Recently married and pondering job prospects across the country, George and Ruth Chippendale took a driving trip in 1957, stopping for interviews in Wichita, Denver, San Diego and Los Angeles before landing in Palo Alto, where they decided to plant their roots in the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood.
Palo Alto was like nothing the East Coast-bred pair had ever seen before, said George, who settled on an engineering job at Lockheed Missiles and Space.
"It just seemed different out here," George recalled. "What I noticed was the farmland. In fact, right across the freeway — and it wasn't a freeway then, it was just Bayshore Highway — and over in Mountain View were extensive farms."
There was space to roam, and a nice family house could be had for $21,500, Ruth added.
"Oh, it was wonderful," she said.
George, who during his college years in Boston had learned to fly and bought his own small plane, flew it out to California.
"He put it in the garage to work on it and everybody was kind of flabbergasted when he'd open the garage door and there was an airplane," Ruth recalled. "Every time I wanted to get into the washing machine I had to duck under the propeller."
By 1962, the Chippendales had three children, and Ruth had left her teaching career to raise them. It was also during this time that the couple became involved in the Christian Family Movement, which launched them into a lifelong commitment to social activism and giving back to the community that had impressed them so much that first day they arrived.
For nearly six decades, the couple has spent countless hours providing aid to parents of emotionally and mentally disabled children; offering emergency assistance through the St. Vincent de Paul Society; feeding the homeless; distributing food; working for peace and justice; taking in 20 foster children and adopting a developmentally delayed son (who died at the age of 21); collecting and distributing toys and clothing; and preparing layettes for needy new mothers.
In 2004, the Vatican awarded the couple the Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice for their years of service. The following year, the couple received a prestigious Jefferson Award from the American Institute for Public Service. This month, the duo is receiving the Avenidas Lifetimes of Achievement Award for their service to Palo Alto.
Joining the Christian Family Movement was "a dramatic change in my life," said George, who proudly called himself a "Boston Irish Catholic Democrat" but, until marrying Ruth, had considered weekly Mass mainly a place to snooze or daydream.
Ruth had come from a deeply religious family, with a sister who became a nun and a brother who became a priest.
"The church was nothing to me until I met this woman," he said, explaining that she had shown him the English translations of the Latin prayer books that made the service more meaningful.
Through the Christian group's Migrant Mission Program, George found himself teaching catechism to farm workers in Cupertino. He flew priests to Mexico and Central America for the Latin American Mission Program, and "that was a step up in motivation," he said.
By the late '60s, George was piloting health care teams and patients back and forth to Central America to perform reconstructive surgeries on children with cleft palates through the Stanford University-based group Interplast (now Resurge International).
Interplast founder Dr. Donald Laub of Stanford "had a recognition that really motivated people," George said. "He wanted to teach, particularly young doctors, that you could get a peak experience when you have a team of like-minded people — nurses, doctors, translators — doing good work in places that needed their work. That in itself was a peak experience."
Ruth meanwhile began taking in babies through a foster program with Santa Clara County. Between 1966 and 1976 the family took in 20 babies, the last one of which they adopted and raised as their own.
"That was in the days when they didn't have enough adoptive parents," Ruth said. Most of the babies were newborns, coming straight from the hospital. The Chippendales kept a carriage, which they would wheel from room to room, and Ruth grew deeply attached to the babies.
"We had Susan, the first one, and I told them, 'Don't take Susan 'til you have another one to put in the infant seat' because I knew it was going to be so hard to let her go. They took Susan and put Eddie in."
These days, George has long since stopped flying his plane — he no longer even drives — but uses the telephone to continue his decades-long activism in East Palo Alto with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, coordinating emergency help to families and individuals in need with food, rent, utilities, clothing and medical prescriptions.
Until recently, George and Ruth helped prepare a meal every Monday at St. Francis of Assisi church in East Palo Alto for anybody who wanted to come in and eat. George also has helped recruit and secure scholarships for children to attend St. Elizabeth Seton School and Hidden Villa summer camp in Los Altos Hills.
Ruth, a regular at the 7:15 a.m. daily Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas, continues her 30-year involvement with Palo Alto's Downtown Food Closet, as well as with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and Hotel de Zink, in which churches take turns providing hot meals and beds for the homeless.
She's also become a Raging Granny, joining fellow grandmothers who dress up in hats and go into the streets to promote peace, justice and equality.
"I'd gone to so many rallies and so many demonstrations — anti-war, pro-environment — and I thought, 'As long as I'm going to go to these rallies and demonstrations, I might as well have some fun with it," she said.
Both Chippendales say the tightening housing market in East Palo Alto is making it harder than ever for low-income people trying to survive.
"Now, with the impact of people coming into East Palo Alto with places like Facebook and Google, no longer do you have that market technique of renting a room from the bulletin board at the laundromat," George said. "Instead you go onto Craigslist and the room that used to be $600 is now $1,200.
"It's the facts of life here — it's just so hard. East Palo Alto particularly has been a low-income haven ... and that's now changing. It's so difficult right now in seeing how people are going to survive."