For Ray Bacchetti, civic engagement wasn't a lofty ideal so much as a way of life.
Bacchetti, a devoted educator, activist and community volunteer, died Sunday, May 10, at the age of 81 after a battle with cancer. He left behind a record of public service and volunteering that is nearly unrivaled in Palo Alto, including a five-year stint on the school board, an eight-year term on the Foothill-De Anza Community College District Board of Trustees and six years on the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission.
For Bacchetti, there were always board meetings to attend, task forces to chair and committees to join, including the blue-ribbon committee that surveyed the city's infrastructure needs, the citizen task force that considered the need for a new police building, the stakeholders group that explored the future use of Cubberley Community Center and an oversight committee for the school district's facilities bond. He spent nine years volunteering in the Palo Alto Police Department, helped head Project Safety Net and served as a Track Watch volunteer.
Police Chief Dennis Burns noted that Bacchetti and fellow volunteer George Browning were "frequently described as the hardest-working employees of the Police Department," where they worked twice a week. Bacchetti, he said, often took the time to meet the department's younger officers and explain to them what the community wants and needs and how it can be served better.
"He is a man of tremendous wisdom, humor and compassion, and we're all better because of Ray Bacchetti," Burns said.
Born on Jan. 9, 1934, in New Jersey, Bacchetti developed an early interest in theater during trips with his great uncle, a playwright, to productions on Broadway. After graduating from Westwood High School, he entered Rutgers University, where as an undergraduate he met his future wife, Carol, whom he married in 1956.
He graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1956 and a master's degree in education in 1959. His studies introduced him to educational philosopher John Dewey and questions of democracy and the common good that he said fascinated him for the rest of his life.
After teaching briefly in New Jersey, he continued his studies in a doctoral program at Stanford University, focusing on the philosophy of education and higher education, which he completed in 1968. In addition to teaching in Palo Alto for a year, he worked at Stanford for 33 years, ultimately retiring as vice president of planning and management. Bacchetti was also a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and an education-program officer at the Hewlett Foundation.
Retirement did nothing to slow him down. As a citizen volunteer, he co-founded the group Palo Altans for Government Effectiveness, served on the board at Channing House and was a leading voice for including "civic engagement" as a City Council priority.
At a March 16 recognition ceremony for Bacchetti, Councilman Pat Burt recalled Bacchetti's constant commitment to pursuing "the common good."
"While not everyone's notion of what that means is identical, it's a really important reminder that we just continue to reflect on our actions, not only as officials but as a community, to think about our common good," Burt said.
Bacchetti's volunteering efforts won him plenty of accolades, including the Avenidas Lifetimes of Achievement Award in 2009 and a Tall Tree Award in 2013 in the category of "outstanding citizen." Yet Bacchetti never sought recognition, and, as his friends have recalled, most of his efforts to improve his community took place out of the public eye.
Councilman Marc Berman remembered the time in 2012 when Berman had made plans to meet then-Mayor Yiaway Yeh near the train tracks, which citizen volunteers patrolled to ward off suicide attempts. At around 10 p.m., Berman said, he arrived at the East Meadow Road rail crossing where instead of Yeh he saw a man in a hat whom he instantly recognized as Bacchetti.
"I said, 'Ray, what are you doing here?' And he said, 'This is my 84th time doing Track Watch. What are you doing here?'" Berman said.
"There are countless things he did for the community that were unseen by the rest of us," said Berman, who served with Bacchetti on the infrastructure committee. "He's an incredible role model to the rest of us, and I'm very thankful for all the work he's done for Palo Alto."
His lifelong love of theater and activism came together in his service on the board for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and his support for local theater groups like TheatreWorks and the Pear Avenue Theatre. While his taste was eclectic, he particularly enjoyed plays with "meaty subject matters" and appreciated the group effort that went into theatrical productions, Carol Bacchetti said.
"It's a very collaborative (process), and I think that's something he was always interested in," she said.
In a 2009 video interview, Bacchetti talked about some of his passions, mentioning public education, civic engagement, the theater, police work and the issue of "growing older," or as Bacchetti termed it, "older and growing." In the final years of his life, he was as committed to promoting student safety and well-being as he was to engaging residents who are in their "third and final stage of life," as he called it in the interview.
"We're still trying to figure out how to get involved in it, how to make it meaningful, how to make the best use of people who are no longer working in their careers but still have a great deal to give to the society," Bacchetti said.
Yet his efforts and interests transcended generational divides. As someone who devoted decades of his life to education and who always enjoyed working with young people, he found solace in last days watching children from Abilities United during their swimming lessons at the Channing House pool, his wife said. After battling skin cancer for several months, he died Sunday at Channing House.
In addition to Carol Bacchetti, he is survived by his brother, J. Thomas (Liz) Bacchetti of Oakland; three children, Peter (Anne Marie Siu-Yuan) Bacchetti of Santa Rosa, Joanne (Phil) Taylor of Menlo Park and Paul Bacchetti of Mountain View; and three grandchildren, Emily, Ben and Jesse Taylor.