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Isaac and Madeline Stein: A lifetime of strong relationships and shared values
Married for 35 years, couple devotes much time to community causes, nonprofit fundraising and university volunteerism


When it comes to stories of love overcoming obstacles, Isaac and Madeline Stein, two Stanford alumni who remain heavily involved in university life, have a pretty good one to tell.

Isaac, the current chairman of the Board of Trustees, and Madeline, a community organizer who serves on the advisory boards of the School of Education and the Haas Center for Public Service, first met as teenagers 38 years ago at a foreign studies orientation party at Oxford University, where Isaac showed a keen interest in the freckles of his future wife.

The Jewish boy from New York had a very different upbringing from the New Jersey girl raised by Irish Catholic and Protestant parents, but the two were able to find enough commonalities and love to endure the roadblocks they encountered as they started a life together.

Now, with two children and a lifetime of good deeds behind them, the prominent Stanford couple spoke together publicly for the first time on their shared experiences during last week's installment of the university's ongoing series "What Matters to Me and Why."

Although they each listed three different values that mattered most to them, Isaac explained that he and his wife share a common value system forged by their growth as a couple over nearly four decades.

"Our values, and what matters to each of us, have been largely shaped by our interactions together and our common experiences," Isaac said. "And our ability to have shaped those values in our life together is, of course, the single thing that has mattered most to both of us."

Stanford University also ranks highly on the list of what matters most to the Steins, beginning with the first trip the couple took to the campus.

"When we first drove up Palm Drive in 1968, neither Maddy nor I had ever been very far west of Philadelphia," Isaac recounted. "We thought we had died and gone to heaven. Thirty-six years later, we still do."

The Steins moved to Palo Alto so Isaac could pursue his higher education. Having earned his bachelor's degree in mathematical economics from Colgate University, Isaac enrolled in a joint business and law program at Stanford and earned an M.B.A/J.D. in 1972. Madeline, who earned her bachelor's degree in history from Arcadia University, accepted a job at the School of Education when Isaac enrolled here. Shortly afterward, she was accepted to a master's program in the School of Education. She graduated with an M.A. in 1970.

The move to Stanford also provided some much-needed distance from both of their families, who staunchly disapproved of their relationship, mostly on religious grounds. Although the parents eventually warmed to the relationship after the birth of the Steins' two children, Josh (in 1973) and Sarah (in 1975), Isaac told the crowd that he has come to view religious extremism and intolerance as one of the biggest societal problems.

"It is not difficult to feel outrage at the concept of a suicide bomber, but our society needs to look in the mirror as well," Isaac said, noting the Christian Coalition and ultra-orthodox parties in Israel as two examples of groups trying to control secular life. "When somebody else's interpretation of God's will is used to organize our lives, we are in very serious danger. Fighting religious extremism and intolerance is an area where I hope to spend more time."

Perspective has helped Isaac navigate difficult situations throughout his life and has come to be one of the abilities he values most. To Isaac, perspective is recognizing that people see issues based on their values and experiences. He cited perspective as an invaluable tool for finding compromises when, as chairman of the university's Board of Trustees, he negotiates with local politicians.

"As a trustee, my time horizon is long since we are guardians of the long-term future of the university," Isaac said. "Politicians, on the other hand, tend to have a very short-term focus and know they won't be around for the long term. By dividing the issues to try to address both our perspectives, it may be possible to reach a compromise and resist the temptation to treat our differences as irreconcilable."

Having been one of the first in his family of immigrants to attend college, Isaac cited educational opportunities as one of his main values. His education opened many doors for him and led to jobs as a partner at the law firm of Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe, chief financial officer and general counsel at Raychem Corp., chairman at Esprit de Corp, and his current position as president and founder of Waverley Associates Inc. in Palo Alto, a private investment firm.

Isaac also has been active on the boards of numerous nonprofits, including service as chairman of the boards of UCSF Stanford Health Care and of Stanford Health Services. He has served on the university's Board of Trustees since 1994 and was elected chairman in June 2000. His term expires in June 2004.

The Steins' children also graduated from Stanford. Josh earned an M.B.A. in 1999, and Sarah earned an M.A. in education and an M.B.A. in 2002.

Madeline has spent considerable time and energy on community volunteering and fundraising, including service as the president of the boards of the Children's Health Council, Community Breast Health Project, Palo Alto Community Fund and the Elizabeth Gamble Garden Center. She was honored for her work with the Tall Tree Award in 1998, which is presented to an outstanding citizen of Palo Alto.

Having been raised in a family where passionate debates about social issues were common around the dinner table, Madeline cited her community work as one of the things she values most.

"Since women of my generation often did not gravitate to finance or development committees, I especially tried to volunteer in those capacities," Madeline said. "Isaac likes to joke that we won't be invited to dinner anymore if I get involved in one more project that requires me to ask our friends to volunteer or to give money."

Madeline grew up as the middle of five children, something that she said helped her learn the values of finding common ground, practicing forgiveness, remaining flexible and speaking up for herself. She found great comfort during her childhood among her siblings while her mother battled addictions to alcohol and prescription drugs and was able to establish a warm and nurturing relationship once her mother sought help more than 30 years ago.

"Second chances are possible if we can open our hearts and our minds and move beyond past grievances," Madeline said. "Living with my parents gave me an understanding of the complex and competing forces within each human being and the belief that every person has the capacity for positive change and growth."

Nurturing her own family relationships has been a priority for Madeline. She said she has never found a shortage of worthy causes or potential friendships to pursue, but she has strived to create a sense of balance in her life for the things she loves: family, gardening, exercise, travel and reading.

"We understand and enjoy the fact that strong relationships take time and effort," Madeline said. "The old saying that 'on your deathbed no one ever wishes they had spent more time at the office' rings true to me."

Isaac Stein
Isaac Stein

Madeline Stein
Madeline Stein