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2018 Los Altan of the Year: Dennis Young

Dennis Young would be the first to tell you he’s shy by nature. But shyness doesn’t stop the mild-mannered accountant from turning into a superhero when it comes to community involvement.

Since the early 1970s, when he first arrived in Los Altos, Young has been a ubiquitous volunteer. He’s been active in everything from the Rotary Club of Los Altos to the Community Health Awareness Council. He’s used his accounting expertise to crunch the numbers for local nonprofit organizations. He’s served as master of ceremonies for the annual awards luncheon honoring other community volunteers. And he’s even played Santa Claus at the Festival of Lights Parade.

Over the past two years, Young, 75, has made two special donations. In honor of his late wife, Roberta, he donated her car last year to a deserving family – with help from Los Altos Community Foundation and Community Services Agency. This year, he paid for and donated a cast of the sculpture “Homeless Jesus,” also in honor of his late wife, to the Jesuit Retreat Center in Los Altos.

For his four-plus decades of helping his community in myriad ways, the Town Crier has named Young its 2018 Los Altan of the Year. The paper bestows the annual honor – Young is the 25th recipient – on residents whose extensive and sustained efforts generate goodwill that enhances Los Altos’ reputation as a caring community.

A ‘joiner’

Young, born in San Diego and raised in La Jolla, learned about the importance of volunteering by watching his father, Steven, a realtor, who was active in the community.

Dennis Young
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Dennis Young is the Town Crier’s 2018 Los Altan of the Year. The honor recognizes Young’s volunteerism, which spans more than four decades across a wide range of activities and organizations.

By the time he launched his own accounting firm, Young, Craig and Co., in the 1970s, Young was already a “joiner.” Originally established up the Peninsula in San Carlos, he joined that city’s Rotary Club.

Young acknowledged that volunteering is good for business. But there’s a distinction, he said. Volunteering isn’t just about generating business – it’s about a need to give back.

“I have had a lot of help along the way, from scholarships in school to wonderful colleagues and friends,” he said. “Being a volunteer is a way to pay it forward. That was a philosophy I kind of grew up with. … A lot of this is marketing, I make no bones about that. However, it can’t be overt marketing. You don’t join Rotary to get clients, or you’re going to be sorely disappointed. You join Rotary to do what Rotary does.”

Young elaborated on his philosophy: “You want to be front-of-brain. Our business is a business of referrals. We’re a service business. The product we’re selling is service and competence. Part of being service oriented is giving back to the community.”

But there’s another basic reason why Young gets involved.

“I like it,” he said.

He must really like it, based on the wide scope of his volunteer ventures.

City of Los Altos? Check. Young currently volunteers on a design development working group to help shape the new community center currently in the works. He also has served the past several years on the Los Altos-Los Altos Hills Joint Community Volunteer Service Awards Committee, which recently held its annual luncheon to recognize and encourage community volunteerism. He sat on the city’s Financial Commission in the 1980s.

Nonprofit organizations? Check. In addition to the local Rotary Club, Young has been active in WomenSV, which helps domestic violence victims, and the Community Health Awareness Council, which helps youth and families overcome behavioral health problems. He has long been a part of the Festival of Lights Parade Association. He’s treasurer of the foundation for the Villa Siena Senior Living Community in Mountain View. He is also a longtime member of Los Altos Community Foundation, which named Young its Volunteer of the Year in 2017. The foundation’s award for this superhero came with the presentation of a green cape.

Professional organizations? Double check. He has chaired or is chairing more than a half-dozen groups, including the Accounting Department Advisory Board at his alma mater, the University of San Francisco, and several committees (including ethics and education) for the California Society of CPAs. He’s twice been president of the CalCPA’s Peninsula/Silicon Valley chapter. He’s also chaired the Housing Industry Foundation and Tri-County Apartment Association boards. Closer to home, he has been involved in both the Los Altos Village Association, which helps downtown merchants, and the Los Altos Chamber of Commerce.

Testimonials

“Dennis is the community’s go-to man, whether to join, organize, lead, attend or finance a wide variety of community activities,” said longtime resident and former Los Altos Mayor Roy Lave.

Lave got to know Young after hiring him as chief financial officer in the late 1960s to set up an accounting system at his transportation consulting company, SYSTAN Inc.

“He set up the accounting system that lasted for 40 years,” Lave said of Young. “That job is what brought him to Los Altos – a great outcome for all of us.”

In describing Young, Lave painted a picture of what some might call the ideal volunteer.

“He has never seen a chance to volunteer for a good cause that he didn’t like,” Lave said of his friend. “He is ubiquitous.  His enthusiasm for whatever the mission is motivates all participants. His wisdom is always on track, and his willingness to share his accounting know-how has made an existential difference for many local nonprofit organizations.”

“He is the most generous, giving individual I’ve ever known,” added longtime friend and fellow Los Altos Rotarian Sam Pesner. “If there’s anything you need, he’s there.”

“He’s just fabulous,” said Ruth Patrick, executive director of WomenSV. “He oversees all our financials. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without people like Dennis. He’s one of our superheroes, one of the good guys.”

“He’s always suggesting ideas and solutions,” said Joe Eyre, executive director of Los Altos Community Foundation. “He’s willing to jump in and help any way he can.”

How it began

After earning an accounting degree at the University of San Francisco in 1965, Young enrolled in the MBA accounting program at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He left Wharton for Santa Clara University’s doctoral program, in part because its program had a teaching component and Young wanted to teach. Young went on to teach at Cal State Hayward. Still, leaving Wharton and the prestige that would have come from earning a degree there appears to be one of Young’s few regrets.

While pursuing his education, Young married Roberta in 1966.

In 1969, he received a call about a client, Lave, who needed a tax consultant. It was supposed to be a summer assignment, but the two hit it off well. By 1970, Young was working full time at SYSTAN. By 1971, he was a Los Altos resident.

Throughout his career, Young strove for independence and preferred hands-on work. Given the opportunity to be part of a bigger company as a head administrator, Young declined, opting to work directly with people and nonprofit groups – what he called “the fun stuff.”

By 1977, Young was running his own accounting firm. He met fellow Santa Clara University alumnus Janet Craig, and the two began a long business partnership. By 1980, he had moved the firm’s offices to State and Second streets in Los Altos and named it Young, Craig and Co. Approximately 15 years ago, Young’s firm moved to offices at San Antonio Road and El Camino Real in Mountain View. He currently has a staff of 25 employees.

Young supports and encourages his staff to volunteer in the community. One Young, Craig and Co. member, Lonnie Gary, is on the board of the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce, where he recently served as president. Young also brought Gary into the Rotary Club of Los Altos.

“(Commitment to community involvement) was one of the things that really impressed me about the firm,” said Gary, whom Young hired in 1997. “He sets the culture. … No. 1, you have to want to give back. But in doing so, you make connections. It’s a natural part of the way we do business.”

“I tell my team members, when you’re going to get involved in something, don’t be a member in name only,” Young said. “If you’re going to get involved, really get involved.”

Early days in Los Altos

In addition to Lave, downtown merchant Walter Singer was a mentor. Known as “Mr. Los Altos,” the late Singer was one of the first people Young met after opening his Los Altos office.

“Very much an influence on me. He introduced me around,” Young said. “He was Santa Claus in the parade. I succeeded him as Santa Claus. … He was the one who opened the doors for me to be able to get involved as quickly as I was able to.”

Among one of his more notable accomplishments in the 1980s was establishing a formal accounting base for the Los Altos Village Association, which up to that time was a loosely run downtown merchants group. As chairman of the LAVA board, Young, along with Jim Reynolds, brought organizational structure and accountability.

He was also involved in Los Altos Community Foundation from the very beginning. Initially chartered in 1991 as Los Altos Tomorrow, Young was among the 29 original members and handled the fledgling organization’s bookkeeping. The foundation, under its current name since 1995, engages in community building through a variety of philanthropic programs and grants.

“Dennis has been on just about every LACF committee, including investment, fundraising, finance, planned giving and now audit, which he leads,” Eyre said. “In addition, through his personal and professional contacts, he has referred many donors and donor- advised fund owners to LACF, which have contributed several million dollars that ultimately flows out to the community.”

Family

In between community and professional involvement, Young and his wife raised two boys, Christopher and David, who went on to careers as attorneys. Young and Roberta were married for more than 50 years prior to her death in 2017.

Inspired by her memory, he made two significant donations within a year – both representative of his desire to help the less fortunate and make a tangible difference.

The first took place in 2017, when Young donated his wife’s car. Young had a group of young philanthropists at Los Altos Community Foundation develop a set of criteria for donating the vehicle. For instance, the group determined that the family should be able to pay the insurance upon receiving the vehicle. Then Community Services Agency personnel got involved in nominating worthy families that met the criteria. The result was a family with two young boys whose father was missing quality family time because he was taking the bus to his construction jobs.

What Young found especially fulfilling were the lessons the E3 Youth Philanthropy group, comprised of local high school students, learned about responsible giving.

Six months after the family received the car, Young recalled getting a note from the older boy.

“He said it’s nice to have daddy home and have all four of us have dinner together,” Young said, smiling. “OK, that’s making a difference.”

The second opportunity came when Tom Powers, executive director of the Jesuit Retreat House, showed Young an image of the “Homeless Jesus” sculpture and asked his opinion. That led to a plan not only to install the sculpture on the grounds of the retreat center, but also to raise additional funds for the gardens, using the sculpture as a lure for prospective donors.

“We decided to do it – the Jesuit retreat house was the perfect place,” Young said.

In Young’s mind, the overarching message of the sculpture is helping people.

“The Bible says what you do for the least of my children, you do for me – help those who aren’t as fortunate,” he said. “I like how Allan Varni, president of the Rotary Club of Los Altos, closes our meetings – ‘Go out and do good work – we are the lucky ones.’”

“It’s just natural to him (to give) – that’s just the way he lives,” Powers said. “I think he really is one of these people who hear the gospel and try to live it out. He quietly lives his faith.”

Moving forward

Although not finishing Wharton still bugs him, Young acknowledged that not doing so led him to his “wonderful life” in Los Altos.

“My wife said I could have ended up in a hedge fund in New York,” Young joked.

Which, based on his love of helping people in a hands-on way, would surely have been less fulfilling.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever retire from community involvement,” he said. “I’ll stay involved as long as my health holds up.”

Young appreciates his Los Altan of the Year honor, along with his honor last year from the community foundation, his Community Volunteer Service Award in 1989 and numerous others he’s received as a byproduct of a lifetime of helping out. But his ultimate reward – as one might expect from an accountant – is the bottom line: Making a difference. Reflecting on his current work with the city’s design development working group, he envisions a new community center that residents will enjoy for decades to come.

“Awards are nice, but it’s knowing we made a difference on that project that matters,” he said. “It’s about leaving it better than you found it.”

Young is scheduled to be honored Jan. 23 at a dinner at Chef Chu’s restaurant in Los Altos. Tickets are $60 per person.

For tickets, call the Town Crier at 948-9000 to pay by credit card, or mail a check to Los Altos Town Crier, LAOTY, 138 Main St., Los Altos 94022.

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