Bob Harrington: Neighborhood champion praised for commitment to bettering the community


For Iowa natives Bob Harrington and his wife, Margie, the choice to settle down in Palo Alto -- after the high school sweethearts tied the knot while Harrington was at Stanford University -- was an easy one.

The Harringtons found that the core values in Palo Alto have a lot in common with the Midwestern ones they grew up with: hard work, the love of family and community, and a commitment to schools.

"We chose to come to Palo Alto because of the value system that is here and the schools," Harrington said. "This community values schools, and we value schools."

Since Harrington retired from his job as an investment broker, he has become a "citizen volunteer," committed to bettering the community that he and his wife love so much. Through his volunteer work, Harrington has led some of the city's most important initiatives, including a citywide plan for faster and broader Internet connectivity known as Fiber to the Home (now called Fiber to the Premise), critical storm-drain improvements and flood protection.

"It was 16 years ago when I started becoming active in community issues, and it started with fiber and a couple of other things, including Palo Alto schools and emergency preparedness," Harrington said. "One thing led to another."

When Palo Alto officials starting talking about setting up a fiber-to-home trial system capable of delivering high-speed Internet access to residences in the Community Center neighborhood in 1999, Harrington, who lives in the Embarcadero Oaks neighborhood, realized how close he was to the electrical substation that would distribute the fiber-optic connection. He decided to get his street into the trial.

"I was confident enough, so I went up and down the street and I got about 45 percent of the neighbors to sign up for fiber, presented all of these things to Tomm Marshall (with the Palo Alto Utilities Department) and magically the map got redrawn and we got into the fiber test network," he said.

The citywide fiber effort ultimately stalled in 2009 because of the economic downturn, only to get resurrected last year by a City Council eager to finally make fiber-to-the-premise a reality.

Harrington saw fiber's potential well before most city officials became excited about the project. In the early days of the Internet, connectivity was slow and unreliable, which drove Harrington to push for the fiber trial, Margie said.

"We knew up close and personal the benefit of fiber, and everyone talks about the speed, but speed is what I would call the marketing issue that is being presented. But it's reliability," Harrington said. "People don't realize that's what comes with fiber. It's simple to make it a one-issue thing, which is speed, but what we're really interested in is changing the corporate culture and the user-friendliness of our telecommunication system."

Months after the trial network was installed in 2001, Harrington joined a group to develop a citywide fiber-to-home plan that could be implemented by the City of Palo Alto. This is where Harrington met Bern Beecham, who was a councilman at the time. When Beecham decided to run for another council term, he persuaded Harrington to work on his campaign committee.

"I got to watch how a political campaign gets run in Palo Alto, and it was just neighbors like all of us ... and I realized by just being a volunteer on Bern's campaign committee ... that there's not that many people who are politically active on the local level ... who will volunteer or do things on a committee or even give money to a campaign," Harrington said. "I said, 'I can do that.'"

After working on Beecham's campaign, Harrington went on to volunteer on individual council campaigns, including for Sid Espinosa, Larry Klein and Liz Kniss -- all former mayors.

Harrington also helped lead the charge in bringing Palo Alto's aging storm-drain system up to date after a measure went to voters and failed.

"I'm thinking to myself ... 'This can't happen too often,'" Harrington said of the failed measure. "This is a fabulous community, we got to figure out ways to reinvest in our infrastructure or it's going to be ashes to ashes."

When officials started talking about having a second go at improving the city's storm-drain system, Harrington volunteered to be on the storm-drain committee. Harrington and Susan Rosenberg, a founding board member of Canopy -- which counts on volunteers to plant, care for and survey trees in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto -- developed a writing team to come up with a "good simple message that resonated with people who voted," he said.

"I was just a worker ant doing what I could do," Harrington said. "Of course, it was successful, so that reinforced that we could present legitimate issues and solutions in ways that were attractive enough to get the vote."

Currently, Harrington is on Channing House's board of trustees and was involved in the conception of the senior community's new health center.

"Channing House is a brilliant concept that Russ Lee came up with in the early '60s ... and has a tremendous community, so that was a huge honor when someone called and asked me to be on that board," Harrington said.

Through his volunteer work, Harrington has learned to be patient and to have an open mind, he said.

"There's a Palo Alto process that you hear and read about, but it's not unreasonable. A lot of preparation needs to go into most decisions to make them excellent decisions, and I think this community has a pretty stellar record of decisions that are made and the implementation of those decisions."

Click on the links below to read about the other Lifetimes of Achievement awards honorees.

Ann DeBusk: A leader of leaders

Allan and Mary Seid: A family affair

Gib Myers: Nurturing startups, philanthropists -- and bison on the range

Barbara Carlitz: Kudos to a serial board chair

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