Palo Alto community fixture Ellen Wyman dies at 86


Ellen Wyman, a longtime resident and activist in Palo Alto, died on Sunday, Sept. 14, following years of frail health, her son Tom Wyman said. She was 86.

A lifelong volunteer, Wyman participated in an array of local groups, among them the League of Women Voters, the PTA, the Palo Alto Civic League and the Santa Clara County Grand Jury. An opponent of urban growth in Palo Alto, she helped to found organizations which successfully lobbied to enact restrictions on new developments.

Later in life, she and her husband Tom, who passed away in March, were ardent supporters of Palo Alto libraries.

"Everything she did in terms of city politics, she ... was doing it for the first time," her son Tom said. "But that didn't slow her down. ... If there was something she cared about, she jumped in and gathered other people in the community to help."

Ellen was born on Nov. 25, 1927, and grew up in Danville, Illinois, right on the border with Indiana. Volunteerism and political engagement were ingrained in her from an early age; she helped her mother hand out buttons on a street corner as part of a campaign to elect Wendell Wilkie, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's opponent in the 1940 presidential election.

She went on to graduate from the University of Illinois and worked for a time as a marketing and opinion researcher. She met Tom -- a Chevron oil executive who grew up in Palo Alto -- in Chicago, and the two later married in 1955.

The Wymans moved multiple times for Tom's work, including to Bakersfield where Ellen taught at a local college, and to Alaska in 1960, where the couple enjoyed the outdoors and lights of the aurora borealis.

When they moved to San Francisco, Ellen became involved with the League of Women Voters and successfully recruited corporations to help distribute nonpartisan voting materials. She remained involved with the League after moving to Palo Alto in 1964.

Her volunteering and activism continued in Palo Alto; she jumped right into the thick of things when she helped to found the Association for a Balanced Community, which identified pro- and slow-growth City Council candidates prior to the recall election of 1967. The residentialists won, but not easily.

She helped fight growth again in the 1980s by founding Palo Alto Tomorrow with her friend Betty Meltzer. The group conducted a survey of public opinion on growth issues, the results of which persuaded the City Council to put a cap on development in downtown.

"They were always there when there was a big issue," said former Vice Mayor Enid Pearson, speaking about the Wymans. "You can count on them. They were faithful and steady."

Her civic involvement went beyond that single issue: She helped to educate the public on local issues through Palo Alto Civic League and connected community leaders through Leadership Palo Alto (later Leadership Midpeninsula).

She and Tom also became involved with Friends of the Palo Alto Library (FOPAL), managing the group's book sales for many years, beginning in 1992. Their efforts helped to grow the volunteer ranks and boosted monthly revenue by thousands.

"They were appreciated by everybody," said Althea Andersen, a longtime volunteer with FOPAL who worked with the couple. "They listened to the customers, ... the volunteers and the staff of the public library, and they just did a fine job."

In 2005, both she and Tom were honored with an Avenidas Lifetimes of Achievement award to acknowledge their lasting contributions to the Palo Alto community.

Ellen was predeceased by her husband, Tom Wyman. She is survived by her daughter, Susan Sage Wyman of New Braunfels, Texas; her son, Tom (Susie) Wyman of Boulder, Colorado; and four grandchildren, Mackenzie, Casey, Samantha and Macey.

A memorial service will be held on Oct. 12 from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Lucie Stern Community Center, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations can be made to the Friends of the Palo Alto Library.

Related content:

Ellen and Tom Wyman: Grassroots efforts make big changes (May 2005)

Tom Wyman, library champion and activist, dies at 86 (March 2014)

— Sam Sciolla

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