Jury; Leadership Palo Alto; Friends of the Palo Alto Library; founding member of Association for Balanced Community and Palo Alto Tomorrow.

Tom's achievements are no less impressive: Palo Alto Library Advisory Commission past-chair; Palo Alto Historical Association, past-president; Palo Alto History Museum board member; Friends of the Palo Alto Library; Palo Alto Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee; Associates of the School of Earth Sciences of Stanford University, past president.

Tom grew up in Palo Alto. He attended Walter Hays Elementary, the now-defunct Channing School, Jordan Middle School and Palo Alto High School. He went to Stanford and studied mining engineering and geology.

He did stints in Eastern mines as a "powder monkey," a coal miner who brought cases of dynamite and fuses into areas of the mine to be detonated.

Life could be precarious, he soon discovered.

"The foreman asked me if I smoked. I said, no." " 'Good,' he said. 'The last one did, and blew himself up,'" Tom recalled.

He worked dirty jobs in the oil fields, learning the business from the bottom up, as a roustabout in Texas, and as a roughneck on drilling rigs -- an extremely dangerous job requiring exquisite coordination between rig workers. "I'm happy I had all 10 fingers," he said.

Then he became an oil executive for Chevron. He traveled the world. But he also met Ellen, who ignited his own passion for volunteering.

Ellen got her first taste of volunteerism/activism at age8. As a child in Danville, Ill., a small town on the Illinois/Indiana state line, she stood on the street corner with her mother, handing out "Vote for Wilkie" buttons for Indiana native Wendell Wilkie during the 1940 presidential election campaign against Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A graduate of the University of Illinois, and a marketing and opinion researcher, she met Tom in Chicago. The Wymans married in 1955 and moved to Bakersfield for Tom's job. Ellen taught at the local college and became a placement director.

In 1960, they moved to the oilfields in Alaska, a state they loved, often taking in the wildlife and the aurora borealis. Less than two years later, Tom was transferred to San Francisco. Ellen, who was pregnant, began volunteering.

She joined the League of Women Voters, distinguishing herself by getting large corporations such as Crown-Zellerbach to help distribute the organization's nonpartisan voter information - - a coup for the league. When the couple moved to Palo Alto in 1964, Ellen was invited to join the local league chapter.

In 1965, Palo Alto was at a cross-roads. The '50s had brought a new hospital at Stanford, Stanford Industrial Park, and a chic shopping mall. An identity crisis loomed in Palo Alto -- whether to remain residential, or become a world-class metropolis.

Ellen helped found the Association for a Balanced Community in 1967, which grouped candidates for City Council as a slate of pro or slow-growth candidates. Passions ran high, the community was splintered. "Establishment" and "residentialist" City Council members engaged in acrimony.

In a searingly bitter recall election, 13 of 15 city council members lost their seats, including Byron Sher, who would later become an esteemed state assemblyman and senator.

The "residentialists" eventually won, but the price of victory was high. "There aren't mild issues here. People don't 'sort of' care," Ellen recalled.

Much of her work has revolved around educating herself and the community about the issues, candidates and where they stand. To that end, with a group of friends, she helped found the Palo Alto Civic League.

Later, Leadership Palo Alto (now Leadership Midpeninsula) helped get aspiring community leaders together from East Palo Alto, Palo Alto and Menlo Park to teach about their communities through training sessions.

When mega-growth issues rose again, she founded Palo Alto Tomorrow -- another group opposing development -- with friend Betty Meltzer, which in the mid-1980s did a survey of community opinion on growth issues. The results convinced the City Council to put a cap on downtown development, which is still in effect today.

Currently, she's proud of the work she and Tom have done with the Friends of Palo Alto Library book sales. When they started managing book sales in 1992, Friends volunteers comprised two men working out of one room and a washroom at Terman Community Center.

Today, there are more than 130 volunteers and revenues increased from $1,200 to $10,000 per month. The money helps Palo Alto libraries. "The libraries are part of the fabric of our society," she said.

Dubbing herself "Mrs. Grass-roots," Ellen believes mightily in the power of the individual. Change is most possible through grass-roots efforts. "It's the way you get things done. You find an issue, find like-minded people, and discuss it," she said.

E-mail Staff Writer Sue Dremann at sdremann@paweekly.com.


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