Dick and Jerry Smallwood are turning their lifetime of achievement into a lifetime of opportunity for local financially needy students.
An electrical engineer with three degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Dick was the first person in his family to graduate from college. Scholarships and fellowships made that possible, he said.
"I was lucky," he added.
Dick, now 80, and Jerry (her full name is Marjorie), 81, were drawn to Palo Alto in 1964 when he was offered a job as an assistant professor at Stanford. Seven years later he accepted a job at Xerox PARC just before getting tenure, then spent the bulk of his career at Applied Decision Analysis in Menlo Park. Ultimately, he served as president and owned 25 percent of the company when it was sold to PriceWaterhouseCoopers in 1998. He went on to co-found a web-based company, Market Insight Corporation, in 2003 and retired in 2010.
Besides raising three children, Jerry, who had graduated from Smith College and taught third grade in the Boston area, worked as a teacher's aide at Walter Hays Elementary School and as a volunteer in an East Palo Alto elementary school. In her spare time she volunteered for Environmental Volunteers and Wildlife Rescue.
But in 1984, when their three children ranged in age from 16 to 22, Dick's early gratitude for help getting through college, Jerry's experience working with low-income students and the couple's financial security motivated them to create a nonprofit organization, Pursuit of Excellence (POE), with the idea to offer a scholarship that would enable a low-income student to pursue a higher education.
That first year there were 17 applicants for the first $2,000 scholarship.
While the Smallwoods provided the first year's grant, they quickly realized that there were far more needy students than they could personally subsidize. And they weren't just giving out one-year grants but committing to annual support until the student graduated.
"We originally thought it would be for four years, then we realized this group of kids would take longer because they would be working while they were in school," Dick said.
So they recruited their friends, many of whom became donors, mentors and application readers.
Last year Pursuit of Excellence granted more than $400,000 to students, including about 30 graduating high school seniors. The students came from East Palo Alto Academy, Eastside College Preparatory School and East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, as well as from the Palo Alto, Mountain View-Los Altos and Sequoia school districts.
The key criterion for getting a scholarship is financial need, they said, with a cap of about $60,000 on family income. There are no ethnic or career aspiration requirements, nor need for proof of documented citizenship status.
About 120 students applied this past year; from that pool about 40 were interviewed and 30 received grants, which ranged from $500 to $5,000 for their first school year.
"(The grant) depends on need. The first year we don't give the top amount. We see how they do," Jerry said.
"The first year is not the year they need it most," Dick added, pointing out that there are a lot of one-year scholarships available, but few that stay with the student throughout his or her school career.
Continuing support is "contingent on maintaining a successful presence at the school," Dick said, with no grade requirements.
Almost all of the scholarship money comes from individual donations, Dick said. In the late 1980s, the Smallwoods created an endowment, which can be used for special projects or to supplement the donations in a year when donations don't meet obligations.
As part of the scholarship, each student is assigned a mentor who meets with the student at least twice a year and stays in contact via email. Dick pointed out that the retention rate for mentors, at 80 percent, was close to the 73 percent graduation rate for their scholarship students, wildly surpassing the more typical 27 percent graduation rate for low-income students.
Other volunteers spend many hours reading the applications (four or five read each one), deciding whom to interview and to whom to offer the scholarships.
To date, more than 450 students have attended college with help from Pursuit of Excellence, which has given $3.5 million in grants, according to its website, POEscholarships.org.
Pursuit of Excellence has become a total family affair: The Smallwoods' son Scott and his wife, Carol Ann, are running Pursuit of Excellence-East from their Arlington, Virginia, home; daughter Carol Mullin became president of the board when Jerry stepped down five years ago; and son Bradley is a significant donor.
It is no longer just for the Palo Alto area, either. Recently, two women approached the Smallwoods to get advice on how to set up Pursuit of Excellence South Bay, a separate nonprofit organization now serving the San Jose area.
"They're doing all the work. We hope that can be a template for expanding the application," Dick said.
Looking back on the past 30-plus years, Jerry said, "I feel this has been the most fruitful and enjoyable volunteer thing I've done. We're really making a difference in kids' lives. They wouldn't be going or would have to be working a lot more. It's done just what we wanted it to."
"It surpassed our earliest dreams by a considerable amount," Dick added, noting, "We're surrounded by communities where there's genuine need for this kind of thing. We were lucky in that we just discovered a situation where affluent people had an attitude of helping kids to get an education. It's a very happy situation."
Click on the links below to read about the other Lifetimes of Achievement awards honorees: