People: Walt Hays: advocating for the world

Publication Date: Wednesday Apr 8, 1998

People: Walt Hays: advocating for the world

When Walt Hays ran for San Jose City Council in 1969, all he cared about was reversing the course set by the city manager at the time. "San Jose is going to be the Los Angeles of the north," declared then-City Manager Dutch Hammon.

Hays won, and was part of the first group of council members elected to control growth in the sprawling city. At the time, he was also the chair of the Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club. "The issues that were really burning at the time (included) people getting McDonald's hamburger stands in their residential neighborhoods," he said. "You get interested in these things and you want to try to have an impact."

He didn't run for a second term because, "I realized that politics is really hard on your family." Also, he said, "in politics, everybody's issues are your issues."

Nearly 30 years later, it's hard to find something Hays, who is 62, hasn't had an impact on. He and his wife Kay moved to Palo Alto in 1976, attracted by the philosophy behind Creative Initiative (which became Beyond War, and is now the Foundation for Global Community) on High Street.

They remain involved, and this year Hays is co-chairing Palo Alto's Earth Day festivities scheduled for later this month. He is also the president of the Greenmeadow Neighborhood Association, on the board of the Peninsula Conservation Center Foundation, and the board of the Palo Alto Rotary Club.

While he has always kept his hand in community service, his involvement escalated when he retired in 1994 after a career as a civil trial lawyer. "People who are attracted to the law are attracted to advocating something. So, I'm a natural advocate."

This quality has permeated most aspects of Hays' life: from his lobbying to stop global warming, to his work against Stanford's proposed Sand Hill Road housing project.

As a lawyer, he handled "every kind" of litigation, he says, but since retiring he has gravitated toward mediation. "Mediation is a wonderful process. The main thing you do is you listen. You can educate people about their case. It's a much better way to go.

"To me, retirement meant finally having the time to work on issues that I care about," he said. His plate is full now. "If you ask Kay, she might say I have difficulty saying no," he said with a smile. "I keep telling Kay the end of this year will be a turning point."

Walt and Kay met at San Mateo High School, and began dating the summer before they went to Stanford. They have three grown children and three grandchildren.

They love to hike and camp, and introduced their granddaughter to camping when she was only two years old. Their favorite spots are in the Ansel Adams Wilderness near Yosemite, and the Waddell Creek Valley in the Santa Cruz mountains.

The couple also enjoys birding and are taking an adult education class on the subject. Says Kay: "Our hiking has often been 'we've got to get there and keep moving.' The birding slows him down."

"He was always idealistic," Kay said. "He really cares about the quality of life that we have. He moves on things. He doesn't just let them sit."

Hays fought for Measure M, last fall's alternative to the Stanford University-sponsored Measure O--a ballot measure allowing the university to proceed with its Sand Hill Road housing project. "I saw that as a local sustainability issue," he said.

Like his grandfather and namesake, who was an outdoorsman (and whose name graces the Palo Alto elementary school), Hays is passionate about the environment and fighting global warming. He is working with an environmental partnership started by Joint Venture Silicon Valley to encourage incentives for businesses to curb energy consumption and emissions.

His "community" service work extends around the globe, with a trip to Guatemala in January to a Rotary-funded program to help displaced Mayan Indians. He is taking a Spanish course in the hope of one day working on nature conservation in Central America.

For now, his work is in his hometown, where the environment can be much more than nature, he says. "The environment now means trying to preserve a place where life can survive. I don't think of the environment as preserving pretty places . . . but preserving things. I feel a great urgency."

--Elizabeth Lorenz 

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