Walter Hays, a prominent Palo Alto resident, environmental champion and individual who set a standard for volunteerism, died on Jan. 25, his son, Walter Thomas Hays, said.
Hays, 87, died of congestive heart failure at The Sequoias in Portola Valley. Hays and his wife, Katharine (Kay), had made the retirement community their home for the past six years, his son said.
A retired civil trial attorney who practiced for 32 years until 1994, Hays was a son of the Midpeninsula, attending San Mateo High School, Stanford University and Stanford Law School.
A summer opportunity to chase butterflies when he was about 10 years old at Rancho del Osos, which is now part of Big Basin Redwoods State Park, inspired his lifelong love of nature and environmental advocacy, he said during a 2008 Weekly interview when he was honored with an Avenidas Lifetime of Achievement Award for his decades of public service.
The rancho was the family retreat of Theodore Hoover, the brother of President Herbert Hoover, and Hays played there with the Hoovers’ children, he said.
After graduating from Stanford Law, Hays worked briefly in San Francisco in the early 1960s. He moved to San Jose to further his career and led civic projects, headed the Sierra Club’s Loma Prieta chapter and served as a San Jose City Council member from 1969 to 1973, where his main focus was to protect the area from urban sprawl. He moved to Palo Alto in 1976. (Walter Hays Elementary School and Walter Hays Drive are named for his grandfather, who was a Presbyterian minister and president of the school board, his son said.)
Hays’ volunteerism and advocacy was only getting started. From 1976 to 1980, he was volunteer counsel for the California Solar Energy Industry Association. He planned a sustainable-building tour for Earth Day two decades later in collaboration with the energy association and other organizations.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, he taught city leaders about sustainability in a three-pronged approach: the environment, economy and equity. Civic leaders who emerged from those teachings with that ethos included past Mayor Jim Burch, former City Manager Frank Benest and former Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison, he said in 2008.
Hays also developed relationships with East Palo Alto residents, which influenced his social views and politics.
“People’s needs were not being met, and government should do more to help,” he said at the time.
Hays was involved with a voluminous number of organizations. He collaborated for 30 years with other Palo Altans in the Creative Initiative Foundation, Beyond War and the Foundation for Global Community to promote peace.
He was devoted to the work of the Peninsula Conservation Center Foundation, volunteering his legal expertise to guide the merger of the Foundation and Bay Area Action, which became Acterra in 2000. He served in multiple roles at the nonprofit over the years, including board member, board president, project leader, grant writer and pro bono legal consultant.
He also avidly took on more grassroots tasks: cleaning creeks and restoring habitats. He was a tireless supporter of local projects, such as sustainable building at Hidden Villa, judging a pollution-prevention award program, planting trees and constructing housing for Habitat for Humanity with Gunn High School students.
Hays also believed strongly in the power of instilling environmental values in youth. He organized “Green Teams” in Palo Alto schools and installed photovoltaic cells on Escondido Elementary School and served with Environmental Volunteers.
In Palo Alto, Hays was involved in civic affairs as the co-chair of the Zero Waste Task Force and chair of then-Palo Alto Mayor Judy Kleinberg’s Green Ribbon Task Force, which recommended ways the city should address global warming.
Former Palo Alto Mayor Peter Drekmeier worked with Hays for decades on numerous campaigns, including the Stanford University Development Plan’s Sand Hill Corridor initiative in 1997 to add more housing in a 46-acre field near San Francisquito Creek, which Drekmeier and Hays tried to get moved from the so-called “Ohlone” Field to the campus side of El Camino Real, and the 2006 Santa Clara County Land Conservation Initiative. They also worked on trying to secure Stanford’s open space in perpetuity. The Stanford General Use Permit preserves the foothills for 25 years (it will expire in 2025).
While they weren’t successful in these endeavors, Hays and Drekmeier collaborated on Measure E, which voters approved to set aside 10 acres in the Palo Alto Baylands for a future biologic conversion waste facility.
“Whenever I saw Walt, he wanted to know what was happening” with the conversion facility, Drekmeier said.
“I said, ‘Aren’t you supposed to be relaxing and retired?’ Walt wrote the petition for it and collected the second-most signatures. Nothing was beneath him and nothing was above him. He did it all,” Drekmeier said.
“Walt was known and loved by everyone. He was really loved by everyone. His shoes are too big to fill. He did so many things for so many years. He did things that are now part of Palo Alto culture,” Drekmeier said, noting that anyone who runs for political office in the city wouldn’t think of not including sustainability in their platform.
“We have Walt to thank for that,” he said.
Hays was gentle but strong and forceful, Drekmeier said.
“He always believed that reason would prevail,” he said.
Hays also served as president of the Palo Alto Rotary Club. Rotary member Julie Jerome recalled his far-reaching influence and vision within the organization. He chaired the Rotary’s World Community Service Committee, which worked on world service projects in foreign countries, such as creating village banking and reforestation in Honduras, biointensive agriculture in Kenya and polio eradication in Ghana.
In the mid-’90s, he directed World Community Service work for 58 Rotary Clubs, which earned him a Rotary Club award for outstanding leadership in June 1998.
“When they announced on Monday (Jan. 30) during our meeting that he had died, the number of people who signed the card for Kay was more than there was space on it,” she said.
So many people stood up to offer donations and to volunteer in his honor that the Rotary had to stop the offers portion of the meeting for continuance next week.
“He was so revered,” Jerome said. “It shows how remarkable he was.”
As a father, he passed on his love for the environment to his children, his son said. Hays encouraged his two sons and daughter to do all kinds of activities and they have carried forward his legacy of volunteerism.
“He had a strong and long-lasting love and care for the environment that showed itself through his work. He passed that love to his children,” his son said.
But he also practiced his environmentalism on a fundamental level: “He would pick up extra leaves for composting from the street,” he said.
His father’s greatest legacy “is the example he set for service and how generous he was with his time,” his son said.
“He was a generous, dedicated and selfless father; he was absolutely a wonderful person,” he said.
Hays did not forget the land he had first fallen in love with when he chased butterflies, his son said. For the last 10 to 15 years, he was involved with the visitors’ center at Rancho del Oso and was on the Big Basin Redwoods State Park board.
His efforts to educate people about the environment and sustainability continued up to two days before he died, his son said.
“He wanted me to connect with someone to talk about carbon capture” to speak at The Sequoias.
Hays summed up his philosophy of giving during his 2008 interview.
“If civilization is to continue, we need people to volunteer,” he said. “The best thing to avoid being discouraged about something is to do something about it.”
Hays is survived by his wife, Katharine; daughter, Laura Hays; sons Walter and Stephen Hays; three grandchildren, Jordan and Oliver Hays and Linnea Zulch, and a great-grandchild, Roman Chase-Hays.
Plans for a memorial are pending.