Philanthropist, Activist Athalie Clarke Dies : Obituary: The widow of James Irvine III--whom daughter Joan Irvine Smith called ‘the grand dame of Orange County’--worked tirelessly for such causes as establishing UC Irvine. She was 90.


Athalie R. Clarke, an activist in philanthropic, cultural and political affairs over five decades who helped shape a large section of modern Orange County, died Saturday. She was 90 years old.

Clarke--the widow of James Irvine III, whose father founded the Irvine Co.--was known widely for helping to establish and expand UC Irvine. She died of natural causes while taking a nap at home Saturday afternoon, said family friend and attorney Russ Allen.

Clarke’s only child, Joan Irvine Smith, said that although her mother worked tirelessly for causes ranging from the Eisenhower-Nixon campaign to an institute for the hearing-impaired, her friends will remember her best for her personal devotion to loved ones who needed her.


Smith, 59, recalled how her mother tended to two husbands who fell ill and died, and to her own mother when she fell ill.

“She was a giving, loving, understanding, compassionate person,” Smith said Sunday. “She watched over all of us. She wasn’t just a mother, she was my best friend, staunchest supporter and ally. Now that she can no longer be here to counsel us directly, I still feel her presence. She’s our guardian angel.”

Smith called her mother “the grand dame of Orange County,” describing her death as “the passing of an era” because Clarke had witnessed tremendous changes in Orange County since she married James Irvine III in 1929. Irvine’s father, James Jr., transformed 108,000 acres of chaparral into an agricultural powerhouse booming with avocados, oranges and lima beans.

In young womanhood, Clarke was a commercial artist, rendering fashion sketches for newspapers and magazines and teaching at an art school in Los Angeles. She married twice: the first time to James (Jase) Irvine III, who wooed her with a gardenia corsage and a note that compared her beauty to the flower, and the second time to U.S. District Judge Thurmond Clarke. She was twice widowed.

She was active in politics for many years, serving as Los Angeles County co-chairwoman of the Eisenhower-Nixon campaign, and was a Republican delegate to many presidential conventions. A close friend, Mary Roosevelt, noted in a 1987 tribute speech to Clarke that few women could claim her distinction of having had living-room chats with Nixon, and later, Reagan, encouraging each to run for president.

Clarke served for years on the Irvine Co. Board of Trustees, and when her daughter replaced her in 1957, the two became a formidable force pushing for causes they believed in. Together, they pressed the board to develop a master plan for the ranch, which included the city of Irvine.


They also persuaded the directors in the early 1960s to provide the land on which UC Irvine was established. The two women have donated millions of dollars to expand that university and fund its programs.

Just this past October, they gave a $1-million grant to boost the research of the university’s top atmospheric scientists. In 1991, they gave $2 million to UCI’s College of Medicine.

Clarke was on the board of directors of the UCI College of Medicine and the UC Irvine Foundation. In 1987, the college gave Clarke its highest non-academic honor, the UCI Medal of Honor, for her tireless fund-raising efforts.

“The thing that always struck me about Athalie was the depth of warm feeling that everyone I knew felt toward her,” said Dr. Walter Henry, dean of the UCI College of Medicine.

“Her death is almost like losing somebody in the family,” he said. “She was very gracious, thoughtful and kind toward everyone she met. She always had time to listen and offer words of encouragement. She will be sorely missed by people in this community.”

A year and a half ago, Clarke and Smith began the National Water Research Institute, based at the offices of the Orange County Water District. Smith said her mother hoped the institute would work on finding new sources of water. It has become one of the largest research organizations of its kind in the country, Smith said.


Clarke, who in later years suffered from an inner-ear problem that affected her balance, is a trustee emeritus of the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles, and was responsible for funding its Orange County fund-raising arm. She was a life trustee of Chapman University, a past regent of Loyola Marymount University and a former trustee of Cal State Los Angeles.

Clarke’s activism extended into museums: She was a former trustee of the Los Angeles Museum of Science and Industry, and at her death, was a director of the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace Foundation.

She served as a member of the fine arts committee of the U.S. State Department. Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter all appointed her to serve as a member of the committee for the Preservation of the White House, Allen said.

In recent years, Clarke and Smith teamed up to battle the Irvine Co. over the worth of their shares. After an eight-year court fight, they reached a settlement in which the company paid them nearly $128 million each. The settlement ended most of the Irvine family’s connections with the company after more than a century.

In the past few weeks, Smith said, her mother had been in failing health. Smith recalled that her mother repeatedly told her: “When the time is right, the fruit will fall. You must not grieve. This will happen. I will go to be with your father and with my parents.”

Clarke is survived by Smith; three grandsons, James, 39; Russell, 35, and Morton, 27; two great-grandsons and a great-granddaughter.


Visitation will be Wednesday from 3 to 7 p.m. at Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana. A small, private ceremony for the family will be held later, Allen said.

Clarke’s body will be cremated and her ashes interred at Fairhaven Memorial Park, alongside an identical urn holding the ashes of her first husband.

Clarke had requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the UCI College of Medicine, the House Ear Institute or the National Water Research Institute.