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Los Altan of the Year: Mona Armistead

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Appearances can be deceiving. But Mona Armistead’s warm, reassuring smile and twinkly eyes accurately convey the kind, caring and involved person she is. Throughout her life, Mona, a Los Altos Hills resident, has always helped others. She has made the community a better place through counseling and mentoring youth, improving services for the blind and enhancing the outreach of the Rotary Club.

Because of these long-standing efforts and more, the Los Altos Town Crier has selected Mona as 2012 Los Altan of the Year. Modeled after Time magazine’s Person of the Year, the annual recognition honors local residents whose efforts build overall good will and enhance the Los Altos community’s reputation as a quality place to live.


Helping out ingrained

Born to Glenn and Mary Thornhill and raised in Salem, Va., Mona helped out at her church from a young age.

“I was taught doing things for other people makes you feel good,” she said, crediting her mother as a strong influence. “If I see something that looks like a need, I feel like there’s a calling to fill that, and I get involved.”

Mona met Bob Armistead while still in high school.

“We both had some degree of visibility – Mona through school leadership positions and being a cheerleader, and me through sports,” Bob recalled. “If I remember correctly, our first date was arranged – I was assigned to be her escort to a formal party.”

But Mona and the budding nuclear physicist didn’t begin seriously dating until she was attending Sweet Briar College in Virginia and he was in graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. They married in 1965 and lived in Oak Ridge, Tenn. While Bob worked on his dissertation at Oak Ridge National Labs, Mona earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology.

The couple lived in Alexandria, Va., for a few years while Bob completed his U.S. Army tour at the Pentagon. Bob then landed a job with Stanford Research International in Menlo Park, bringing the Armisteads to Los Altos in 1969. The young couple traveled across country by car. Mona was seven months pregnant with their first child, Ashby, born a week after they arrived.

“The neighbors were fabulous,” Mona said of her early days in town. “We didn’t know anybody.”

The couple would have two more sons, Wade and Clay.

The Armisteads quickly took to the tight-knit community. As a young mother, Mona participated in neighborhood playgroups and her new church, Christ Episcopal. In the early 1970s, she met a parent who volunteered at a center for blindness prevention. The center recruited Mona. It was just the beginning of her long-term local involvement.


Family values

Mona also took plenty of time for family.

“She also was – and is – a great mother and mentor to our three sons,” Bob said.

“Growing up, my mom always encouraged us toward leadership roles, volunteerism and charity,” Wade said. “She has served her family and community in many ways and has taught each of us about giving of our skills, finances and our time. She embodied this as a leader at church – by teaching Sunday school and eventually serving on the vestry of the church.”

Wade noted Mona’s deep involvement in her sons’ schools and education. She took on multiple roles in the PTA, including president, and served as Grad Night chairwoman when Wade was a senior at Los Altos High School.

“She modeled and mentored my brothers and me to serve in our own leadership roles, which we each did in school, preparing each of us to be volunteer leaders,” Wade said. “I know that her legacy of compassion and service has been a model for me as I now give and serve in my own family, church and community.”

After nearly 50 years of marriage, Bob is still clearly dazzled by Mona.

“She is still pretty, sweet and bright – and also thoughtful. In addition,” he quipped, “I get free counseling!”

The Armisteads’ lives are filled with golf and tennis and family vacations.

“She is ‘high energy’ and generally has several activities in each day,” Bob said. “She really loves to travel, so we frequently are either on a trip or planning one.”

But her work as a marriage and family therapist and a community volunteer still drives her.

“She is very empathetic and has always been interested in supporting the community and those who are in need,” Bob said.


Vintage Affaire

Mona’s talents for getting projects up and running landed her a request from another blindness prevention group, the Peninsula Center for the Blind (now Vista Center for the Blind & Visually Impaired), to organize an auxiliary for a fundraiser. The idea the auxiliary came up with was Vintage Affaire.

The first event took place in 1982 at the Fleishhacker Estate in Woodside. It was an instant hit. Organizers celebrated Vintage Affaire’s 30th anniversary in 2012.

One key element of success, Mona reflected, was encouraging buy-in from vintners tired of being asked to donate their wines for events. But Mona suggested inviting 25 of them to come pour and talk about their wines.

“I didn’t know anything about wine,” she said. “I do now.”

Another friend, Mary Mason, invited her to join the Junior League of Palo Alto. Together they established the Richard G. Bell Scholarship for students at Los Altos and Mountain View high schools. Mona credits Carol Millie with organizing annual golf tournaments to raise money for the scholarships.

“Mona is a very caring, conscientious and committed member of the Los Altos volunteer community,” said Mason, also an active volunteer and former board member with the Foothill-De Anza Community College District. “She has expended tremendous amounts of time, energy and her many talents to better the community in which we live and work. She is a gracious and generous woman who is also great fun to be with.”


Board involvement

As her circle of friends grew – along with her reputation for getting things done – Mona was invited to serve with more organizations. She joined the board of the Peninsula Center for the Blind. She joined the board of the Children’s Health Council. She also landed on the board of the YMCA of the Mid-Peninsula and later joined the local El Camino YMCA.

She was named the Mid-Peninsula Y’s “Red Triangle” winner for 2000. The Y stated: “A true nurturer of children and adults, Mona has spent her life working to make others’ lives fuller and more meaningful.”

Pam Brandin, Vista executive director, recalled an association with Mona dating back to 1980. Brandin remembered how Mona assembled “a star-studded list of committee members” to make Vintage Affaire happen.

“No one can say no to Mona, because she is such a charming, charismatic and effective leader,” Brandin said.

Richard Henning, former dean at Foothill College, longtime friend and volunteer partner with Mona in the Rotary Club of Los Altos since 1999, echoed Brandin’s assessment that saying no to Mona is a virtual impossibility.

“She is highly organized and she has a kind, gentle, southern demeanor, but you definitely know she backs it up with strength and always with a smile,” said Henning, a strong organizer himself as founder of the popular Celebrity Forum Speaker Series.


In the field

In the early 1990s, Mona joined the board of the Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC) but said she “left the board to become staff.” Mona interned at CHAC, which provides help for troubled local youth and their families, while pursuing her master’s degree to become a marriage and family therapist.

She spent one year working with students at Crittenden Middle School in Mountain View and two years at Mountain View High School.

“She is a delight to work with,” said CHAC Executive Director Monique Kane.

In addition to CHAC, Kane and Mona have collaborated in the Rotary Club’s youth mentoring group Partners for New Generations.

“She is always gracious, elegant, warm, communicative, responsive, sensitive to others, smart, has good common sense and a sense of humor,” Kane reflected. “Additionally, she has great empathy and cares deeply for those who are struggling and hurting in life.”

Fellow Los Altos Rotarian Bob Adams described Mona as “a thinker, not a reactor. When in meetings with Mona, one readily realizes that she engages in projects with energy, thoughtfulness, humor and decisiveness. … You can expect fruitful results when Mona is in a meeting. You never go out of a meeting without something conclusive happening. For example, when she was chairman of Partners for New Generations (2006-2008), she developed a board development skill chart still in use today.”

Adams was among three Rotarians who approached Mona to become Rotary Club president for 2011.

“She was so excited,” Adams recalled. “She could not believe she was selected for this prestigious position. ‘I can’t do that,’ she said. ‘Why would they want me to be the president? I’ll have to talk with (my husband).’ She said yes the next day and had a wonderful, productive year as president.”


Still helping

Although she lives comfortably and doesn’t lack for friends and good times, Mona empathizes with the underserved.

In Salem, Va., the sociable young woman was a cheerleader who reigned as Snow Queen of the annual Christmas parade, but the same girl helped out at the area’s two orphanages. When she was 20, she volunteered at a hospital, working with developmentally delayed patients.

“I was very touched by the people I worked with,” she said. 

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