Los Altos Hills philanthropist Fran Codispoti isn't one to shy away from life's unexpected challenges. After recovering from Hodgkin's lymphoma, she decided to turn her attention away from a lucrative career in tech to focus exclusively on improving the well-being of people young and old who might be experiencing hardships.
Palo Alto's Amy Rao, who met Codispoti seven years ago while doing advocacy work, has a succinct description of her relationship with her.
"I tell everyone I want to be Fran when I grow up," Rao said with a chuckle. "She has incredible energy and passion when she is working for a cause."
Rao and Codispoti met through their activism in the Democratic Party and membership in the Silicon Valley chapter of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based non-governmental organization that conducts research into and advocacy for human rights causes worldwide. Codispoti is a member of the chapter's executive committee that targets causes and plans events. Rao is on the international organization's board of directors.
Human Rights Watch is just one of many nonprofit and charitable organizations Codispoti has worked tirelessly for over many decades.
Among Codispoti's many talents are her formidable fundraising abilities, often the least popular duty in charitable or political campaign work.
"She has no problem asking people to open up their wallets and their hearts for a good cause," Rao said.
Among her most notable fundraising accomplishments is the annual Under One Umbrella event on behalf of the Stanford Women's Cancer Center. A survivor of Hodgkin's Disease, Codispoti first got involved with Under One Umbrella in 2011 — and helped raise $800,000 for the Center by snagging none other than famed actress Nicole Kidman as the featured entertainment. Over the years since, the event now held at Stanford's Bing Concert Hall has raised more than $1 million annually, and Kidman has been joined on stage by her country-singer husband, Keith Urban; by fellow husband-and-wife country music luminaries Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood; and by another famous married duo — movie-industry actors and royalty Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson.
Codispoti credits her political awareness, dogged determination and large reservoir of empathy for others to her parents.
"I was raised in a family that greatly valued a strong work ethic," she said.
"As a kid, there was one Christmas when I needed money to buy gifts, so I went door to door in my neighborhood selling Christmas cards. I made enough money not only for gifts but to buy a savings bond, too," she said.
Codispoti said that, because of her father's employment in the military, her family moved every two years when she was growing up. Along with such domestic locations as Washington, D.C., North Carolina, Florida and California, her father also was stationed in Santiago, Chile, where she and her sisters learned to speak Spanish.
But it was the move she made after accepting a position at Time Life Co. in New York City following her graduation from Syracuse University in 1965 that ended up having a profound effect on Codispoti's life. When her father accepted a military assignment in Japan, she decided to leave the Time Life job and join her parents and sisters in the Far East. While working as a social studies teacher in a school for the children of American military personnel in Japan — despite lacking a teaching credential — Codispoti befriended a fellow American teacher.
Though her new friend eventually had to return home to Ohio due to the death of her mother, Codispoti forged a now 54-year friendship with Judie Wolken, which included the latter introducing the former to her future husband, Kenneth Schroeder, at a party she hosted a few years later in California.
"We have developed an amazing friendship over the years," said Wolken, who also resides in Los Altos Hills. "Fran and I really consider ourselves to be sisters."
A friend of Wolken hosted the outdoor wedding of Codispoti and Schroeder at their home in Portola Valley.
Their friendship grew ever stronger during the ensuing years, as Codispoti juggled starting her own family — having a son and daughter — with working as a scheduler at Hewlett-Packard during the 1970s. Channeling her own mother, whom she described as a mid-20th century feminist, Codispoti advocated and agitated for her own career advancement, as well as for other women, not only at HP, but in a high-tech industry generally that is still struggling with misogyny nearly five decades later.
"Feminism has been a continuous thread throughout my life," Codispoti said.
In the midst of working, having children and pursuing an MBA at Santa Clara University, Codispoti had to undergo six months of chemotherapy after discovering a lump that led to a Hodgkin's Lymphoma diagnosis.
Emerging from that health scare after several years of treatment, Codispoti became involved in charitable work for many different schools and organizations, including Gunn High School and the Palo Alto Unified School District. Becoming acutely aware of issues involving aging, since her mother was in her late 80s at the time, Codispoti also became active with Avenidas, the Palo Alto-based nonprofit that provides programs and services for Midpeninsula seniors.
Among the projects she led for Avenidas was the capital campaign to remodel the organization's aging headquarters at 450 Bryant St.
All in a day's work for Codispoti. Her unique talent, according to her legions of friends and fans.
"This is her gift," Wolken said of her dear friend's devotion to charitable groups and causes. "Fran is fiercely dedicated and loyal to her causes, her family and all the people in her life," Wolken said.
Read our stories on other Lifetimes of Achievement honorees:
• Betsy Gifford: She's spent hundreds of hours lending a hand to nonprofits.
• Bill and Gay Krause: They've spent decades working to improve local education.
• Armand and Eliane Neukermans: Together and individually, this couple is dedicated to serving local and global communities.
• Stephen Player: He lent his legal expertise to help launch startup nonprofits.
• Alma and Jim Phillips: They've changed lives through more than a dozen local organizations.