Bill Busse: Hard work and optimism have been hallmarks of architect's life


At first glance it seems that Bill Busse has led a charmed life. In fact, Busse himself will tell you that the most auspicious events in his life -- attending Stanford University, meeting his wife of 66 years, becoming an architect -- were all mere matters of happenstance. Ever the modest man, he frequently expresses wonder and delight at how his life has turned out.

But upon closer inspection, you realize the truth: His charm, hard work and optimism have led to a wonderful life.

His long and happy marriage, his successful career as a pioneering architect, his numerous local and global philanthropic contributions, as well as his devotion to friends and family, are testaments to a life well-lived.

Born in Prescott, Arizona, in 1927, Busse graduated high school in 1945, near the end of World War II, and immediately joined the service.

"That's what everyone did then," he said.

The U.S. Navy sent him to the University of Southern California (USC) for two years to train as a pilot. It was in the USC library that his roommate introduced him to Barbara, his future wife. Although it was love at first sight, they had to wait two years, until he got his wings, before they could get married. Busse served as a jet fighter pilot until 1950; he is a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War.

After Busse's service ended, he and Barbara headed back to USC, where he planned to finish his college degree. However, a stop in Palo Alto to visit Barbara's sister changed his plans, as well as the course of his life. Although he said that he "didn't know Stanford from anywhere," he decided to attend the university to be closer to family.

The next concern was what he should study. As luck would have it, while stationed in Guam with the Navy, Busse designed a very popular bar, and this contributed to his decision to become an architect.

"I thought the design had something to do with its success," Busse joked.

After receiving his bachelor's and master's degrees from Stanford, Busse began his career, eventually making partner in the Palo Alto architectural firm Spencer & Associates. While there, he designed many of the buildings on the Stanford campus, including Tressider Memorial Union. Not only was this a design challenge that greatly elevated his reputation and career, but it remains his favorite project.

Busse's interests, even during his busy career, extended far beyond Palo Alto. During the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, Busse worked with a group of Soviet and American scientists to prevent the possibility of nuclear war. They jointly published a highly acclaimed book of scientific articles, "Breakthrough," with an endorsement by then-USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The Busses traveled often to the Soviet Union during the 1980s.

"They were thought of as our enemy, but meeting the people over there, we were absolutely amazed at what good people they were," he said. "It changes your outlook on the world, and you realize that there are good people everywhere."

Over the course of both his career and retirement, Busse has generously contributed to his local community in many ways. He has served on the Palo Alto Housing Commission, as vice president of environmental affairs for the Chamber of Commerce, as president of the Palo Alto YMCA Board of Directors and as president of the Rotary Club, where he has been a longtime member. Four years ago, Busse put his architectural talents to work for the club when they took on the project to build sun shades for a new picnic area in Greer Park.

"I designed them, and we got a crew of around 30 people to build them in our basement," Busse said.

But the Busses may be best-known for a more light-hearted endeavor: the tradition of ice-cream socials in their backyard when they lived on Ramona Street in Professorville.

"Every year when the peaches ripened, we would start making ice-cream with the crank-type ice-cream maker," he said. "We invited neighbors and relatives, and it grew to include most of the block and beyond."

Although he has a lifetime of achievements, Busse values his relationships with friends and family most.

"I'm proudest of my family, of course," he said. "We have great kids, great grandkids and great great-grandkids. We have met so many fine people in Palo Alto and wound up with some lifelong friends. That's really what life in Palo Alto has been about."

His advice to young people hoping to live a similar life of meaning and achievement?

"Follow your dreams and always think the best of other people, and then they'll be the best."

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

Martin Deggeller: Creating environments for future generations

Judy Koch: Bringing high-quality books to all children

Jerry and Dick Smallwood: Couple sets up scholarship fund, the gift that keeps on giving

Emy and Jim Thurber: Chance, adventure, politics and partnership define the shared life of Los Altos couple

Freelance writer Kathy Cordova can be emailed at

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Like this comment
Posted by Busse's accomplishments
a resident of Downtown North
on May 7, 2016 at 6:20 pm

I thought Bill Busse designed the original Downtown Library. Is that true?

Like this comment
Posted by Busse's accomplishments
a resident of Downtown North
on May 14, 2016 at 12:26 pm

Maybe he just doesn't want to be associated with the cold remodel. It used to be a charming place.
What happened to those big wrought iron gates that graced the back door? Does the architect have them? They are quite valuable.

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

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