Joan Irvine Smith, Member of Pioneer Family Who Was Instrumental in Creation of UC Irvine Campus, Dies at 86
Monday, January 06, 2020
Joan Irvine Smith, an environmental activist, philanthropist, and avid equestrian who was instrumental in establishing and advancing UC Irvine and fighting to preserve open space in Orange County, has died. She was 86.
Smith died peacefully at home on Thursday, Dec. 19, her son, James Irvine Swinden, wrote in her obituary.
Smith was the great-granddaughter of Irvine Ranch founder James Irvine, an agricultural pioneer whose family went on to create The Irvine Company, the influential Newport Beach-based real estate development company. The city of Irvine carries the family name.
“Joan was a longtime friend and I always admired her passion for the land and the environment,” said Donald Bren, chairman of Irvine Co. “She was a very important participant in the history of the all-new City of Irvine and Orange County. She will be missed.”
Born Athalie Anita Irvine in 1933, Smith was the only child of James Irvine Jr., vice president of Irvine Co. and general manager of the Irvine Ranch, and Athalie Richardson Irvine Clarke, an artist and businesswoman who was active in social and political causes — something her daughter would later emulate.
Her father died two years after she was born. At 4, she changed her name to Joan after a nursery rhyme character, “Jumping Joan who was all alone.”
When she was 24, Smith took over her mother’s spot on the Irvine Co. board of directors. She played a leading role in convincing the Irvine Co. to donate land for a new University of California campus, said UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman in a statement.
In 1957, the Irvine Co. sold 1,000 acres to the University of California for $1, and UCI was born.
Gillman described Smith as strong-willed and a formidable member of the board.
“It is no exaggeration to say that without Joan Irvine Smith there likely would not be a University of California, Irvine,” he said. “What we are today, and all that we contribute to the world, is due in large part to her far-sightedness, her tenacity and her generosity.”
Smith’s name is still prominent at UCI. Joan Irvine Smith Hall houses administrative offices, a lecture hall and research labs for the School of Medicine. She made the lead gift to establish the Reeve-Irvine Research Center, which studies treatments for spinal cord injuries, and the inaugural gift to help create the UCI School of Law.
Smith founded The Irvine Museum, a free public museum that provides educational opportunities for Orange County elementary school students, and published 21 books about the California school of impressionism, Swinden said.
In 2016, she and Swinden donated The Irvine Museum’s collection of California Impressionist art to the university. The collection is now housed in the UCI Institute and Museum for California Art.
Smith also was a co-founder of CHOC Children’s Hospital in Orange.
Smith, who lived for many years in San Juan Capistrano, was an accomplished equestrian and a key player in building the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park.
“She developed the American Sport Horse, a now-recognized breed that combines the strength and stamina of warm-blooded horses from northern Europe with the spirit of the American thoroughbred,” Swinden said in her obituary.
Tony Moiso, chairman and chief executive officer of Rancho Mission Viejo, said he knew Smith for more than 50 years — the two had ranches with a shared boundary in San Juan Capistrano.
“She was always very gracious and very kind and welcoming,” Moiso said. “And she was a strong, caring and outspoken woman who very much was a leader in her own way.”
Smith also had a big role in the restoration of Mission San Juan Capistrano, he said. She organized the first “Romance of the Mission,” the annual fundraiser for the Mission Preservation Foundation.
Her passion for the environment and preservation sometimes clashed with the Irvine Co., even as she worked to help develop the master plan for the city of Irvine.
She was a “witness to the development of Orange County from citrus groves and lima bean fields to its current population of over three million people,” her son said.
Smith helped establish the National Water Research Institute in Fountain Valley and was an outspoken advocate for the preservation of Crystal Cove State Park and its 1920s-era cottages after a luxury resort was proposed for the site in 2001.
Laura Davick, whose parents had lived in one of the cottages, was leading the charge against the resort proposal when she got a call from a woman identifying herself as Joan Irvine Smith and saying she wanted to help.
“I really thought someone was pulling my leg,” Davick recalled. “And then she said, ‘come out to my horse farm.’ At that moment I knew it was Joan. I was in awe of meeting her.”
From that point on, Davick said, Smith became a friend, mentor and “partner in crime” in helping defeat the resort plan.
“With Joan’s background in business and politics and all that, she was a force of nature,” said Davick, founder of Crystal Cove Conservancy. “She got involved at a really critical time and helped us raise the bar on the importance of preserving Crystal Cove.
“There is no one quite like Joan. We’ll never forget the great woman she was.”
Irvine Smith is survived by her three sons: James Irvine Swinden and his wife, Madeline Martin Swinden; Russell S. Penniman IV and his wife, Carol Gordon Penniman; and Morton Irvine Smith and his wife, Marianne Smith. Also six grandchildren: James Irvine “Jase” Swinden Jr.; Elizabeth Irvine Huntley Penniman; Russell S. “Rex” Penniman V; Antoinette Athalie Smith; Charlotte Smith; and Virginia Rose Smith.
She will be interred at Fairhaven Cemetery in Santa Ana after a private memorial service for her immediate family.
The Irvine family requests that in lieu of flowers, gifts be given to: UCI Institute and Museum for California Art, Joan Irvine Smith Fund, UCI Foundation, 100 Theory, Suite 250, Irvine, 92617 or Mission San Juan Capistrano for its on-going preservation, 26801 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano, 92675.
UCI’s Gillman said a celebration of Smith’s life will be held on campus in the spring.
Category: Community News