Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - May 3, 2013

Ben and Ruth Hammett

A passion for environmental and mental health causes

by Sue Dremann

When Ben Hammett was a young man his mother advised him to marry a woman with a "fine mind." He did, marrying wife Ruth in Stanford Chapel in 1957, he said.

The Hammetts have put their minds together for 55 years. Throughout their married life, they have been a philanthropic team, giving their time and money to benefit the environment, equal-opportunity education and mental health causes.

The Hammetts were deeply influenced by the community service of their parents, they said. With humble beginnings painting walls and caring for church children while still in their teens, the Hammetts have been "paying it forward" ever since.

Environmental action has been a hallmark of Ben's philanthropy. In 2007, the couple established the Hammett Awards within the University of California Santa Cruz Department of Environmental Studies. The awards support students' research on climate change.

Sitting in the family's living room in Old Palo Alto, Ben recalled his most cherished influence.

"My mother loved the world of nature," he said.

Growing up in Santa Barbara, Ben was deeply influenced by his parents, both of whom were presidents of their local art museums, he said. He volunteered in a home for seniors and at a rehabilitation center that his mother started. As an Eagle Scout, he received a merit badge for painting the rooms.

Ben said he also learned about environmental preservation from his mother, and she taught him to love physics.

His parents were also deep into psychoanalysis and dream interpretation. Ben, who was impressed by how therapy lifted his father's depression, later became a psychologist.

"I became at a young age fascinated with dreams and the workings of the body and mind," he said.

As a volunteer, Ben served on the board of Palo Alto's Mental Research Institute, where he helped conduct an eight-year research project on family recovery from alcoholism. He was a board member of the Western Graduate School of Psychology and National Parks Conservation Association; he has been on the latter's Western Regional Advisory Council since 2008. And he was a longtime volunteer at the former Peninsula Conservation Center in Palo Alto.

Volunteerism even became a family pastime. He and elder daughter Susan worked at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, he said.

Ruth has also volunteered since her early teens.

Growing up in suburban Chicago, Ill., she worked with small children at church. She became a candy striper in high school, wrapping bandages for sick and injured patients.

Those early experiences sparked a love of giving, she said.

"Working with other people is both a learning experience and a joy. You learn a lot about organization and how to set goals," she said.

Ben and Ruth met in 1954 on the Queen Mary cruise liner while traveling to Europe, where they visited seven countries with their friends. Ruth returned to Chicago and her job at the Northern Dress Company; Ben, a Stanford University student, went home to Palo Alto.

But they continued their long-distance courtship, meeting in places such as Aspen, Colo., for ski vacations, he said.

When they married, Ruth received her master's degree in biology from Stanford. For a time they lived in Chapel Hill, N.C., where Ben obtained his doctorate in psychology from the University of North Carolina. Following graduation, he practiced clinical psychology in Richmond,Va.

Ruth, meanwhile, volunteered, working on educational parity for African-American children.

Although segregation was illegal in 1968, few schools were integrated in Virginia, she said. Ruth and other volunteers created an integrated school in Richmond where kids could learn at their own pace.

"We just hammered at the school board," she said. Eventually, they prevailed, she said.

Attracted to Palo Alto's school system, the Hammetts returned to Palo Alto, raising four children. Both continued their volunteer work.

Ruth worked with the League of Women Voters in multiple states. But she focused on child-counseling services — most notably as a board member for Adolescent Counseling Services in Palo Alto. She also worked with Caravan House, which offered shelter and therapy to runaway, abused and neglected adolescent girls until its closure in 2007.

"I think if you find something interesting, volunteering exposes you to so many learning experiences you might not have known you were interested in," Ruth said.

Ben's life philosophy is rooted in his mother's spiritual teaching, he said. He explained that it follows Unitarian principles of service and welcoming people of different races, sexual orientations, creeds and religious experiences. He is involved in environmental advocacy through the Unitarian Universalist Church's Green Sanctuary program, which works on environmental projects and to create sustainable lifestyles for members and as a faith community.

The Hammetts haven't tried to change the world, they said. There's plenty to do right here at home.

Ben said volunteering has personal advantages as one ages.

"It's more important when you end up older. You tend not to be set in your ways," he said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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