Commentary: David Packard: Silicon Valley's Class Act

Hewlett-Packard Co. is one of the most dramatic success stories in American business. Bill's and Dave's garage, as it is known around Palo Alto, Calif., is the designated birthplace of Silicon Valley. There, in the 1930s, Stanford University engineering school chums David W. Packard and William Hewlett formed a company to make test equipment. Eventually, Hewlett-Packard brought out all manner of instruments, from calculators to computers to medical devices, such as the monitor that tracked my daughter's heartbeat in the hours before she was born.

Today HP has revenues of more than $31 billion and employs some 100,000 people--including my husband. That connection means I generally have to recuse myself from writing about the company. But the death of David Packard on Mar. 26 at the age of 83 isn't an occasion that calls for objectivity. It's a chance to consider the impact one decent and successful individual can have on the world.

Packard and Hewlett were well-known for working in short-sleeved shirts in their spartan, linoleum-floored offices. The deep respect and concern for employees they called "the HP way" now is synonymous with corporate integrity. But what's little known is the degree to which HP's founders gave back, through philanthropy, the money they made.

CONFIDENTIAL. As a cub reporter on The Stanford Daily in the early 1980s, my first job was to cover the monthly meeting of the university's board of trustees. Each month, I was reminded that I must keep confidential the section of the agenda in which anonymous gifts to the university were noted. Often, such contributions had come from Packard, Hewlett, or their personal foundations. I always wanted to write about it. I would invariably be told, "No, thank you." The donors did not wish any publicity.

By the time I became a business reporter, Hewlett's and Packard's fortunes had grown so large, as had their gifts, that it became impossible for them to avoid publicity about either, although they never sought it. Officials reckon the two have given Stanford more than $300 million--an amount nearly equal, when adjusted for inflation, to the $25 million founding gift of Jane and Leland Stanford. Their money has supported dozens of young faculty members in science and engineering in addition to cutting-edge facilities. University officials say the pair usually gave these funds to honor the memory of Stanford engineering professor Frederick Terman, who they felt launched their careers.

Hewlett, up in years and in fragile health, prefers to remain out of the spotlight. As for Packard, the public is probably most aware of the $40 million he gave to found the wondrous Monterey Bay Aquarium, run by his daughter Julie. But he did much more: Packard's 31-year-old private family foundation has to date dispersed $480 million to good causes. They range from marine biology research, training child-care providers, and endowing professorships at universities to preserving historical film stocks in Hollywood and helping digitize the Library of Congress.

What's more, Packard's aides say that he gave roughly the same amount personally, and often quietly, to a similar set of causes. He launched, for example, a world-class Children's Hospital at Stanford in memory of his late wife, Lucile. The 9% of HP stock Packard personally owned upon his death, now worth about $4.3 billion, is all going to his family's foundation, which will make it one of the richest in the U.S.

OPINIONATED. The high-tech landscape Packard helped map has spawned its share of overnight millionaires. But too many of them seem intent on living out a stereotype of techno-fame, talking trash about rivals, hosting flashy parties, and collecting showy cars and trophy girlfriends. Their charisma can be captivating, their tantrums legendary. But their companies' overtures to public service invariably seem tied to press releases.

Packard wasn't shy. He could be cranky, and he was certainly opinionated. When Silicon Valley leaders threw in their lot with Bill Clinton in the last Presidential election, Packard, a lifelong Republican, fired off a letter suggesting they had all been caught in the "updraft of Bill Clinton's hot air balloon." But he was a class act. I clearly remember seeing his tall, thin frame slipping into functions quietly, always solicitous of Lucile. "You shouldn't gloat about anything you've done; you ought to keep going and try to find something better to do," he told employees in 1993, when he stepped down as HP's chairman.

Now, there's a legacy.

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