Midtown History: Ellen and Tom Wyman
Written by Annette Ashton

Tom came to Palo Alto in '36 from a mining and moonshine hill mining camp in Tennessee. Their house was the only one around that had indoor plumbing so that when friends came to visit a trip to the bathroom was the first order of priority. After his father died, his mother felt that California would be a great place to bring up two "wild Indians', since she had once spent a winter here. After a brief stay at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, they came to Palo Alto. His mother - Dorothy Wyman was very popular in local theatre playing character parts - but that's another story.

Tom went to grade school at Walter Hays and was in the first class that graduated from Jordan. He reminisces about the days when Midtown was just a mud field - not pretty but great to fly model airplanes.

Photo by Sharon Fox
The Mayfield theatre was packed on Saturday afternoons, where you could see a cowboy movie, a short, the news, a cartoon, and a serial - all for 10 cents!

From Palo Alto High, most of his classmates went right into the military. Tom had just turned 16 and went on to San Jose State. After 2 years, Tom joined the U.S. Navy and toured the Pacific on the Lexington. While at sea, his mother filled out the forms for Tom to attend Stanford, which he did in the fall of '46, majoring in mining engineering and geology. After working in a couple of mines, he decided that wasn't a great career; so he joined Chevron, retiring after 42 years. In Taft, Tom lived in a bunkhouse with the guys, and ate at the cookhouse. Life there was so "good" that some of old timers retired and lived in the bunkhouse.

Ellen got her start in Illinois, and majored in liberal arts at the University of Illinois. Next, she moved to Chicago to work in opinion research. She came out to California to visit her college roommate, who married a man who worked in the oil fields with Tom. After they married, they lived in Bakersfield. Ellen taught business at the junior college and ran the placement bureau. She kept one step ahead of her students, since she never had taken a business course. She remembers the long weekend when she learned the international monetary fund.

Tom and Ellen enjoyed long weekends camping, sailing and enjoying many outdoor activities. After 5 years, they moved to Alaska in '58/9 just after Alaska had become a state; they voted in the first election! Ellen taught high school English and History. Ellen's business background and education dazzled the local folks; she was recruited to join the League of Woman Voters (LWV). Fascinating times - the League worked on such issues as how to organize Alaska into counties or bureaus.

After almost 2 years, they moved to San Francisco to a marina apartment with a stunning view of the Golden Gate. The issue that got Ellen involved again with the LWV was a non-partisan voters guide that was lauded by the Christian Science Monitor (the WSJ of the day.) Ellen took it on herself to distribute tens of thousands of copies. Her method was to go to the largest SF companies (Crown Zellerback, March McLennan Insurance) demanded to talk with the CEO, and then convinced him to distribute these pamphlets to his employees. It did not occur to Ellen that this was unusual; she says it shows that one person can do a lot if they want to.

Ellen and Tom moved back to Palo Alto in '64 to raise their children, a son and a daughter. The time was right after the Oregon Expressway decision and just before the council recall. They co-managed Byron Sher's campaign for re-election. In those days, there were slates of candidates; a big force was ABC (Association for a Balanced Community). Ellen was very active, training ABC precinct workers 3-4 nights a week at her home, and using skills from her market opinion research training. In those days, precinct walkers knocked on doors and talked passionately about issues. For city council elections, ABC interviewed candidates and asked tough questions before endorsement. After this grilling, the precinct workers were fired up about their candidates and were very convincing when they knocked on doors.

The next big issue in Palo Alto was when the Palo Alto Medical Clinic (PAMC) wanted to build a downtown hospital. People were stunned when they realized the height planned was 18 stories in an area of one story homes. Tom designed a set of wooden blocks, used by precinct walkers, which dramatically demonstrated the relative heights of the proposed hospital, city hall, and the one story homes. When a physician complained to Tom that the blocks were not accurate, Tom said "you may be a great doctor, but a bad engineer" since he had designed them using the building's architectural plans. Ellen was the precinct chair and covered the town with flyers, including a last minute one to refute incorrect information from PAMC. Years later, Dr Jamplis (PAMC CEO) told Ellen that in hindsight, it was better that the hospital was not built.

It was an era of activism; there were no computers or TVs. Most women remained at home with their children. People were concerned about how the town would develop and about the future for their kids. Constantly issues were coming up and the town was growing. The LWV was very strong in those days. Ellen was again on the board. When there was discussion of moving the Carnegie library (on the current city hall site), the League urged the city to establish two libraries - one at the current location of Main and the other south of Oregon. The city manager wanted his own analysis; his blue ribbon committee's plan was a carbon copy of the League's.

In the late 80s, citizens were concerned about the growth and development in Palo Alto. Ellen was part of a group that petitioned the City Council and the Planning & Transportation Commission to place a percent limit of growth downtown. The City took steps to adopt a policy and place a development cap in the inner core of downtown. This cap is still in effect.

As a change of pace, Ellen joined the Friends of the Palo Alto Library (FOPAL) and served as President. Many years later Tom and Ellen discovered that Tom's mother was involved in forming the FOPAL and was the membership chair. Tom and Ellen both got involved with the FOPAL book sales. When they started the book sale was making about $1000-1200/ month; when they left it was up to $10,000 a month! It was so satisfying doing this work that benefited the community in many ways - a place to drop off books, less books sent to the landfill, money raised for libraries. Tom wrote the "Palo Alto and Its Libraries, a Long Time Love Affair" in 1999. Also in that year, Ellen was influential in establishing a Library Advisory Commission, and Tom became its first Chair. Their first step was to write a "New Library Plan" which was adopted by the council and recommended two resource libraries in addition to branch libraries. This led to a bond measure that failed; Ellen feels it was due to the desire to build in dedicated parkland and an imposing size.

Looking to the future of libraries, Tom would love to see an improved Mitchell Park Library. His vision is for Palo Altans to come together, take $1.5 million slated for repairs and float a small bond issue of $7.5 - 10 million "to give the residents the library they expect and deserve." Ellen replies that Palo Alto has grown up with several libraries; it is a part of the fabric of our community. One full service library is not there. Residents are happy with convenience in neighborhood libraries. Tom is very active in writing about famous folks (stay tuned for a byline in this news from Tom) for the Stanford Historical Society, He is involved in the Palo Alto Historical Society (president for 3 years) and is on the Board of Directors of the Palo Alto History Museum (working to make the museum a reality.)

Tom and Ellen both share a love of California "Arts and Craft" ceramic tile from 1910-35. Their home is adorned with examples of tile. They collect, use, and frame tiles in a passive way. In 2001, Tom and Ellen were awarded the City of Palo Alto Community Star Award. Most recently, Tom and Ellen were honored with the Avenidas Lifetime of Achievement Award for their many years of community service.

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