Stephen Player | September 3, 2021 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


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Palo Alto Weekly

- September 3, 2021

Stephen Player

He lent his legal expertise to help launch startup nonprofits

by By Lloyd Lee

From the get-go as a fresh law school graduate, Palo Alto attorney Stephen Player spent much of his 30-year career lending his skills to help local nonprofits get off the ground all while working full-time representing some of Silicon Valley's biggest tech names.

Player was among those who helped form the Senior Coordinating Council of Palo Alto, which later became Avenidas. He also assisted with the launch of Center for a New Generation, an afterschool enrichment program in East Palo Alto, and Foundation for a College Education, which helps students in underrepresented communities pursue college.

Looking back on his accomplishments, Player, now 80, describes his life trajectory as a series of serendipitous moments, with one thing unexpectedly leading to another.

"It was just kind of a series of decisions, or non-decisions, that helped me through my career," he said.

From day one, Player said, his career as a lawyer started with a stroke of good luck. After graduating from Stanford University and University of California, Hastings College of the Law, Player said he took a gap year in England. When he returned to the United States, Player struggled for a few months to find a job. His prospects finally changed in 1967 when his former wife's uncle introduced Player to a close friend named Nathan Finch, who ran a small law firm in Palo Alto.

When the two met, Finch told Player, "Hey, we just terminated a lawyer. I happen to have an empty office; here's a pad of paper and pen."

At the time, Player didn't know much about Finch or whom the firm represented. He was mostly happy for the opportunity to work as a lawyer in the Bay Area. Finch, it turned out, was David Packard and Bill Hewlett's personal lawyer, and the firm also performed corporate work for the tech company.

This association with HP led to the beginning of Player's foray into the nonprofit sector. Player said Packard approached the firm with a request from fellow Stanford University alum John Gardner — who at the time was serving as secretary of health, education and welfare in the Lyndon Johnson administration — to help establish a local chapter of the nonprofit Urban Coalition.

The national program aimed to bring together leaders from businesses, local government and civil rights organizations to spearhead solutions to race and poverty issues following the 1967 Detroit riot, which spurred riots nationwide.

"Since we were (Packard's) lawyers, we got involved with setting up the local chapter," Player said.

His job involved a lot of the grunt work necessary to establish a nonprofit organization: filing papers with the IRS to get a tax exemption, writing the articles of incorporation and by-laws, and offering legal consultation pro bono.

"It was a wonderful opportunity to really deal with some real life issues, and Urban Coalition was right on top of things," Player said.

Player's involvement with the Urban Coalition opened the floodgates for what would amount to several decades of volunteer legal work for nonprofits and a seat on more than a dozen nonprofit boards, including the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, Palo Alto Recreation Foundation and Palo Alto YMCA.

He was approached to help start Foundation for a College Education, a nonprofit by Christopher Roe and Glenn Singleton, who were interested in helping minority high school students get into college. He also was tapped by John Wesley Rice, the father of former U.S.Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to help start Center for a New Generation in 1991. The organization now operates as an extension of the Boys & Girls Club.

In his sole practice as a general business and real estate lawyer after he left Finch's law firm, Player became known as a friendly neighborhood lawyer, settling disputes between Palo Alto residents and the city. If a resident's fence was too high or their home was too close to someone else's, for example, Player said he would often step in as a mediator to help both sides come to terms amicably.

"The thing about law — sometimes it's about beating the other person," he said. "I was never that way. I always felt there had to be a meeting point somewhere."

In his 60s, Player's career took another unexpected turn.

While serving on the board of the Midpeninsula Hospice Foundation, which later became Pathways, Player called his friend Howie Pearson, Stanford's current senior philanthropic adviser and development legal counsel, to ask him to give a talk about planned giving and how to raise endowments.

And in tune with Player's serendipitous world, when he called to confirm Pearson's appointment, Pearson's administrative assistant asked if Player would be willing to take a half-time job as the university's planned giving officer.

"I said, sure. ... That's why I talk about serendipity," he said.

Player lives in his longtime residence in the Leland Manor neighborhood with his wife, Nancy Player, who has been involved in much of his volunteer work since the '80s. Currently, Player's on a committee trying to get the Palo Alto History Museum off the ground and raise money.

"I was really blessed as a young lawyer to have a chance to meet all these people," he said. "As I get older, I look back and think, 'I was a lucky son of a gun.'"

Email Staff Writer Lloyd Lee at [email protected]

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