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Los Altans of the Year: Jack and Norma Melchor

Photo Joe Hu/Town CrierJack and Norma Melchor

LAH goodwill builders benefit hospital, community in quiet but powerful ways

Thanks in large part to the one-two combination of Jack and Norma Melchor, El Camino Hospital is one of the outstanding community assets of the Los Altos area. Its status as a leading health-care institution would be far less than it is without the significant contributions of these revered Los Altos Hills residents.

Together, the Melchors have played key roles in ensuring the hospital remains financially healthy, through large donations of their own money in addition to volunteering their time.

Norma, 83, a former nurse, began helping the hospital before it even had a building, volunteering for the El Camino Hospital Auxiliary in 1957. She served on the hospital’s board of directors in the 1970s and 1980s.

Jack, 82, a high-tech pioneer and renowned venture capitalist, founded the El Camino Hospital Foundation in 1982 with a $1 million contribution. His involvement drew significant contributions from friends and peers David and Lucile Packard, Burton and Deedee McMurtry, and Gordon and Betty Moore.

Because their involvement has been vital to the hospital’s solid reputation with its consistently high health-care rankings, the Town Crier has named the Melchors Los Altans of the Year for 2007. The Town Crier awards its annual honor to residents whose efforts generate good will in and beyond the communities they serve.

“Norma and Jack Melchor have been consistent, staunch supporters of El Camino Hospital for nearly 50 years, from the moment plans were put in place to build a community hospital,” said Jon Friedenberg, president of the hospital’s foundation and vice president of the hospital. “Their impact on the hospital can’t be overstated. There isn’t anyone who’s had a greater impact, period. They’re Mr. and Mrs. El Camino.”

 

Recent honors

The Town Crier recognition is the latest in a series of honors the Melchors have received. On Nov. 16, the Association of Fundraising Professionals named the couple, Distinguished Volunteer Fundraisers. On Oct. 11, Pathways Home Health, Hospice & Private Duty honored the Melchors with the 2007 Frances C. Arrillaga Humanitarian Award for their contributions to the Pathways Hospice Foundation.

Earlier in the year, the El Camino Hospital Foundation held its 25th anniversary gala, with the Melchors as featured guests. In 2006 the Melchor Pavilion, site of a new cancer center, was dedicated in their honor. The Melchors donated the land on which the 66,000-square-foot structure was built.

The Los Altans of the Year award is “a long-overdue choice,” said Los Altos Hills resident Bill Krause, a longtime friend and business associate. “Jack and Norma have worked behind the scenes for 40 or 50 years. Jack is one of the seminal figures in Silicon Valley.”

The humble couple take their honors in stride, and even seem puzzled as to what all the fuss is about.

“I was shocked,” Norma said, recalling her response after Jack told her that the hospital had named a building in their honor.

And despite starting the hospital foundation, Jack observed, “I don’t think I contributed very much to it.”

But those intimately involved in the hospital see it differently. It was Jack who responded to then-CEO Neilson Buchanan’s request to get a foundation started in the wake of declining Medicare reimbursements.

Jack organized a breakfast meeting to attract potential donors. He asked David Packard to be a guest speaker. Packard took Jack aside at the breakfast and pledged $1 million. So did fellow entrepreneur/pioneer Burt McMurtry and his wife, Deedee. With Jack serving as the first chairman of the foundation’s board of governors, the hospital foundation was off to a strong start. Jack served on the 20-member foundation board for nine years.

Under Jack’s leadership, the hospital’s fundraising arm recruited a strong board of governors, hired staff and raised additional significant donations from prominent community members. Along the way, the Melchors contributed regularly to the foundation.

“Some people think (it’s for) buildings – it’s not,” Norma said of the foundation’s purpose, which is primarily to support quality heath care and provide services for economically disadvantaged patients.

Norma has been a firm believer in providing health care for all, regardless of their ability to pay.

“Never have they (El Camino) lost the fact that heath care should be for every individual,” she said.

First elected to the hospital’s five-member board of directors in 1974, Norma described her participation as low-key, but she took firm stances on issues she felt were important. When hospital leaders considered closing the emergency room on weekends to save money, she was adamant that it remain open. It did.

She also advocated patients’ right to privacy and pushed for private rooms. She’s excited that the new 450,000-square-foot main hospital building currently under construction will offer mostly private rooms.

Norma served four four-year terms on the board.

She did what was needed to help at the hospital. As part of the El Camino Hospital Auxiliary, she set up the reception and information desk and conducted tours of the hospital when its doors opened in 1961. She led the organization, serving as chairwoman of training in 1961, vice president and chairwoman of services in 1962 and president in 1963. She also co-led a citizens’ committee to promote a second bond issue to build the sixth-floor tower.

Many years later, when the hospital foundation launched its Imagine Campaign to raise funds in 2005, Norma again agreed to lead the effort.

 

Venturing with Jack

As well as Norma is known for her deep commitment to El Camino Hospital and health-care issues, Jack enjoys a legendary reputation as a high-tech innovator, entrepreneur and venture capitalist.

The Mooresville, N.C., native headed West in 1953 with bachelor and master’s degrees from the University of North Carolina and a doctorate in physics from the University of Notre Dame when he got a job at Sylvania Electronic Defense Labs in Mountain View. Just three years later, he formed Melabs.

He obtained six patents in the field of microwave technology and authored several technical papers. By 1959, he was already financially secure enough to retire – for the first time, anyway. It was the first of four such retirements. In 1961, he founded Hewlett-Packard Associates, which worked on developing light-emitting diodes (LED) so pervasive today.

“Jack was so early in (LEDs) – the company he started as a joint venture with Hewlett-Packard was focusing on exactly that,” Burt McMurtry said. “He’s been a fabulous pioneer in this valley in more ways than one.”

Later, Jack was a manager in Hewlett-Packard’s Palo Alto division. While at HP, he oversaw development of the first computer marketed under $10,000. He retired again in 1969 after experiencing health problems.

But Jack was soon back at it. He went into providing venture capital for new companies, founding such firms as Palo Alto Investment Company (with McMurtry), Page Mill Partners and Melchor Venture Management. He took chances on startups like 3Com, Triad Systems and Rolm, in which he invested $100,000. Rolm produced the first digital telephone system.

“I learned more about business (from Jack) than from anybody,” McMurtry said. “He was the best mentor I had – totally delightful, exceptionally bright, very insightful and straight-forward, uncomplicated. He was very tough-minded but also completely fair. And he never, ever remotely thought about cutting corners.”

Jack also invested in real estate, at one time owning close to a dozen properties in downtown Los Altos before eventually selling them off.

In 1981, he co-founded Osborne Computer Corporation, which developed the first commercially successful portable personal computer. He gave a talk about the Osborne at the Computer History Museum in 2004.

Krause, one of the founders of 3Com, noted that Jack pioneered an area of investing called side funds. Such funds gave entrepreneurs an opportunity to invest in promising startups while offering these startups access to a core group of successful entrepreneurs – “high-level talent” that could be called on to increase chances of profitability.

And that talent was high-level indeed: Jack’s investing friends included, among others, Bob Noyce, co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel Corp., and a pioneer in the development of the integrated circuit; and Kenneth Oshman, a co-founder of Rolm Corp.

Krause said Jack held off-site meetings and workshops to help entrepreneurs with challenges such as how to build on their first $1 million in sales.

Fred Gibbons of Los Altos Hills, a founder of Software Publishing Corp., received a Melchor investment to start his company in the late 1970s. He recalled hearing about Jack “running an investment poker club” out of a little office on State Street in downtown Los Altos, where Beausejour Restaurant sits today.

The office had no desk and “this funky, old, beat-up parlor chair,” Gibbons recalled, as he made his pitch. Gibbons said Jack and a few of his investment partners put in $25,000 each.

“He held our feet to the fire for profitability,” Gibbons said. “His famous expression was ‘No excuses.’”

“He was the quintessential hard-headed businessman but a soft-hearted people person,” Krause said.

“He genuinely cared about developing people,” Gibbons said. “It (the product) had to be built by the people running it (the company).”

Jack retired again in 1980 before being approached by the British and Japanese governments to start venture operations. He worked for the British government for a pound a year, and set up the Portola Fund, which he closed when he retired a fourth and final time in 1990.

Since then, it’s been philanthropy and traveling for Jack and Norma.

 

Family first

Through it all, the Melchors raised four children and proved to excel at parenting, also.

“They were wonderful parents,” said son Greg, who now lives in Chicago. “They were always there for you.”

Looking for a small-town atmosphere, the Melchors first settled in Los Altos before moving to their present home in Los Altos Hills in 1963. Their first home was in a neighborhood w

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