Palo Alto businessman and philanthropist Leonard Ely died Friday morning (April 29) at Stanford Hospital. He was 87.
Ely, a retired auto dealer and the grandson of Stanford University's third president, with deep roots in the community, devoted much of his later life to philanthropy.
His largesse was primarily focused on local organizations and on Stanford University, where he and his wife, Shirley, endowed a professorship.
He was a key leader in nurturing what is now the $1.8 billion Silicon Valley Community Foundation and was involved in foundation affairs until the day before he died.
"We were down at the foundation on Wednesday," Ely's son, Leonard, said.
"He wasn't feeling well yesterday (Thursday) and they put him in the hospital at 5, and he died at 3 (this morning)."
Born in Palo Alto in 1923, Ely was the grandson of Ray Lyman Wilbur, Stanford's president from 1916 to 1943.
"Dad grew up in Palo Alto at a unique time and he loved it and continued to love it, so we were all lucky," his daughter, Maggie Pringle, said.
Ely graduated from Palo Alto High School, and earned an undergraduate degree in economics and an MBA from Stanford, where he was president of the Business School Student Association.
He was an Air Force pilot in World War II, serving in the South Pacific.
He started an auto dealership in Palo Alto in 1954, selling Chryslers, Plymouths and Chevrolets. The businesses expanded and thrived for three decades.
Later, he founded the Atherton Lease Co. as well as two general partnerships to buy parcels of land for resale and development. In the early 1980s, he started another general partnership to acquire and operate the Stanford Terrace Inn.
Ely served on the boards of more than 30 local organizations and volunteered for even more. They included the Gamble Garden Center, Castilleja School, Lytton Gardens, YMCA, Ecumenical Hunger Program, Red Cross and the Boy Scouts.
He told people that William Hewlett, the late co-founder of HP, was his philanthropic role model.
"We make a living out of what we earn and a life out of what we do," Ely said in a 2006 speech before hundreds of foundation supporters at the San Jose Fairmont.
The foundation began with $55,000 left over from the Santa Clara County War Chest fund from World War II and by 1990 had grown to about $10 million in assets. Sixteen years later, it has assets of $919 million.
It merged with the Peninsula Community Foundation of San Mateo in 2006.
Ely spent the last few years "helping the community, promoting philanthropy and taking care of his family," the younger Ely said.
"He did those things right up until the day he died."
Ely did not travel much after suffering a bad fall six years ago, his son said. However, he was able to go to Chicago last year for his granddaughter's graduation from Northwestern University Law School.
"Leonard Ely embodied the true spirit of giving," Silicon Valley Community Foundation CEO Emmett D. Carson said Friday.
"He was a visionary who understood our larger region and the power of collective philanthropy. He made the community foundation, our region and countless nonprofit institutions stronger."
Ely was one of the Palo Alto Weekly's original shareholders and served on the company's board of directors for almost 30 years until retiring last year.
"Leonard was the most generous, supportive and unassuming person one could ever hope to know or work with," said Weekly publisher Bill Johnson. "His passion for philanthropy was both inspiring and contagious, and was an important reason why the Weekly has so strongly supported the work of nonprofits in the community."
Ely is survived by his wife of 63 years, Shirley; his son Leonard III, daughter-in-law Mary and their son David; and his daughter, Maggie Pringle and her chlidren Abby, David and Will. He is also survived by his twin sister, Mrs. George Hart, of Ross, and many nieces and nephews.
Memorial services are pending, family members said.