Los Altans of the Year Penny and Roy Lave pose for this 2013 Town Crier portrait outside the Community House, headquarters for the Los Altos community foundation Roy started 30 years ago. Both served eight years on the Los Altos City Council, including two terms each as mayor.

Love of Los Altos drives longtime commitment to volunteering, civic service

When it comes to community involvement, few can match the investment of longtime Los Altos residents Penny and Roy Lave.

They have the distinction of being the only husband and wife to have each served two terms on the city council, including two stints each as mayor. But their service in public office only scratches the surface.

For more than 50 years, this power couple has been “striving for community” – their inscription on a commemorative tile at Veterans Community Plaza.

The Laves’ mark on Los Altos is deep, varied and sustained. There is a Los Altos Mountain View Community Foundation, a Redwood Grove preserve and a community theater, thanks in large part to Roy’s efforts.

There is a Los Altos leadership program, run through the foundation, thanks to Penny’s desire for an outlet where residents could learn how to get involved.

Live community theater thrives, more than 25 years after the Laves gave their support to preserve a small theater that otherwise would have closed.

It was Penny and Roy who came up with the Los Altos Follies as a fundraising mechanism to ensure the survival of what is now the Los Altos Stage Company.

Although their council work is long behind them, Penny and Roy continue to tune in to council meetings – every single one of them – because they remain intensely interested in what is going on in the community they have played a major role in building.

“Both Roy and Penny have been highly attuned to the goings-on in the city of Los Altos since the moment they’ve lived here,” said former council member and longtime friend Jane Reed. “They have always been interested in supporting and making our Los Altos community the best that it could be. They both deserve to be recognized and honored for working as a team in building a strong sense of community.”

For their numerous efforts and achievements, and relentless spirit of volunteerism, the Town Crier has named the Laves the 2021 Los Altans of the Year. Fashioned after Time Magazine’s annual Person of the Year, the Town Crier’s recognition honors those whose community-building efforts have contributed goodwill and enhanced Los Altos’ reputation as a quality place to live.

Doing what comes naturally

For Penny and Roy, volunteering wasn’t a learned behavior – it was simply the natural thing to do. Their parents were active in their communities – Penny from Lansing, Mich., Roy from Homewood, Ill. The two met in 1958 at a student government convention while attending the University of Michigan. Roy was pursuing master’s degrees in business and engineering, and Penny a degree in social studies. It may not have been love at first sight, but they were immediately attracted to one another.

“He was very connected with people on campus,” Penny said of Roy.

By the time they finished college, the two were inseparable. After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1959, the Laves married in 1960. Roy accepted a fellowship to pursue a doctorate at Stanford University, prompting their move out west. By 1964, they had found the community in which they would spend the rest of their lives – Los Altos.

“It was what we could afford,” Penny said of the one-time middle-class suburb. “We couldn’t afford Palo Alto.”

Their initial years in town were spent building a business and raising a family – the Laves have two children, Julia and Reynolds.

After earning his doctorate from Stanford in operations research and industrial engineering, Roy taught there for 10 years as a professor in the industrial engineering department.

Penny worked as a research assistant at Stanford from 1960 to 1964. Roy co-founded Systan Inc. in 1966, a management consulting company. Penny started a monogram business with her sister called The Initial Stitch, which they ran for 16 years.

Feeling the influence of his father-in-law, who had 50 years of perfect attendance at his local Rotary Club, Roy joined the Rotary Club of Los Altos in the early 1970s. But the seeds of real community involvement were sown in 1973, when local Jesuits were looking to sell land near where the Laves lived to a developer that planned to build townhouses. Roy and others rose up in opposition, and he was encouraged to run for city council.

Campaigning was different in those days.

“A lot of homemade signs, homemade buttons, one-page fliers,” he recalled. “Very unsophisticated.”

Nonetheless, Roy was elected to the council in 1974, the first of his two four-year terms. He served on the council until 1982, including two consecutive years as mayor, from 1976 to 1978.

It was a time when open-space preservation was top of mind. The voter-approved Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District had just been founded, in 1972. The city of Los Altos floated a park bond, which residents rejected. However, Roy and fellow council member Ruth Koehler led an effort to buy the University Avenue property that became Redwood Grove – a 6.12-acre nature preserve within walking distance of downtown. Also under his watch, the city purchased land for Heritage Oaks Park.

As for the Jesuits? A portion of their land was sold and developed, but most of it was preserved in perpetuity. The sale allowed the Jesuits to stay, while surrounding residents enjoyed open space.

Another crucial decision in which Roy played a part occurred in 1975, when the city purchased the 8-acre Hillview School site from the Los Altos School District and later converted it into a community center. The opening last October of the new $38.3 million community center, replacing the dilapidated old school facilities, was only possible because of Roy and the council’s decision 46 years ago to purchase Hillview for $433,000.

Penny volunteered on the Planning Commission for several years before running for council. She served on the council from 1985 to 1993, and led as mayor in 1989 and 1993.

During her time on the council, the city added the council chambers and reconfigured the intersection of Main and State streets, with the Rotary Club funding a new community plaza. Main Street was resurfaced, even as a group of merchants sued to stop the work.

“The Planning Commission has set rules, things you could do and can’t do – I always liked that better than the council, which is so political,” Penny said. “I didn’t really want to run (for council), but they talked me into it.”

“Penny came on with a depth of understanding of government,” said Arne Croce, who served as Los Altos city manager in the 1980s while Penny was on the council. He called her “a constructive, positive member of the city council.”

In 1990, Croce and Penny partnered to lead a movement to establish the Cities Association of Santa Clara County, which gave the county’s cities equal representation with San Jose and the county. Penny later served as chairperson of the organization.

Penny and Roy served during a time of strong cooperation between council members and city staff. The Laves and other council members interacted socially with staff, holding parties and other special events. Local government took on a kind of family atmosphere – something not present in today’s environment.

“We’ve lost something,” Penny lamented.

Resume of volunteerism

Outside city work, the Laves established a long resume of activism through various organizations.

Like her mother, Penny was heavily involved in the Junior League. She served for years on the Junior League of the Mid-Peninsula, including as president. Two major nonprofit groups got their starts through the Junior League: the Los Altos Art Docents and Music for Minors.

Penny also served as president of the Los Altos Chamber of Commerce and was involved in the Girls Club of the Midpeninsula, Friends of Scholar Opera, Friends of Hidden Villa, the Foothill President’s Advisory Committee and the Santa Clara Arts Council. She is a founder and member of the Los Altos Women’s Caucus. She received the John Gardner Building Community Award in 2004.

Meanwhile, Roy accumulated extensive experience in policy decision-making. In addition to his council role, he served as a member of both the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Santa Clara County Transportation Commission. More locally, he was active on the boards of the Los Altos Stage Company, the El Camino YMCA, the County of Santa Clara/Moscow Sister County Commission and the Los Altos Rotary AIDS Project.

He and Penny were both named Citizens of the Year by the Los Altos Board of Realtors.

Roy remains involved in Rotary and on the boards of the nonprofit WomenSV, which combats domestic abuse, and the Los Altos Stage Company.

Among Roy’s Rotary achievements, he led the club’s World Community Services Committee, which started projects in South Africa, Russia and Central and South America. In reacting to the AIDS-related deaths of members close to the club in 1989, he helped found the club’s Rotary AIDS Project. It was Roy’s idea to make the documentary “The Los Altos Story,” featuring Rotarian Dude Angius and his son Steve and Rotarian Walter Singer; the latter two died of the disease. “The Los Altos Story” was made in seven languages and shown around the world to spread awareness and raise funding to fight the disease. He is also a former president of the Rotary Club.

“Our community is fortunate that they chose to settle in Los Altos,” said Art Carmichael, a former council member and mayor who served with Roy.

A fun couple

Carmichael and others painted a portrait of an active couple who also brought a sense of fun. In their second home in Pajaro Dunes along Monterey Bay, he recalled their starting a Family Junior Olympics for their families’ children.

“Penny made gold-looking medals for all the participants,” Carmichael reminisced. “Our kids loved it!”

When they first got married, the Laves spent their entire $6,000 savings on a honeymoon trip and a Porsche, which they drove 10,000 miles through Europe. When they returned to the States, they drove Roy’s station wagon from Michigan to California.

Penny once described Roy as an adventurer, leading the couple on travels all over the world.

“He has always encouraged me, even pushed me, to do my best, and maybe more importantly, attempt things beyond my comfort zone,” she said in a 2013 interview.

Roy also has a humorous side. Friend Steve Shepherd recalled how during a game of golf, a player’s club broke in two after a shot.

“Roy casually picked up the two pieces,” Shepherd said. “Without anyone knowing, he had the pieces mounted on a trophy, and the annual ‘Sheared Shaft Award’ was started. It has been awarded to members of our poker group each year for embarrassing golf shots or some other kind of hilarious act. It is on display at his home in Pajaro Dunes.”

For the city’s bicentennial celebration in 1976, Roy dressed as Uncle Sam. Penny’s love of theater and putting on skits stemmed from her college days when she oversaw the production of a play starring all women.

When the old Los Altos Conservatory Theatre was ready to fold in the early 1990s, Roy and the community foundation arranged for the city to purchase $40,000 in theater assets and, with Vicki Reeder’s efforts, revived the community theater as Bus Barn Stage Company in 1995.

“Every city needs to have culture,” Penny said.

The Laves also came up with the idea for the new theater’s signature fundraiser – the Los Altos Follies. The popular annual event parodies local and national events with original lyrics melded to popular songs.

Strong foundation

Many of Roy’s friends point to his founding of Los Altos Tomorrow in 1991 as his crowning achievement in volunteer service. The name was changed a few years later to Los Altos Community Foundation – a vehicle for local philanthropy and launching community-building programs. Last year, the name changed once again, to Los Altos Mountain View Community Foundation.

In a 2013 Town Crier interview, Roy outlined the foundation’s areas of focus: sponsoring public benefit programs; giving grants to local nonprofit groups; awarding scholarships to college-bound, first-in-their-family-to-attend-college teens; managing philanthropic funds; and convening local residents to address opportunities and issues.

Working with the foundation, the nonprofit MVLA Scholars fulfills that first-to-attend-college goal. One alumnus is acclaimed author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas.

“It’s not surprising that one of Roy’s favorite foundation programs is the E3 Youth Philanthropy program, getting young people to start early in life,” said longtime friend and fellow Rotarian Richard Henning, the retired Foothill College dean who founded the Celebrity Forum Speaker Series.

“Folks ask me why Los Altos should have a community foundation, because it is a community that already has extraordinary privileges,” Roy said in 2013. “My thought is that because we have so much, we should be able to be an extraordinary model of what a community could be.”

Roy served as the foundation’s executive director for 25 years – “with no salary,” Henning noted.

“As executive director of LACF, his passion for our community shone through,” Shepherd said. “Local philanthropic organizations and local schools benefited from his devotion to his chosen hometown.”

Through his long-standing relationships, Roy arranged in 1997 for the old DeMartini house to be moved to 183 Hillview Ave., adjacent to the civic center, on property purchased from Cal Water. The house, dubbed the Community House, became foundation offices. In 2005, Roy worked with former council member King Lear to move and restore a historical cottage designed by famed architect Richard Neutra to a spot next to the Community House for additional meeting space.

The Leadership Education and Advancement (LEAD) program, run though the foundation, was founded by Penny as a way to groom future local leaders by educating them about the various components of the community. Longtime community volunteers Ginny Lear and Marge Bruno both joined Penny to lead the program for several years. More than 450 residents have taken the LEAD course over its 25-year history. Penny spearheaded another program, since discontinued, that recruited volunteers to help the city. Penny volunteered as a police dispatcher.

Doers, not talkers

It doesn’t take long to conclude that the Laves are not big talkers. They simply do because they see things that need to get done.

“People will say, ‘We have such an obligation to serve – service is such a good thing.’ I don’t think we ever thought of that,” Roy said. “We’re not driven by the fact that it’s good for the community – it’s just natural. It’s kind of a challenge. It’s like a problem to be solved.”

“People would say, ‘I want to give back to my community,’” Penny added. “You’re not giving back, you’re making it a better place for everybody.”

They’ve seen plenty of changes to their community over the years, but also constants.

“There’s so much more wealth now, but that doesn’t change (the high level of) volunteering, which is good,” Roy said.

Roy was inspired by Stanford professor and renowned social activist John W. Gardner, founder of the citizens advocacy group Common Cause. Gardner’s 1990 paper “Building Community” has long resonated with Roy.

Henning used a quote from Gardner to describe the Laves.

“The purpose of life is not to be happy – but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference that you have lived,” Henning said. “That quote pretty much describes Roy and Penny. They have dedicated their lives to service to the community.”

A Los Altans of the Year dinner honoring the Laves is scheduled Jan. 27 at the Los Altos Community Center, 97 Hillview Ave. Tickets are $95 each ($190 per couple). Capacity is 180 people. COVID protocols will be followed.

Mail checks to the Town Crier, 138 Main St., Los Altos 94022. Include the names of attendees in the memo line as well as “LAOTY.” Major credit cards are accepted.

For more information, email co-publisher Howard Bischoff at