Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - May 3, 2013

Al Russell

Ensuring quality education for the next generation

by Audra Sorman

When Al Russell was studying psychology as an undergraduate at Stanford, he felt he was at home.

He embraced the academic atmosphere, learning all he could and engaging with his professors and fellow students. When he chose between earning a doctorate in psychology and a law degree, he had no idea that his ultimate decision to study tax law would give him the opportunity to return to the world of education.

"I feel privileged to have had all these opportunities. My life has been serendipitous; I didn't plan on all of this," Russell said.

After his days at Stanford and the University of San Francisco School of Law, Russell moved his young family to Palo Alto in 1970. When their oldest son reached first grade, he and his wife JoAnn were asked to co-chair the PTA, and Russell has been involved with education ever since.

"I love working with people, I love working in the education area, and I love working with kids. I found my niche, so to speak."

Russell put his law training to use as he transitioned from his eventual role as PTA president to advising the Palo Alto Board of Education in legal issues as well as helping with fundraising and the subsequent taxes involved. In 1987, he founded the Palo Alto Foundation for Education (PAFE), which provided grants for teachers.

"I wanted to do things that gave teachers the opportunity to dream," he said.

In 1987, PAFE awarded $6,000 in grants and worked up to giving out up to $150,000 a year. Palo Alto High School's glass-blowing program, a result of one of the grants, is still running today.

When Russell, a supporter of the arts, was forming PAFE, he and a few others also created what is now known as the Italian Street Painting Expo, in which artists create chalk art on the pavement every August during Palo Alto's Festival of the Arts.

Other PAFE-funded projects have included commissioning a professional musician to write original pieces for the local students to perform in concert and updating science equipment for student labs.

Russell, who was born in San Francisco and raised in Atherton by his father, a banker and investor, and his mother, a life-long volunteer in gerontology, became involved in education in large part because of his experience at Stanford, he said.

"I just began to understand and tremendously appreciate the opportunities education provides for human beings for major growth and development in their lives," he said.

Russell's appreciation for education is reflected in his years of community service. He estimated that, on average, he has spent 20 to 30 hours a week volunteering for the community while maintaining his full-time job with the Internal Revenue Service, which he held from 1970 to 1999. "I like to keep busy," he said. "Somehow I managed to do my job too."

"Busy" may be an understatement. He was president of Palo Alto High School's Music Boosters Program for three years, program leader and fundraiser for Palo Alto's YMCA, a coach for the American Youth Soccer Organization, and a part of Palo Alto's " Building for Excellence" campaign, among other commitments.

Russell was president of PAFE when it merged with the All Schools Fund to create Partners in Education in 2005. He served two terms on PIE's Board of Directors and since 2009 has been on PIE's Grant Review Committee, which awards funding to teachers seeking education grants.

In addition to reviewing grants, Russell is president and treasurer of Palo Alto High School's Gold Star Memorial Scholarship Fund and is on the boards of Palo Alto Community Child Care and the Palo Alto Christmas Bureau. He has developed relationships with many families and community members inside and outside of Palo Alto's education system, and he said he is "grateful for the ability to work with a lot of wonderful people."

Russell, who likes to use the word "serendipitous" to describe his life, also found a use for his initial interest in the field of psychology. He explained that, over the years, he often found himself in the role of adviser and confidant to those in the community. "I do as much personal counseling as I do law," he said. He also mentioned that if he had to choose an alternate career, he would have pursued teaching.

However, Russell is happy he chose to go to law school because he met his wife while he was studying in San Francisco. They married at the end of his second year at USF School of Law, and through their children, he got his chance to make a difference in education during years of work with Palo Alto schools.

"I always felt we were motivating teachers, motivating the kids, and creating opportunities that otherwise wouldn't be there."

Russell added that "Here, where education is so highly valued, it was easy to get involved," so when he found out he was an Avenidas Lifetimes of Achievement honoree, he "was flabbergasted and didn't quite know what to say; it's been a privilege — at times difficult, but a privilege."

His propensity for community work is in his blood: his mother, Bonnie Russell, won the Avenidas award in the early 1990s for her years of volunteer work in gerontology. "She was quite a lady. We used to call her superwoman," he said.

Today, Russell and his wife JoAnn watch their 7-month-old granddaughter twice a week and spectate at their grandsons' Stanford Water Polo Club events. Russell wants children like his grandchildren, who attend Ohlone Elementary and Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School, to benefit from his work in education, he said.

When reflecting on his years of community service, he attributed one factor that was instrumental in his ability to volunteer while working a full-time job. "Without (JoAnn's) working and backing over the years, it wouldn't have been possible."

Russell hopes to retire at some point so that he and his wife can continue to enjoy watching their grandchildren grow, but he has no definite time frame for when he will stop doing volunteer work in the community, he said.

"The last 30 to 40 years have been very full and continue to be."

Editorial intern Audra Sorman can be emailed at asorman@paweekly.com.

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