James Thurber: Former Los Altos mayor was celebrated diplomat, volunteer

Mr. Thurber

James Thurber, a distinguished diplomat and community volunteer who served as Los Altos mayor, died June 16 after a brief illness. He had just celebrated his 90th birthday.

The longtime Los Altos resident was in the Foreign Service for 23 years. From 1967 to 1973, he served in various positions in United States Information Agency (USIA) offices in Tanzania, Malawi and Nigeria. From 1978 to 1981, Mr. Thurber served as counselor of embassy at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, and prior to that as chief of the Policy Guidance Office at USIA in Washington, D.C.

In 1980, he received the State Department’s Award for Valor for his actions during the takeover and destruction of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad by a Pakistani mob, during which two Americans and three Pakistani embassy employees were killed. Just prior to his retirement in 1990, Mr. Thurber received the USIA Superior Honor Award for his role in developing the Fulbright Exchange Program between the U.S. and Canada.

At the time of his retirement, Mr. Thurber was minister counselor for public affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, Canada. Earlier he served as director of the USIA’s operations in North Africa, the Middle East, the Gulf and South Asia. Formerly an independent agency, USIA was absorbed into the Department of State in 1998.

The Foreign Service was a third career for Mr. Thurber. From 1956 to 1967, he was employed by Stanford University in various academic administrative positions, including a stint as assistant to the university vice president and provost. Prior to that, he was a reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal in the San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia and Detroit offices. His last assignment for the Journal was bureau chief in Houston.

Mr. Thurber lived in Los Altos from 1956 to 1967 and returned to retire here in 1990.

He was an active volunteer in both the city and the broader Bay Area. Among his many activities were service on the Los Altos City Council from 1960 to 1967. He was mayor for four years, a record.

“He was very, very involved in his community — when we lived here earlier and then in retirement,” said Emily (Emy) Thurber, his wife of of 68 years. “He loved Los Altos and of all his many experiences, I think he liked best being mayor and later being president of the Los Altos History Museum.”

Mr. Thurber was an original member of the Bay Area Conservation and Development Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments, where he was chairman of the agency’s recreation committee for six years. From 1958 to 1959, he was chairman of the Growth and Expansion Committee for the Los Altos School District.

When Mr. Thurber was overseas, he continued his tradition of public service by serving as chairman of the board of directors for the American International School in Lagos, Nigeria, from 1972 to 1975; and as president of the board of directors for the International School of Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1979 to 1981.

Active retirement

In retirement, Mr. Thurber served as president of the Los Altos History Museum; a member of the Hidden Villa board; a member of the Los Altos Library Commission for 14 years and chairman for four; director of Bus Barn Stage Company for many years; director of Los Altos Community Foundation; a member and later president of the Foothill-De Anza College Foundation; commissioner and chairman of the Santa Clara County Airports Commission; director of the League of Conservation Voters; treasurer of the Foreign Service Association of Northern California; a member of the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Committee for Affordable Housing; and a trustee for Goodwill Industries of Santa Clara County.

In addition to his community service, Mr. Thurber was active in the Democratic Party in California.

He was an elected member of the Santa Clara County Democratic Party Central Committee as well as the California State Democratic Central Committee. He served as director of the county Finance Committee for many years as well as treasurer of the United Democratic Campaign. He also served as president of the Democratic Century Club and the Peninsula Democratic Coalition.

Mr. Thurber was the Democratic candidate for Congress in 1962, running against incumbent Republican Charles Gubser. He was an elected delegate to three national Democratic conventions.

Born in New Jersey, Mr. Thurber was raised in Milton, Mass. He graduated from Milton Academy and spent a 13th high school year at the Thatcher School in Ojai.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Stanford University and a master’s degree in international relations from George Washington University. He attended the National War College in 1973-1974.

He married Emily Forrest in 1950, and their four children survive him: James Perry Thurber III (Debra McGibbon), Harriette Thurber Rasmussen, Alexander Forrest Thurber (Courtney Graham) and Mary Thurber Martin. In addition, he had 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Services are pending.

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