It's certainly not uncommon for long-devoted couples to have met in college, but a truly special partnership was forged some decades ago when an economics student met an engineering student at Louvain University in Belgium.
That meeting brought together Armand and Eliane Neukermans, who have been married close to 60 years, have four children and nine — soon to be 10 — grandchildren. But that meeting in college also brought together two people dedicated to being of service to others, whose numerous philanthropic projects make a difference in the lives of people both locally and globally.
Together and individually, the Neukermanses' philanthropic work takes a stunningly broad scope, from complex social issues such as education and accessibility to the gnarliest of environmental challenges, with projects aimed at mitigating climate change.
"The only way to live is to share what you have with your family and community. We don't live for ourselves," Eliane said.
Eliane holds degrees in economics and philosophy from Louvain, and Armand has degrees in both electrical and mechanical engineering, with a doctorate in applied physics from Stanford University.
The Neukermanses came to the Bay Area in the early 1960s after a short time in Arizona, and Armand, an engineer and physicist, worked for early Silicon Valley companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Xerox. He went on to create his own consulting firm and also founded a company based on a revolutionary optical switch.
Armand was named SIlicon Valley Inventor of the Year in 2001 by the Silicon Valley Intellectual Property Law Association. He holds over 75 patents, and his work has led to everything from the development of the inkjet printer to innovations in fiber optics, advancements in hearing aids to transdermal medical delivery systems.
For more than a decade, Armand has been one of a small group of engineers and scientists volunteering their time and expertise to tackle one of the biggest challenges there is: climate change. One aspect of their work focuses on a "geoengineering" strategy known as "marine cloud brightening," which aims to lower temperatures through a process that makes clouds denser and capable of reflecting sunlight back into the atmosphere. It's being used experimentally to try to cool Australia's Great Barrier Reef, Eliane said.
"Other people who influenced Armand's work for two decades have been (Stanford professor) Steve Schneider and (scientist and futurist) James Lovelock who each in their own way promoted the need for involvement, action and research in climate change. We had several meetings with them. Armand's work with fellow engineers and scientists on climate change and geo-engineering is the product of this," Eliane said.
The couple have been longtime leaders in the fight against climate change, including helping to lead the early adoption of home solar panels in 2006 in Portola Valley Ranch, the neighborhood where they still live. That project became the model for Solar City's Community Solar program.
For her part, Eliane has taught at Arizona State University's Thunderbird School of Global Management and Sacred Heart Preparatory and Castilleja schools.
Her volunteer work has touched numerous community organizations: Palo Alto Community Fund, Foothill College, Environmental Volunteers, Avenidas, the Big Sur Environmental Institute, Human Rights Watch, the Thomas Merton Center, St. Elizabeth Seton School, Portola Valley Ranch, Global Women's Leadership Network, the Jaipur Foot Organization and Amici Lovanienses.
It was a social entrepreneurship project at Castilleja School that introduced the Neukermanses to the Jaipur Foot Organization, a project based in Jaipur, India, and led by D.R. Mehta, that provides prosthesis to the very poor.
"His example of giving dignity and help to those people was very influential for us," Eliane said.
When Mehta came to Castilleja to share his work with students, faculty and parents at the school, he stayed with the couple, and Armand introduced him to researchers at Stanford and hosted their meetings at the Neukermanses' home — meetings that led to the development of a low-cost prosthetic called the Stanford-Jaipur knee.
"D.R. Mehta was a true inspiration on how to go about philanthropy," Eliane said. Armand is now supporting research for a hand prosthesis with Santa Clara University following the retirement of Professor Thomas Andriacchi, Stanford's lead researcher on the project.
Eliane counts many nonprofits and schools among her philanthropic projects, but she notes that her focus is introducing others, bringing people together.
"Often people refer to me as more of a facilitator with all the projects that we have done together. I know quite a few organizations, and one thing that I really do like to do is try to bring them together so they can work on projects. I like bringing different interests and different talents together. That's very satisfying," she said.
One such symbiotic project grew out of inviting Judy Koch of the children's literacy nonprofit Bring Me a Book Foundation to visit Palo Alto's St. Elizabeth Seton School. Koch, in turn, brought a friend, Deborah Mudd, the Stanford Dean of Education on the trip.
"This developed into a training program for teachers offered by Stanford in collaboration with principals as well as a Stanford tutoring program for preschool-aged children," Eliane said. She notes that when visiting scientists, academics and nonprofit leaders come to town, she is frequently organizing the visit — especially because as she says, "They often become houseguests."
Though the couple happily discusses the projects they support, it's clear that they both prefer to shine the spotlight on the efforts of others — and not on themselves. For instance, Armand was knighted several years ago by the king of Belgium but is modest about the honor.
Looking at their impressive philanthropic resume together and individually, the Neukermanses' long list of accomplishments inspires — and with so many needs in the world, may lead to wondering how to possibly take the first step in voluntarism.
"To get started, support the people you know that are making a difference. Don't stand by the sidelines. (Justice advocate) Bryan Stevenson says it well: 'Get proximate. Change the narrative. Do uncomfortable things. Stay hopeful,'" Armand said.
Read our stories on other Lifetimes of Achievement honorees:
• Fran Codispoti: She's raised millions of dollars as an advocate for people young and old.
• 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.
• 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.