Leonard Ely, Palo Alto philanthropist, dies at 87

Businessman with deep local roots focused largesse on local groups, Stanford

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.

Chris Kenrick

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2 people like this
Posted by Ann Shelby Valentine
a resident of another community
on Apr 29, 2011 at 8:24 pm

Mr. Ely was such a terrific role model and deeply loved and admired by our family. We will miss him but remember him fondly and reverently.

2 people like this
Posted by Carroll Harrington
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 30, 2011 at 11:38 am

I really got to know Leonard when we were on the Palo Alto Centennial 1994 Board, and we had Executive Board meetings at my house. He constantly amazed with his fortitude, dedication and enthusiasm for life. Those of us who live in Palo Alto, Silicon Valley and the philanthropy world are sharing in his generous dedication to community. I last saw him at the Tall Tree banquet on March 31...he definltely is the tallest tree in Palo Alto! All of us must carry on in his memory.

2 people like this
Posted by Jeff McCracken
a resident of another community
on Apr 30, 2011 at 8:24 pm

We lived next door to the Ely's on Bryant St. from the 1950's through the mid-1960's. He was a role model to me for a number of reasons, he taught me the value of humor, kindness and friendship. How sad to have lost him and how sad to see his Bryant St. home torn down by someone to build a new home.

2 people like this
Posted by steve san jule
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 1, 2011 at 7:32 am

a wonderful man....contributed much to a growing palo alto in the 50s and 60s. thank you for your life and service, mr. ely

2 people like this
Posted by Museum of American Heritage
a resident of University South
on May 2, 2011 at 11:48 am

The Museum of American Heritage was truly blessed to have Leonard involved with us for so many years. His tireless dedication and enthusiasm for supporting organizations in our community will continue to inspire us all. Leonard played a critical role in helping us restore and preserve the Williams House and Gardens here in Palo Alto. Those of us who were fortunate to have called him friend will forever treasure his memory.

2 people like this
Posted by Stephanie Demos/Kara
a resident of Professorville
on May 2, 2011 at 1:54 pm

Leonard Ely was a giant in every way. Tall and imposing of stature, it was his generosity, leadership by example and passion for philanthropy that helped so many of us through the decades. From the start when Kara was founded 35 years ago by Leonard's cousin Dr. Teresa Wells, the Elys have been faithful supporters.

What I remember best is Leonard's enthusiasm for fundraising for causes that mattered to him. He said, "When someone says they want to serve on a Board or in some leadership capacity, but they don't want to ask anyone for money, I say, then you should do something else because that's what they need - people who believe enough to ask others to give." It stuck with me - that pragmatic sense of an obligation to be generous.

My thoughts are with Shirley, Maggie, Leonard III, the grandchildren and everyone who has been touched by this wonderful man.

2 people like this
Posted by Carolyn Tucher
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on May 2, 2011 at 8:28 pm

Bill Hewlett was Leonard Ely's role model. Len is my Mr. Palo Alto.

What a reliable friend he has been to the Palo Alto schools, supporting them at every turn, winning votes for bond measures, backing Partners in Education, and showing up at major events. Those of us who love the Palo Alto Art Center have him to thank for his important role in closing the funding gap so that we could put up the construction fence and get the project started. How many wonderful organizations in town have him to thank for their financial strength?

Nobody can fill his shoes, but all of us together can keep the heart and the finances of the city he loved strong. What better was to remember him?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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