Los Altos Exhibit
Story by Patty Fisher, Mercury News columnist
Quick. Name a pair of Peninsula philanthropists who dedicated their lives to education, conservation, the arts and social justice.
Here's a hint: There's a school in Palo Alto, CA named after them.
If you guessed Stanford or Packard, guess again. I'm talking about Josephine & Frank Duveneck, a couple of committed reformers who left a mark on society that goes far beyond their 1,600-acre ranch above Los Altos called Hidden Villa.
The Duvenecks were Boston blue bloods who fled the stuffy New England society of the 1920s to create a world of their own in the hills above Los Altos. In addition to turning their ranch into an environmental education preserve, they founded the progressive Peninsula School in Menlo Park & the Loma Prieta chapter of the Sierra Club. Passionate about social justice issues, they opened the first youth hostel on the West Coast & the first interracial summer camp in the U.S. They offered hospitality to American Indians & helped Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. They also started Friends Outside, an organization that helps the families of prison inmates.
In Palo Alto, where Josephine Duveneck served on the City Council, an elementary school bears their name. Yet most folks around here aren't familiar with the Duvenecks' story. I wasn't until I visited a fascinating exhibit at the Los Altos History Museum called "Touching Lives: The Duvenecks of Hidden Villa." The exhibit, which runs through June, paints a compelling portrait of a couple of idealistic young rebels who came to California searching for meaning in their lives.
"I don't want to go the way most of the Boston society girls do -- not a bit. I want to know such a lot of things," 18-year-old Josephine Whitney wrote to her sister Laura after the 1909 Boston debutante season. "I want freedom. "... I sort of want to find my own place more & establish myself."
She was born into the wealthy family that founded the Whitney Museum. She met Frank Duveneck, a Harvard-educated engineer & son of a celebrated painter, at a debutante ball. They married in 1913 & traveled around the world for a year before settling in California, where they bought their ranch & began nurturing horses, children & social causes.
The exhibit, put together by several local historians, brings the Duvenecks to life through their voluminous writings, photographs, videos & replicas of rooms in their comfortable home at Hidden Villa. There they dined with Cesar Chavez & Wallace Stegner. They held story hour for the children who came to their interracial summer camp. They grew old together there, surrounded by grandchildren & friends. Josephine died in 1978 & Frank in 1985.
Today, it is home to a nonprofit that runs camps, an organic farm & other environmental programs.
On my tour of the exhibit, I ran into Claire Hu, a 6th-grader at Covington School in Los Altos who was taking copious notes for a class assignment on the Duvenecks. Though she lives in Los Altos, Claire hadn't known much about them until that day. "They did so many things," she said, gesturing to all the exhibits around the hall.
What impressed her most? Their efforts for Japanese-American internees. When the United States entered World War II, and local families were ordered to leave their homes, the Duvenecks stored their possessions at Hidden Villa, donated pianos & other comforts to the internment camps & sponsored Japanese-American students so they could leave the camps & go to college.
"They devoted their lives to fighting against discrimination," Claire said. "That's pretty amazing."
Indeed, they were amazing role models & worth remembering.