Tom Wyman, library champion and activist, dies at 86

Former library commissioner worked to preserve Palo Alto's small-town feel

Tom Wyman, a longtime Palo Alto volunteer, died on March 17. He was 86. He became suddenly ill on the morning of March 10 and passed away from a brain aneurysm, his daughter, Susan, said.

Wyman was involved in many local civic issues, but was mainly associated with the city's libraries. His resume included the Palo Alto Library Advisory Commission (he was its first 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.

Together with his wife, Ellen, he worked early on to protect Palo Alto's small-town feel. The couple fought against high-rise urbanization in the city, for example, when Palo Alto officials once planned to build a 19-story hospital on Bryant Street where the Avenidas Senior Center is today.

In 2005, he and his wife were honored with the Avenidas Lifetimes of Achievement award.

Wyman moved to Palo Alto in 1936 from a mining and moonshine hill-mining camp in Tennessee. When his father died, his mother moved the family to California, according to a biography by Annette Ashton (Glanckopf), Midtown Residents Association vice chair.

He grew up in Palo Alto, attending attended Walter Hays Elementary, the now-defunct Channing School, Jordan Middle School and Palo Alto High School.

Wyman went on to study at San Jose State University for two years. He then joined the U.S. Navy and toured the Pacific. While there, his mother filled out forms for him to attend Stanford University, where he eventually 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, he told the Palo Alto Weekly in 2005.

Life could be precarious, he soon discovered.

"The foreman asked me if I smoked. I said, 'no,'" he told the Weekly in a 2005 interview. "'Good,' he said. 'The last one did, and blew himself up.'"

Wyman 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 in 2005.

Then he became an oil executive for Chevron, where he worked for 42 years. In those years, he often traveled the world.

He met Ellen in Chicago, and she ignited his passion for volunteering. The Wymans married in 1955 and moved to Bakersfield, Calif., for his job.

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, Wyman was transferred to San Francisco.

The couple returned to Palo Alto in 1964 to raise a son and daughter. The city was at a cross-roads at that time, he recalled in 2005. 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. The community splintered between "establishment" and "residentialist," and the residentialists, which included the Wymans, eventually won.

The Wymans became active in the Friends of the Palo Alto Library in the 1990s. Tom Wyman's mother was involved in forming the Friends and was its membership chair, according to Glanckopf.

Wyman loved the city's libraries, and in the decades between the 1990s until the end of his life, he dedicated much of his time to enhancing them. He was especially proud of his work with Friends of Palo Alto Library book sales. When the couple started, the sale made about $1,000 a month. Under their supervision, it eventually garnered $100,000 annually.

In 1999, Wyman wrote a book, "Palo Alto and its Libraries, a Long Time Love Affair." That year, he and Ellen were instrumental in creating the city's library advisory commission. Wyman became its first chair.

He also crafted the first "New Library Plan," for Palo Alto, which the City Council adopted. The plan recommended building two resource libraries in addition to branches, but a bond measure to fund the new libraries failed, Glanckopf said.

Wyman fought for years to prevent the city's closure of branch libraries. In 2003, he fought against closing the downtown library to use it for library administrative offices. He was vigorously opposed to a 2004 proposal to close branch libraries in favor of one central library.

He probably was not re-appointed to the commission in 2005 by city council members because of his opposition, Bob Moss, a current commissioner, said.

"I was so saddened to hear that he had passed away. He was a wonderful person, He really had the city's best interests at heart for many, many, many years. He and Ellen were very effective in the Friends of the Palo Alto Libraries. (They) are two very remarkable and very unusual people," Moss said.

Wyman never lost his interest and concern for making things work effectively, Moss said. He worked hard on getting Mitchell Park Library improved. The renovated library is currently under construction.

Wyman also had a great passion for collecting slide rules. He collected them ever since he found a particularly elaborate set in a bombed-out shipping complex in Tokyo Bay during World War II.

His 60-year collection encompasses 700 to 800 slide rules, some dating back to the early 1600s, when the earliest slide rules appeared.

"There are more in the basement that I haven't told my wife about," he said during a 2008 interview.

Wyman is survived by his wife, Ellen, daughter Susan, son Tom, and four grandchildren.

A memorial service will take place on April 18 at 11 a.m. at Lucie Stern Community Center Ballroom, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.


Like this comment
Posted by Mimi Wolf
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 21, 2014 at 10:44 am

This article only scratches the surface of the contributions that Tom and Ellen have made to the quality of life of Palo Alto. It's a rare citizen that hosts community meetings in their home, shows up at city council meetings, talks to their neighbors about civic issues, attends countless meetings, organizes committees and more.
Thanks to Tom and Ellen we have a thriving, vibrant Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by Ronna Devincenzi
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 21, 2014 at 10:52 am

This is sad news. In general, everyone now living in and visiting Palo Alto is gifted with the wisdom and vision that came from the men and women from Tom's generation. With hope, we will all realize the priorities Tom drew attention to are what put Palo Alto on the map as a desirable place to be.

While I only knew Tom through being at city council meetings and reading newspaper articles about his thoughts, in particular I am grateful for his insight and hard work that resulted in the preservation of a useful library system throughout the city for everyone to use now, and for generations to come.

Tom's tireless and long-lived volunteer work on the library commission is commendable. People's needs remain the same throughout generations, and public libraries are extremely important to a healthy community.

Like this comment
Posted by Jean Libby
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 21, 2014 at 10:57 am

Memories of Tom Wyman are forever entwined with living in Palo Alto since 1964. His work on the Palo Alto Library Commission, and with Ellen as mainstays of the Friends of the Library are facets of the lifetime career of my late husband Ralph Libby. They were kindred souls; in the 1970s Tom organized and sponsored a stamp collecting club at Palo Alto High School with our son and other students. I looked for his recommendation on local ballot issues and elections at every election. Tom Wyman articulated the residentialist viewpoint with logic and precision. His many friends and community leaders will express his contributions very well. My condolences to Ellen and the family.

Like this comment
Posted by Miriam Palm
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 21, 2014 at 11:25 am

We will miss Tom greatly, and send our condolences to Ellen and family.

Like this comment
Posted by Mimi Wolf
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 21, 2014 at 11:34 am

This article only scratches the surface of the contributions that Tom and Ellen have made to the quality of life of Palo Alto. It's a rare citizen that hosts community meetings in their home, shows up at city council meetings, talks to their neighbors about civic issues, attends countless meetings, organizes committees and more.
Thanks to Tom and Ellen we have a thriving, vibrant Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by Emily Renzel
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 21, 2014 at 12:35 pm

Tom Wyman was contributing to the Palo Alto community right up to the end. This is a great loss for the many groups where his participation made a huge difference. I shall miss him.

Like this comment
Posted by Diane Jennings
a resident of another community
on Mar 21, 2014 at 12:54 pm

My condolences to Ellen and the Wyman family. Tom and Ellen were such a close and formidable couple - so strong in their convictions and always working hard to see them realized. Sue, you've done an excellent job in summarizing Tom's work on behalf of the Library. While he and I didn't always agree on what the future of the Library should look like, there have been few people who cared so much about library service in Palo Alto. His work with the Friends of the Library was instrumental in making it one of the most powerful Friends groups in California. It's unfortunate that he died before the building upgrades to Mitchell Park and Main were completed as I always hoped he'd write a new edition to his history book documenting this wonderful time for the Library and the community.

Like this comment
Posted by jardins
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 21, 2014 at 2:10 pm

What a wonderfully full and varied life Tom Wyman led--how many Stanford graduates these days become oilworkers, then business administrators and then (in their retirement) substantial fundraisers of city library-systems and successful defenders against mega-development.

My sympathies are with his wife and family at this time of loss, and may they always be proud of him.

Like this comment
Posted by Sylvia
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 21, 2014 at 4:05 pm

Sorry to hear about his passing. His work with Friends of the Palo Alto Libraries was stellar.

Like this comment
Posted by Liz Davis
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 26, 2014 at 10:19 am

I'm very sad to hear this news. My thoughts and prayers go out to Ellen and their family. Working with Tom and Ellen was a wonderful part of my FOPAL experience. They cared so much about our libraries, their energy and dedication was infectious, and they fueled my personal passion for books. I learned so much from them!

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