"It was like a dream," Ely said, recalling what it was like to accept the 2006 Spirit of Philanthropy Award from the foundation that he lauds as "a savings account for the community."
The dapper, 6-foot-2-inch 83-year-old, who walks with an eye-catching red and white striped cane, said he was "fantastically excited" about the foundation's accomplishment. Having been honored previously as the "$10 Million Man" when CFSV reached that dollar amount in 1990, Ely was in a state of bliss over the financial achievement of $1 billion.
"This is the happiest day of my life," a choked up Ely told the huge audience of friends and family.
Ely's wife of 59 years, Shirley, watched her husband graciously accept the award alongside their two children, Maggie Pringle and Leonard Ely III, their three oldest grandchildren, Abby, David and Will Pringle, and friends filling the huge room.
"He was so emotional he forgot his glasses," Shirley said.
For Ely, this was the achievement of a lifetime. The former auto dealer with a gift for numbers and a passion for education has dedicated his time, energy and personal wealth to philanthropy -- and in such a driven way that others say they cannot help but follow suit.
"He feels really strongly that you need to give back to the community. That's my dad. He infects people with that," Ely's son said.
Community Foundation Silicon Valley, which is now the merged Silicon Valley Community Foundation that spans Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties, has been a primary avenue for Ely's philanthropy. He served as one of the early development directors for a $1-a-year salary.
"We've grown rapidly, in large part because of Leonard's help in the early years," said Peter Hero, outgoing president of Community Foundation Silicon Valley.
Hero calls Ely "one of the giants in philanthropy" who was successful in uniting the far corners of Santa Clara County and engaging young donors through the foundation.
But he hasn't focused his efforts on the foundation alone. He's also invested personal time in many nonprofits and other causes.
The lengthy list of organizations in the area that he's volunteered for, contributed to or served on the board for includes Gamble Garden Center, Castilleja School, Lytton Gardens, YMCA, Ecumenical Hunger Program, the Red Cross and the Boy Scouts, to name a mere few.
The list, including serving on 30 nonprofit boards, addresses the gamut of community needs, from health and well-being to education and enrichment. He has contributed extensively to Stanford University through the Hoover Institution and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
"It hasn't been work to him. It's been fun," Shirley said.
As a businessman, friend, father and philanthropist, Ely has left an impressive mark on Palo Alto and surroundings as he's watched his community grow up and quintuple in size.
He was born in Palo Alto in 1923 to an orthopedic surgeon and the daughter of Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur, 26-year president of Stanford University.
"I've always loved this little town," Ely said of the city that now has 61,200 residents. "I made up my mind I wanted to raise my family here."
The Bryant Street home where he lives now was also his father's house, which used to be surrounded by fields.
He grew up there with his twin sister, Jessica, who lives in Marin County, and his two younger siblings, George and Agnes, now deceased.
The Depression had a lasting impact on Ely, who learned important lessons about money at an early age from his parents.
"I was so proud of my parents because they had a head start. But they lost it all in the Depression," Ely said.
"They taught us how to save," he said.
When he left to serve in the United States Air Force during World War II, Palo Alto only had 13,000 residents, he said.
He came home at age 22 to meet Shirley, a Stanford sophomore from the East Bay, in 1945.
Still in uniform, Ely discovered Shirley in the middle of a football game at Stanford.
"I think he felt sorry for me because some fellow tackled me," she recounted, adding, "I thought he was terribly attractive."
When asked what she studied as an undergraduate at Stanford, she responded matter of factly: "Leonard."
The two married in 1947, and Ely earned his degree in economics from Stanford the next year. He then attended Stanford's Graduate School of Business and quickly became successful selling Chryslers and Plymouths through Ely Motor Company, which he started in 1954. He founded Atherton Lease Company in 1961 and took on a Chevrolet franchise in 1970.
He did not become a doctor like his father and grandfather. Instead, he found his own way to contribute to his community through an intense dedication to philanthropy, which began in his 30s as he observed his friend William Hewlett's generosity.
The abilities he learned from Hewlett, both to ask for money and to give it, became useful when he retired in 1985 to become a full-time philanthropist.
"My grandfather and my father would be very proud of me," Ely said. "I've made my living in a different way and I'm giving in a different way than they did."
"When Leonard is in the room, you know it," said Tony Meier, a 40-year friend of Ely. "He knows everybody and everybody knows Leonard."
A bona fide people person, Ely's affability, sense of humor and unique storytelling skills draw others to him, friends and colleagues say. He maintains an active lifestyle, replete with friends, family and travel.
"He's big and tall and he has a loud voice and sounds assertive, but he's really a very gentle and a kind and uniquely generous man," longtime friend and Palo Alto attorney Leo Ware said.
Ely's friend of 25 years and former Palo Alto High School classmate, Warren Thoits always remembers one representative Ely-ism.
"I kiddingly refer to his saying, 'When they pass the platter, be sure to take a cookie,'" said Thoits, a Palo Alto attorney and developer.
Besides his carpe diem approach to life, Thoits admires Ely's steadfast loyalty and his ability to "to fit himself in with just about any group."
"If you become a friend of Leonard's, you're a friend for life through thick and through thin," he said.
Ely is one who loves making others laugh with his notorious jokes and stories.
"We're always telling stories that we call 'Leonard Ely stories' that are a bit off color," Ware said.
Ely's love of people and willingness to speak his mind have made him both a solid friend and a trustworthy business colleague. Pete Pande, Ely's partner of 45 years in the auto dealership business, said Ely's friendship sustained their working relationship.
"You can argue with him all over the place, but he's always your friend. He doesn't hold grudges or anything," Pande said.
Ely is most himself, however, with wife Shirley by his side.
They share a light-hearted sense of humor and quick wit. They tease each other and finish each other's sentences.
"She will be married to me 60 years in August," Ely bragged, to which she promptly noted, "He said I'd be married to him, not that we'd be married 60 years."
Throughout his life, and particularly since he sold his dealerships in the mid-1980s, he and Shirley have enjoyed each other's company while exploring the world.
They have been joined often by friends and other couples on their vacations, and they have participated in numerous Stanford alumni trips.
"I've been every place," Ely boasted. "The North Pole, South Pole, China, all over Europe."
Even on trips to the far corners of the globe, Ely has specialized in finding a telephone to stay in touch, said Thoits, who has accompanied the Elys on several vacations.
"Leonard's friends at the time said Leonard had never seen a telephone booth he didn't like," he said.
Thoits recalled a trip the two couples took to British Columbia, where Ely walked out to the end of a pier in Vancouver to find a "dilapidated but usable" telephone booth.
"We were at the end of the earth and he found a telephone and had to use it," Thoits said.
The "people person" in Ely has not just provided him with a rich, fulfilling social life. It's made him a powerful philanthropist.
Using his persistence, cleverness and his ability to relate to people, Ely has a way of getting others to write checks.
"He's not bashful about going to people in the community who he thinks have wealth they can part with," Ware said.
Meier recounted one legendary story about Ely's keen ability to ask for money. He visited a couple's home to ask for a large contribution to Stanford. The funds were to endow a position for the head of the music department, which Stanford hoped to fill with "a world-class academician" from Germany.
The couple questioned why the professor had to be a German.
"Leonard looked out the window and replied, 'Well, probably for the same reason that you drive a Mercedes,'" Meier recalled.
Of course, Ely's friends have not been immune to his dogged fundraising quests.
"I often say it's expensive to be a friend of Leonard because he will ask you to give, but never before he has given himself in significant ways," Thoits said.
Ely leads by example, his friends say. Meier called his philanthropy "contagious."
His devotion to community causes has rubbed off on others, both through his own contributions and through his willingness to solicit donations.
"Palo Alto is a better town and Santa Clara County is a better county because of his philanthropic commitments and determination," Ware said.
Ely's philosophy of giving is simple: Do it while you're still alive. Leaving money behind in a will means a person will miss out on the rewards of giving.
"What fun do you get out of that?" Ely asked. "You don't realize how much happiness you can bring to other people with your charity."
"Leonard has said many times that he would rather give with a warm hand than with a cold one," Meier said.
Ely believes that being a philanthropist is an acquired skill, not something people inherently understand.
"It's not something that comes naturally. You've got to learn how to give," Ely said.
With Hewlett-Packard Company founders William Hewlett and David Packard as his mentors, Ely learned the ropes and made giving back to the community a necessary part of his life early on.
"He had a lot of older men whom he really admired who taught him how to save and how to give," Shirley said.
In turn, Ely has also been able to inspire the next generation to follow in his footsteps.
"He passed the torch from his generation of civic responsibility to younger donors," Hero said. "Others came along with him because he was so enthusiastic and persistent."
Ely has observed that today's young people earn their wealth more quickly, particularly in Silicon Valley. He has tried to encourage the younger generation to become philanthropists at an earlier age.
Through his decades-long commitment, Ely set the standard for being a successful philanthropist and, equally important, loving the work, colleagues say.
He doesn't just pick one charity to support for the long term. He diversifies. He's continually learning about new organizations and becoming involved.
"I try to find one that satisfies me," he said.
Two of his current causes involve youth and education: the Boys and Girls Club and the Mid-Peninsula High School in Menlo Park.
Mid-Peninsula is a private high school that gives students a second chance at an education.
"I'm really proud of this school because the guys are washing out and have no place to go and they love the closeness of being in a much smaller environment," Ely said.
The man who speaks his mind is not without commentary about the city and university he has watched develop and change over eight decades.
Having watched homes being built all around his grand, 80-year-old Bryant Street house, Ely is dismayed at the way the city handled its growth.
He recalls how he could play in the streets and fields around the house as a youngster, something not possible today.
"You can see how crowded we are," he said.
"The city councils have not done a good job planning," he continued. "There's only one town worse than Palo Alto and that's Berkeley, California."
Though he ultimately received two degrees from Stanford, Ely felt that growing up near the prestigious university places added pressure on Palo Altans.
"It's always been tough to grow up around here because there are so many smart people," he said.
Observing how Stanford and Palo Alto's relationship has adjusted over the years, Ely misses earlier days when the two entities often worked together as one.
"They don't have the spirit of cooperation and helping each other," he observed. The new soccer fields on El Camino Real and Page Mill Road are an exception that he is delighted to see. Palo Alto is leasing the land from Stanford for $1 a year for 50 years to provide additional playing fields to the city.
He said he wants to help Palo Alto and the university get along better.
Ely's life has not been as easy as it may appear on the surface.
He has overcome serious obstacles in his life, particularly with his health.
"He's had 100 operations; he's had 100 malaises; he's fought and resisted them all," Ware said.
His health problems included suffering a stroke in the mid-1990s and taking a hard fall two years ago that caused a severe head injury.
His verve and tenacity may be what have helped him rebound from surgeries and extended hospitalization, friends and family say.
"There were several times when we didn't think he would be able to come back and be as active as he is now," daughter Pringle said. "It was a pretty devastating injury."
But her father's resilience carried him through even the harshest of physical setbacks.
"I think attitude is the reason he is where he is now," she said. "I think many people would give up at that point and he just didn't."
"I was making reference to him the other night at the Palo Alto Club. I said, 'No one's escaped the Grim Reaper on more occasions than Leonard Ely.' I'm sure he's going to go on. He's remarkable," Ware said.
Ely's determination pervades all he does. Everyone who knows Ely says he always follows his vision and speaks his mind, whether with friends, family, business associates or nonprofit boards.
"He's not a shrinking violet," said Meier, who served on the Palo Alto Medical Foundation board with Ely. "He's kind of a bulldog."
"He'll tell you, whether you like it or not. I've inherited a bit of that," the younger Ely said.
An October article on Ely in Gentry magazine is titled, "Man of Conviction." When Ely and his wife read the headline, he laughed in agreement. "I may be wrong, but I'm not in doubt," he quipped.
Ely's close friends have learned that he is honest, direct -- and a tad stubborn.
"Leonard's not putting you on. He's not setting you up," Ware said. "I've kidded him over the years and said, 'I don't know any person who clings to a concept or a fact that can't be supported better and more charmingly than you.'"
Despite his philanthropic accomplishments and reputation for being outspoken and adamant, when it comes to discussing economic and social disparities facing his community and possible solutions, Ely spoke with humility.
"I don't know everything," he said, "but I have some ideas."
This story contains 2650 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.