Remembering Portola Valley's John A. Wilson


By Nancy Lund | Portola Valley Town Historian

Portola Valley pioneer resident John Arnot Wilson, who died in 1999, would have celebrated his 100th birthday on Oct. 9. He is most widely known as the co-founder of the iconic Silicon Valley law firm, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, which now employees some 600 attorneys.

From the earliest days of the world changing inventions that have been developed here, the firm has offered business advice and legal counsel to technology companies, often fledgling ones. But John Wilson was more than the head of a big law firm.

A retrospective look at his life is a thought-provoking story. During World War II he was a Navy lieutenant, a pilot and a flight instructor. Coming from Ohio and stationed at Moffett, he learned to love the golden hills of California. Wanting to help protect such beautiful land, he became an early supporter of the Peninsula Open Space Trust to help preserve Windy Hill.

He was a volunteer, serving on boards: The Peninsula Community Foundation (now the Silicon Valley Community Foundation), the Senior Coordinating Council (now Avenidas), Stanford's Center for International Security and Arms Control, the Century Access Foundation, the Northern California Presbyterian Homes, the Woodside Fire Protection District.

In 1965 he and his wife Nancy were founding stockholders of the Country Almanac, proud to support the three women who wanted to start a local newspaper. He arranged for incorporation and served as the paper's attorney for years.

He called Portola Valley a do-it-yourself town, beginning with the nine years from 1955 to 1964 when he and others worked persistently toward incorporation. He was a trustee of the Portola Valley Trust for Conservation and took on more basic roles, such as serving on the Undergrounding Committee. From 1972 to 1977 he served on the Town Council, taking a turn as mayor.

Then there is another side to John Wilson. When he was courting Nancy, who lived in Berkeley at the time (and he was in Palo Alto), they would sing in the car all the way back and forth. He knew the words, all the verses, to an unimaginable number of songs.

On New Year's Day, 1958, he drove Nancy down a dirt road and walked her up a hill to property he had purchased in Portola Valley. There, with an expansive view of the Bay Area, he presented her with a sprig of Daphne and a marriage proposal. Later, he delighted in singing sea chanteys to his grandchildren.

In the 1980s, the Community Productions were a series of school district fundraisers. One of the organizers considered John her "song and dance man." He loved the rehearsals and the performances.

And then, there's the poetry. Doggerel, it's called. For every occasion, he would have a poem that would include humor, rhythm, grasps at rhyme, and some heartfelt feeling. They invariably produced laughter. As an example, at a celebratory retirement party for town founder Bob Brown, the Wilson poem included:

"... Now, with this progress, it's a shame

The town should keep a Spanish name.

As the real founder of the town

We ought to change its name to Brown."

He was called a voice of reason, a fine mentor, a "gentleman," and a gentle man with always enough time to stop and chat with new members of the firm and ask about family.

So, on Oct. 9, give a thought to John Wilson: pioneer of Silicon Valley and Portola Valley, community volunteer extraordinaire, and a man who always found time to give a friendly word and to have fun. And, besides all that, he once danced with Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House.

From the Portola Valley historical archives and Nancy Wilson, the wife of John A. Wilson and a resident of Portola Valley.

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4 people like this
Posted by pvrez
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Oct 5, 2016 at 4:38 pm

come on nancy, it's rosati, not rossotti. different family than the athletic field and zott's beer garden is named after - as the town historian you ought to know better.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Thanks very much for that correction.

2 people like this
Posted by KP
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 6, 2016 at 12:29 pm

John was my neighbor for a number of years in Portola Valley. I remember him riding his mower along his driveway and always smiling and waving. Another great memory of him was when he graciously took time to talk to our son about a career as a lawyer. He spent several hours with our son, who at that time was probably about 16 years old. Now, more than 25 years later, our son is a successful intellectual property attorney who loves his job working in a biotech start up. Both John and Nancy were wonderful people.

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