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Remembering Tom Jordan

Original post made by Fred Balin, College Terrace, on Feb 7, 2023

Tom Jordan, an environmental attorney, advocate for grassroots organizations that would assume political power, and a mentor and valued resource for dozens of engaged residents during his 50 years in Palo Alto, died last month in Chico, California, his oldest child Amy informed me.

He will be interred in Alta Mesa Memorial Park at a later date.

Below are my remarks of about 10-minutes to the city council on Monday, January 30.

It draws heavily from a 1 hr 50 min fall 2009 interview with Winter Dellenbach and recorded by videographer Andrew Mellon. Thanks to Jesse Norfleet of the Midpen Media Center, it has been transcoded and is now available for viewing in two ways:

1. Via YouTube at Web Link

2. Via broadcast this month on Cable Channel 30:
Sundays at 6:30 pm
Tuesdays at 10:30 am
Saturdays at 1 pm


Thomas Salvatore Jordan, Jr, first generation on his father’s side, the sole child of Thomas Sr and Beatrice, was born in Panama City, Florida on the Gulf of Mexico.

Thomas Sr worked in a paper mill firm, which relocated the family northwest to Spring Hill, Louisiana, near Arkansas when Tom was 5 and at age 12, northeast to Hopewell, Virginia, on the James River, where he became the manager.

Together with his foreman the two shared a love for baseball, and it was a shock for young Tom, when the three went to the ballpark but could not sit together.

But one positive aspect of his early life was that at each location he lived on the edge of nature.

Tom was a smart little guy, his words, and for high school, his parents opted for Randolph-Macom Academy, a prep and military school in the Shenandoah Valley.

He was later accepted to Princeton, where he felt he had catching up to do, set his mind to do it, and as a sophomore was admitted to the university’s elite Woodrow Wilson School, which accepts only 50 students a year.

He was a very smart and hard-working guy. And he had a strong code of ethics.

He was accepted to Harvard Law, but admission was delayed. In Korea, a truce, but not a peace treaty, was in place; military service called. A higher-up noticed he was a varsity tennis player and offered him a cushy post away from potential action. Tom declined, and he served in charge of an artillery regiment in battle positions just south of the demilitarized zone.

After his discharge in Oakland, like so many before him, he saw how beautiful the Bay Area was and wanted to come back. And after completing law school, in 1960, he did.

Tom was hired as a tax lawyer in a large firm and was living in North Beach when lightning struck upon meeting Linda Francis Pfiffner. He took a long hike in the John Muir Woods and upon return, proposed. They soon married and would have four children.

In 1964, he joined three lawyers in a small firm, Hopkins & Carley. The family lived in a pear orchard in San Jose, and Tom’s practice shifted first into real estate law, and then into the developing field of environmental law.

The family moved to Palo Alto in 1965.

As I was informed by Tom’s son, his dad’s firm handled the bail following the arrest of Joan Baez at a peaceful anti-war protest in Oakland in 1967.

Tom volunteered for citizens’ groups advocating for parks and open spaces. Enid Pearson notes there were few lawyers back then willing to support such efforts. Tom and Pete McCloskey were notable exceptions.

Battles could be long-term and uphill. There was no California or national environmental statutes nor codified conflict of interest laws. Elected officials were often not sympathetic.

But in Palo Alto, resident-led lawsuits and referendums had stopped developments in open spaces, and a successful charter amendment would protect parklands designated as dedicated. And the “Establishment” majority on the city council had been trimmed to a single vote, 7 to 6, too close for some of their allies, who attempted to recall the entire council and bring in a more favorable alignment.

It was 1967, Tom Jordan, Mr. Clean, the new guy in town, now President of the Committee for Green Foothills, was asked to lead the opposition. It did not succeed. Only two “Residentialists” would remain.

Tom preferred to frame the fault line through the question: What was most important to residents: Palo Alto as a great place to live and raise a family or Palo Alto as great place to make money?

He would state this matter-of-factly with no animus. His writings, public comments, and conclusions were always knowledgeable, cut to the essence, well-presented and respectful. Potentially persuasive to those willing to listen.

And now, a vignette Tom loved to recount:

The following year at the new council, again representing Green Foothills, he submitted the final speaker card on a hot-button land use issue. As he walked down the aisle to the podium, Mayor Ed Arnold saw Tom coming, looked him straight in the eye, and closed the public hearing. And after the telling, Tom would howl with laughter at the absurdity. “That’s just the way things were,” he would say.

Small steps in a bigger, longer-term struggle. And as Tom, would also say: “You lose, and you lose, and you lose, until you win.”

Tom would actively support the organization over 17 years.

Another Green Foothills member, Barbara Eastman, was also on the board of Save the Bay, and knew “The Three Ladies,” as Tom would refer to Esther Gulick, Kay Kerr, and Sylvia McLaughlin, the organization’s founders and driving force, and Tom joined as vice president and legal counsel.

At that time, Leslie Salt Company had plans to build a city on its holdings on the East Bay. The new Bay Area Conservation and Development Association (BCDC) was then a temporary agency with the power to halt infill, but Leslie Salt claimed that their salt ponds were not subject to its jurisdiction. Save the Bay sued three municipalities over the plans, the state attorney general agreed with the arguments, Tom testified before the State Senate Rules Committee, and salt ponds were specifically added into legislation, signed by Governor Ronald Reagan in 1969, that made BCDC permanent. And as current Save the Bay director David Lewis writes, "It became the model for the Coastal Commission and every similar agency in the world."

In 1972 Tom joined the 5-member board of the Peninsula Conservation Center. They created a library, raised funds to purchase a building on East Bayshore, provided affordable rents to environmental organizations, developed the Environmental Volunteers, who provided hands-on experiential education, and which would become its own free-standing non-profit.

In the ‘80s Tom taught environmental law at San Jose State.

After retiring from his law firm in 1994, then with 50 attorneys, he spent three years with the American Land Conservancy, a non-profit land trust, charged with returning private land to the public. His areas were the Upper Mississippi, Oregon, Lake Tahoe, and Big Sur.

He was also on the boards of Gamble Gardens and the San Jose Symphony.

He also had more time to work on Palo Alto issues with residents.

He was committed to protecting dedicated parkland. He objected when the city allowed the school district to place portable classrooms in Rinconada Park without consent of the voters in 2004 and was validated by the county’s civil grand jury.

And in 2011, on an issue that unfortunately divided the environmental community, he worked against un-dedicating 10 acres of parkland in favor of a potential composting facility.

He pushed back against Stanford in many instances where he felt the city was on the short end. In the Stanford Hospital and Medical Center application process, the largest project in Palo Alto history, he helped bring forth a first-ever financial analysis to quantify the cost of impacts.

He was fiscally cautious and complained about the transfer of utility funds, a precursor to the lawsuit of Miriam Green.

And he objected to unbalanced staff reports. An egregious example he cited was where a project was simply stated as non-compliant and then went on at length about what the council needed to do to approve it.

But his greatest local impact may have been his profound effect on others. David Lewis writes:

"Although he was a generation older than I, or perhaps because of it, Tom was a generous and gentle mentor to me when I started as Save The Bay’s Executive Director 25 years ago and continuing until very recently. He introduced me to colleagues in other organizations and people he thought I could mentor. He called me with observations about policy opportunities and also ways he thought Save The Bay could do better and partner creatively. And he was great about thanking us when we were successful at making change, and for trying hard even when we were unsuccessful. Maybe our shared Palo Alto experience helped, but I know he was generous in that same way with others.

Tom’s wife Linda passed away in 1998. He is survived by daughters Amy, Katie, and Ann and son Tommy. Tom’s second wife Madge passed away in 2016 and is survived by son Mark and daughters Bonney and Hilary.

Thank you.

Comments (3)

Posted by Angelica Volterra
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 7, 2023 at 11:14 pm

Angelica Volterra is a registered user.

Tom Jordan was very, very special. His advocacy on behalf of environmental causes and his wisdom, his integrity, his kindness, and his generosity are an extraordinary and enduring legacy. His memory is cherished by all of us whom he profoundly touched and inspired. We honor and we pay tribute to him with heartfelt gratitude.

Posted by anon1234
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 8, 2023 at 9:09 am

anon1234 is a registered user.

Angelica said it!
Tom was an amazing man…
Smart, warm, funny and committed to truth always doing the right thing. Always caring and helping and lending expert advise…
Did I mention he was charming with a great sense of humor?
Thanks to Fred Balin for reminding us what a great loss we have in his passing

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 8, 2023 at 11:49 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Thank you so much, Fred. He's an inspiration re pushing for the environment and government accountability.

Speaking of his opposition of the transfer of utility funds to the general fund and the Miriam Green lawsuit, when is the city FINALLY going to pay has back the judge-ordered settlement? It's been years and I hope the city will be paying us interest.

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