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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Speaking softly while carrying strong beliefs Speaking softly while carrying strong beliefs (September 18, 2002)

Palo Altan Boyd Smith reflects on a life of giving to others

by Jay Thorwaldson

Boyd Smith's modest office in central Palo Alto gives him windows to his past: large color photos of ranch buildings in a valley framed by dramatic mountains -- his family's ranch in southern Utah where he spent six formative years of his childhood.

Smith returns there both in his thoughts on busy days and in person as often as he can -- he spent parts of summers doing ranch work with his sons when they were young.

But most of his life has been rooted in the Palo Alto area, where he has worked in the worlds of physical labor, academic administration, real-estate development and management, community involvement and philanthropy, and the Mormon religion of his childhood and adult life.

On Sept. 8, Smith stepped down after 9 1/2 years as president of the Mormon stake, similar to a Catholic diocese, consisting of eight wards serving members the communities of Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Stanford, East Palo Alto, Portola Valley, Ladera, Woodside, Redwood City, San Carlos and Belmont.

Smith, 62, was succeeded as stake president by his longtime business partner Richard "Dick" Jacobsen, 59, whose office shares the WSJ Properties building at 3201 Ash St. with Smith's.

"I was released with a vote of thanks," Smith said of the simple transition ceremony held at the Mormon church on Valparaiso Avenue in Menlo Park.

The stake has about 3,500 members, with about 1,200 in Palo Alto alone -- a count that includes children over 8, the "age of accountability" in the church.

As stake president, Smith spent many hours meeting with people, guiding and coaching in his usual soft-spoken demeanor that hundreds of others have come to know through his several decades of community involvement.

He and his wife, Jill, have long been reluctant to say how much they have given to the communities and Stanford over the years, mostly anonymously. Estimates run as high as $15 million to Stanford and another $10 million to community organizations and education.

The Smiths' giving includes two schools (Beechwood and Eastside, serving children in East Palo Alto and the Belle Haven area of Menlo Park). The schools were set up through the California Family Foundation, created with Jacobsen and his wife and the firm's elder business partner, former Palo Alto Mayor Jack Wheatley, now inactive in the firm.

"The community has given us a lot and we've been pleased to give back," Smith said of his and his wife's philanthropy.

But he has also given of his time, bringing his Utah valley drawl to many hours of discussion on boards of organizations such as the Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital Foundation, the Community Foundation of Silicon Valley, the Hoover Institution and, formerly, the Children's Health Council, the Senior Coordinating Council (now Avenidas) and the YMCA.

"One of the great pleasures I've had in serving on boards is how much I've learned," Smith said. He treasures seeing suggestions and ideas -- his and others -- grow and strengthen as they're discussed between board members.

"I often have to change my own ideas -- it's been so rich in that way. It's refreshing, it's exhilarating, it's good for the soul to have that (exchange of ideas) go on," Smith said.

Smith said his primary interest -- and challenge -- of his stake presidency has been the youth of the church and communities.

"We have a very mixed group, representing many nationalities. One of the things I've worked hardest on was to integrate the church," he said, quoting a New Testament passage: "No more foreigners or strangers but fellow citizens in the household of God."

"We have a Spanish-speaking ward in Redwood City; many are immigrants. We have many Polynesians.

"These groups have a hard time seeing or taking advantage of the opportunities of education," he said. "We've had to overcome what's going on in the high schools," he said, citing the case of one youth who announced, "Samoans don't go to class."

Smith said many young people are culturally and socially "disciplined to not go to class -- this is enforced by their peers. So we now have 70 or 80 Stanford kids tutoring students one-on-one."

There are about 150 Stanford students -- undergrads and graduate students -- in a Stanford ward, and another 150 people in a singles group, mostly 25 to 30 years old.

He also takes pride in his efforts to strengthen the family as a foundation of both the church and the community. On the wall of the stake office -- a medium-sized room with a meeting table and no desk -- is a drawing of a young boy looking down sadly at a doll-house-sized "broken home."

Smith saw the drawing in a magazine, located the artist in Arizona, and asked him to draw a larger version, which he has used in counseling couples undergoing difficult times in their relationships.

He becomes thoughtful for a moment when considering disappointments, then:

"There is nothing I could have done that I haven't tried my absolute hardest to do," he said. "Dealing with people is very complex. I think I've done as good a job as Boyd Smith could do.

"I will look back on this as one of the greatest experiences of my life."

One particular disappointment has been the region's inability to cope with its housing problem and high housing costs, he said.

"We have about 70 married students that I have had the opportunity to interview," Smith said. "They love the area, but they can't afford to stay here.

"Not one -- not one -- is planning to stay in this area, due to the cost of housing," he said.

Barring a new call from the church, Smith now returns to his interests with WSJ Associates, founded originally in the 1960s as Wheatley-Jacobsen by Jack Wheatley and the father and uncle of Dick Jacobsen, Smith's present active partner. Smith joined the firm in the early 1970s.

Originally a highly successful real-estate management and development firm riding the early years of the Palo Alto area's real-estate boom, WSJ pulled away from "development" in the mid-1980s.

That may change a bit someday, as WSJ owns the land under and around Fry's Electronics store -- and has been buying up other parcels in the area as they become available to round out the holdings there. Smith has stated publicly that in the long term they'd like to build housing there. But Smith doesn't expect to be personally involved -- the Fry's lease runs to 2015.

But in the mid-1980s, "I think we all made a decision that sort of enough was enough," Smith recalled. "That was when I became interested in community service. We haven't really developed a lot since then.

"We just didn't want to perpetuate the making of money for its own sake. We had plenty and it was sufficient. It wasn't satisfying to me any more, frankly," he said.

A card Smith keeps on his desk carries a 1922 quotation from an early partner of Henry Ford who left that partnership because he "had no particular use" for so much money. Smith has added his own thought: "You can never get enough of what you do not need because what you do not need does not satisfy."

His philanthropy was encouraged by the late Ben Swig, a San Francisco developer, who once told him: "You know, as much fun as I've had making my money, I'm having more fun giving it away," Smith recalls.

He said he and Jill have preferred anonymity in their giving because (while recognition is fine for others) they would be "embarrassed to be in a situation of, 'No sooner done than said.'

"It also keeps me from getting a swelled head," he said.

Smith was born in 1940 in Oakland, where his father, Boyd Carpenter Smith, and mother, Irma Lloyd Smith, moved so his father could attend college.

Then came World War II. Smith recalls at age 2 being held by his crying mother and seeing his father waving up from a pier crowded with other soldiers boarding a troop ship for an unknown destination -- China for three years.

After the war, the young family returned to the family ranch, and Smith spent from fifth grade through his third year of high school in Utah, regularly doing ranch work with his father.

The family then returned to the Bay Area, settling in Palo Alto, where, in his senior year at Palo Alto High School, "my main interest was Jill Johnson," a junior, Smith said.

He also found time for track and basketball. After graduation he left for the University of Utah, where he began studying pre-med but ended in economics. Jill enrolled there the following year -- and Smith drove her to Salt Lake City in a 1940 Chevrolet that, he vows, mechanics advised should not exceed 40 miles per hour.

They were married the following year and completed their studies as married students.

Smith next enrolled in the Stanford Business School, and the couple rented a house in Palo Alto for $75 a month. He worked as a warehouseman, playground instructor and a PG&E lineman, hand-scrubbing insulators on high towers.

He later worked for the business school as assistant director of the International Center for the Advancement of Management Education (ICAME), which trained faculty in developing countries. His job, at 24, was to travel -- mostly in India and Africa -- to interview applicants who were often more than twice his age.

"It was a defining moment," he said of the first six-week tour. "I came back from that trip with a much deeper appreciation for what I had." A key discovery was that such things as having pasteurized milk and paved streets were not accidental.

"I was standing on the shoulders of all the people who had gone before me, who created all this and handed it to me as a gift," he said.

Many young Mormons doing overseas missionary work have similar epiphanies, he said.

Back home, he became assistant manager and later manager of real estate for Stanford, during the "sad and disappointing" years of protests and riots on campus in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Smith then joined the WSJ partnership in time to catch the Bay Area's real-estate boom.

Meanwhile, the Smiths had enlarged their family. They have five children: Katie, Christena, Charlotte, Boyd Carpenter and Lund; and nine grandchildren.

With so many mouths to feed, he and Jill were not always able to contribute financially to the community.

"For the first 20 years of our marriage, we were on a very strict budget," he recalled. Early on, a friend, Dick Peery, gave Smith a book that contained a moral: "Part of what you earn is yours to keep." So they set up their first savings budget: $5 per month.

"We controlled every dollar. I never carried any cash," Smith said. But one holiday they passed a Salvation Army bell ringer "and we realized we had nothing to give." The couple added a "giving category" to their budget, initially $1 per month.

"That's really where it started," he said of their tradition of giving. "It may sound a bit corny, but it's true." Jay Thorwaldson is editor of the Weekly. He can be e-mailed at [email protected]


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