Isaac and Maddy Stein | May 2, 2014 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - May 2, 2014

Isaac and Maddy Stein

Volunteering, organizing, leading: 'Just do it'

by Chris Kenrick

Among the many theories of community service and philanthropy, Isaac and Maddy Stein subscribe to the simplest one: "Just do it."

"You learn so much by just jumping in and being part of something," Maddy Stein said.

In their 45 years of marriage and nearly as many years of living in the Palo Alto area, the couple's commitments have ranged from volunteering in their kids' elementary school to chairing the Stanford University Board of Trustees.

Rather than any grand plan, their winding path of civic and professional engagements has reflected their circumstances and acquaintances as they went along: When Maddy had to strip the children's bedrooms for the third time after they came home from school with lice, she thought, "There's got to be a better way," and helped to organize preventive, school-wide "lice checks" after vacations.

Later, a Stanford president's request for Isaac's help with a short-term project sparked his more than two decades of high-level involvement with the university, including chairing the Stanford Hospital board and two separate stints on the university's Board of Trustees.

"Stanford has made an enormous difference in my life and the lives of many others," said Isaac, whose own parents had to drop out of school and get jobs to make ends meet. "I had a happy childhood and a good education, but it made me realize the importance of places like Stanford."

Maddy Johnson and Isaac Stein were both 21 when they married on the East Coast immediately after college graduation and set out by car the same day for Stanford, where Isaac was to attend law and business school.

Her Catholic family and his Jewish family had been less than delighted about the match — "they were products of their experience," said Isaac — making the move to California even more attractive.

Maddy recalls the two-week, cross-country drive as eye opening.

"Isaac had grown up on Long Island and I in New Jersey, and we were very New York-centric," she said.

They found a $150-a-month rental in East Palo Alto. Maddy got work at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, and Isaac supplemented their income with a job changing light bulbs in the Chemistry Department. Soon after, Isaac got a higher-paying job through a professor, allowing Maddy the freedom to enroll and earn a Stanford master's degree in education.

She taught kindergarten and first grade in East Palo Alto's Ravenswood school district for four years — through her first pregnancy — spending summers working in the Head Start preschool program.

Around that time, East Palo Altans were thinking of renaming their community Nairobi, and Maddy Stein got the idea of making dashikis as a class project.

"I've never been able to sew, but I sewed them up (out of sheets) and we tie-dyed them together," she said. "Somehow we got it all cleaned up. We wore them for the spring production — it was wonderful."

Armed with degrees in law and business, Isaac joined a San Francisco law firm, embarking on a career that included senior positions in fields as varied as law, electronics, hotels, retail, life-sciences and investing.

At 32, he became chief financial officer and general counsel of Raychem, then a Menlo Park-based Fortune 500 company. A long association with biotech entrepreneur Alejandro Zaffaroni led him to board positions with the pharmaceutical company Alza and other life sciences firms. He was even CEO of the clothing company Esprit de Corp for a brief time in the early 1990s.

"What I always say is, if you have a business career like I've had and it works, you're called a Renaissance man, and if it doesn't work you're called a dilettante. And the line between the two is very thin," Isaac said.

Said his wife: "He's always been a great multi-tasker."

Both Steins served, sequentially, on the board of the Children's Health Council.

Maddy Stein chaired the site council of their son and daughter's elementary school and fundraised for the school. Around the same time she co-led two community fundraising drives to restore the house and gardens at the Elizabeth F. Gamble Garden, which was then proposed as a site for senior housing.

"The debate was quite acrimonious," she recalled. "People then as now were very passionate about their beliefs." At night, after the kids were in bed, she would prepare her arguments about why the gardens should be saved.

"I'm very proud of that," she said. "I always had this idea that I'd like to walk through Gamble gardens with my grandchildren, and last fall we went to Community Day with all four grandchildren. They were digging for worms, and the fire truck was there. It was very joyful."

Isaac Stein, who had joined the Stanford Hospital board in the late 1980s, was tapped by newly named Stanford President Gerhard Casper in the early '90s to help analyze the governance structure of the medical center. He became president of the hospital board as well as a trustee of the university in 1994, continuing in both roles for many years.

His chairmanship of the brief, ill-fated merger of Stanford and UCSF health care centers in the late '90s means he still gets invited regularly to Stanford's Graduate School of Business to participate in "case study" discussions with students about what happened.

After a decade as Stanford trustee, Isaac Stein took a break in 2004 but rejoined the board again in 2006, providing decades worth of institutional memory.

Both Steins have served on a host of Stanford advisory and fundraising boards as well as on boards of community groups such as the Palo Alto Community Fund and the Community Breast Health Project.

"We've followed our passions and we tend to be quite loyal," Maddy Stein said. "We arrived in this wonderful community that had so many strong services and social support and we felt part of the community, and I like to think we've helped strengthen the legacy, the fabric of the community.

"I think we've been very lucky."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at


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