Sam Halsted, a member of the first Portola Valley Town Council, dies


Samuel Hoskins Halsted, a member of Portola Valley's first Town Council, a former mayor and key to the town's ethos of open space, was, during his life, a man of many talents. He painted a church steeple in San Francisco. In Palo Alto, he dealt cards in a casino, waited tables and played rugby. As an industrial and civil engineer, he built homes and designed subdivisions and public recreational facilities. He ran for state Senate and lost. He officiated at weddings, "dozens and dozens and dozens" of weddings, his son Ben Halsted said.

Friends and family of Sam Halsted, who died Jan. 16 in Stanford hospital at the age of 90, are invited to a memorial celebration from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 2, at the Portola Valley Town Center at 765 Portola Road.

"Sam and the others who served on that first (Portola Valley) council established the core values of preservation, conservation and volunteerism (in town) which continue to this day," Town Historian Nancy Lund said in an email. "Sam's technical skills helped craft the ordinances that helped achieve those goals."

Before the town was incorporated, Halsted chaired a committee convened to recommend a master plan and wrote a research paper on methods of preserving the town's character of open space, Lund said. He also served as vice president of the Committee for Green Foothills and advocated for the preservation of scenic resources, she said.

Halsted was a native of Chicago, grew up in Riverside, California, and relocated to Hawaii to be with his mother's family after his parents divorced. He was 16 in 1945 when he was accepted at Stanford University. With World War II still raging, he took a cargo ship back to the United States to attend college.

As he worked toward a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering, he held odd jobs to support himself, including work as a steeplejack – doing construction and repair work at great heights. He played rugby at Stanford for four years.

His engineering career began at Lenkurt Electronics in San Carlos and continued at Wilsey, Ham & Blair in Millbrae. While at Wilsey, he worked closely with Joseph Eichler in designing subdivisions in Palo Alto, including the locations of streets and schools, his son said.

He married Mercedes Vanoli, and the couple raised their sons in Palo Alto and in Portola Valley on an 11-acre property along Palmer Lane. Halsted returned to Stanford to earn additional bachelor's degrees in urban planning and civil engineering, then founded the engineering and planning firm Public Data Services, his son said.

Determining public sentiment was an important component of his civil engineering research, his son said. To gather data, Ben Halsted said, his dad would have his sons distribute questionnaires to the public, then use the results to determine a project's scope, cost, return on investment and other such data. "Lots of research," his son said.

As a consultant working for San Mateo County, Halsted helped develop the Emerald Lake Hills neighborhood above Redwood City. Also known as Cordilleras Heights, it was the first community equipped with passive solar power, Ben Halsted said, adding that his dad named one of the streets after him.

Halsted ran as a Republican for state Senate, his son said, but lost in the primary election to Arlen Gregorio and ended up supporting his Democratic opponent. In 1973, he was appointed to the California Coastal Commission, and in 1975, he was named a special assistant to a deputy director of the state Department of Parks and Recreation.

The extended Halsted family enjoyed spending time together, including week-long summer camps and tea parties for the grandchildren, relatives said, adding: "He loved, and was very proud of, each of his children and grandchildren."

As an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church, Halsted officiated at many weddings. "That's just the type of guy he was," his son said when asked what motivated his dad to perform weddings for so many people. "He was just really connected to friends and family. Even in business, he would do whatever he could to make a personal connection to everybody," he said. "Their wife, their kids, their family. He would remember everything they told him when he saw them again."

He helped people move into subdivisions with which he was associated in Redwood City and Pacheco Pass, including people who had trouble qualifying financially by offering them discounts and zero-interest loans, his son said. Among 10 residents he helped settle in the Pacheco Pass community, "every one is coming to his memorial," his son said. "They just loved him."

Halsted was preceded in death by his son Peter, his wife Sydwell, and his brother Tim. His last days "were filled with a constant stream of visits from his family, former colleagues, and dear friends, all regaling him with music, laughter, and shared remembrances," relatives said.

He is survived by sons Matt of Los Angeles, Ben of Cupertino, Tim of Palo Alto, Erik of West Sacramento, and Sam of Palo Alto; and nine grandchildren.

The family is asking that donations in his memory be made to the California Oaks project of the California Wildlife Foundation. Go to


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Like this comment
Posted by Bill Wall
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Jan 31, 2019 at 11:03 am

Great Guy! RIP Sam!

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