Emy and Jim Thurber: Chance, adventure, politics and partnership define the shared life of Los Altos couple


It was the late 1950s, and Emy and Jim Thurber were at a parents' meeting for a new school opening in Los Altos. When the meeting organizers said they were looking for someone to serve as president of the PTA, Emy raised Jim's hand. That moment was the beginning of Jim's career in public service, which took him all the way to the Los Altos mayorship.

"That's -- as my cousin would say -- dumb luck, happenstance," said Emy Thurber, reflecting on the chain of events. "Be careful what you volunteer for."

Emy, 85, and Jim, 87, haven't quite followed that advice themselves. In their retirement, they have been involved with a daunting list of nonprofits and organizations supporting the Los Altos community, conservation efforts and Democratic political campaigns. That body of work, the vast majority of it voluntary, speaks to the Thurbers' mission to do good and make an impact -- a common refrain throughout their life together.

Jim grew up outside Boston and Emy near Chicago, but their paths crossed as undergraduates at Stanford University when they were set up on a blind date at a campus movie night. Jim graduated early in 1950 with a degree in journalism. The younger Emy put her history studies on hold because she "didn't want him to escape," she joked, but she later returned to finish her bachelor's degree.

After serving in the U.S. Army for a few years, Jim entered the newspaper business, working for the Wall Street Journal. The growing Thurber family hopped around the country for a few years, ending up in Houston, where Jim was bureau manager. When it came time to move again, Jim decided that the occupation wasn't for him; as Emy put it, he wanted to "do something rather than write about it."

Returning to the Peninsula, the Thurbers built a home in Los Altos. Jim found a job as a writer in the then-small development office at Stanford. He worked in the university administration for 11 years, serving as an assistant to two provosts and with the overseas studies program. It was also in these years that Jim became active in the Los Altos community and politics. He served on the Los Altos City Council and as mayor from 1962 to 1966.

Incorporated in 1952, the city was young, but the Thurbers said the issues then were much the same as today: housing and transportation. Jim took part in efforts to prevent Interstate 280 from running through Los Altos (where Foothill Expressway now is), in the sewering of the city (before residents had used septic tanks) and keeping the city's entrance on San Antonio Road suburban (limiting apartment construction).

Beyond Los Altos, Jim did work on recreation for the Association of Bay Area Governments and was an original member of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, an entity dedicated to preserving the bay.

The next big change for the Thurbers also came about serendipitously, as Jim's chance meeting with a United States Foreign Service officer led to a new position with the United States Information Agency (USIA).

As Jim did press and cultural work overseas during the Cold War for the USIA, the Thurbers moved to Tanzania, Malawi, Nigeria and Pakistan (with some years back in Washington, D.C.). When they first left for Tanzania, their four children were of school age.

Activities from that time stand out as memorable to Jim. In 1969 in Tanzania, he organized a celebration of the Apollo 11 moon landing at an American library with radio broadcasts and a large space shuttle model. Another time, Jim and a local employee drove out to a rural Tanzanian village to project movies. He recalled how the people wouldn't stop watching the films.

"So they ran it, and they ran it, and they ran it till after midnight," he said. "They wouldn't let us go home."

Not all of their experiences abroad were tranquil though: Jim, Emy and their youngest daughter were stationed in Pakistan, when the Islamabad embassy and other buildings throughout the country were burned in 1979, resulting in the deaths of American and Pakistani employees. Emy and their daughter evacuated to the U.S., but Jim remained, working. Nine months later his family rejoined him in Islamabad.

During the five years when the Thurbers were in the nation's capital, Emy landed her first full-time job working for U.S. Senator Alan Cranston. a Democrat and fellow Peninsulan. Working her way up, she eventually became a legislative aide working on foreign and military affairs. Even at the beginning, when typing mailing lists, she was enthralled to be in the thick of things on Capitol Hill.

"I said to Jim after about four days, 'Why didn't you tell me working was so much fun?'" she recalled.

After living around the globe, the Thurbers were drawn back to the Midpeninsula, they said, by the area's physical beauty, climate, fascinating people, culture and diversity. In 1990, they retired in Los Altos.

It was then that Emy and Jim ramped up their involvement in Democratic politics. They have been on the Peninsula Democratic Coalition board since 1991 and each has served as president. When campaigning for Bill Clinton in 1992, Emy said they raised $100,000 simply by selling buttons and stickers. They were also campaign managers for Byron Sher -- a former Palo Alto mayor -- in his candidacy for the California State Senate in 1996 and 2000.

The Thurbers' community work includes Jim's service on the boards of the Los Altos History Museum, Foothill-De Anza Foundation and the League of Conservation Voters, among other organizations. Emy has served on the Santa Clara County Commission on the Status of Women and the Mid-Peninsula YWCA board and was board president for the Sempervirens Fund. They were also longtime board members of the Los Altos Community Foundation.

When asked to choose the most meaningful from their litany of accomplishments, Emy repeated the question to Jim -- who then pointed back at her. She concurred.

"A happy marriage, a happy family, raising four kids. We haven't screwed up too much," Emy said. "We've had just such an adventuresome, fascinating life together, and we've been real partners."

Click on the links below to read about the other Lifetimes of Achievement awards honorees:

Bill Busse: Hard work and optimism have been hallmarks of architect's life

Martin Deggeller: Creating environments for future generations

Judy Koch: Bringing high-quality books to all children

Jerry and Dick Smallwood: Couple sets up scholarship fund, the gift that keeps on giving

Editorial Assistant Sam Sciolla can be emailed at

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