Joan Irvine Smith, philanthropist and major force behind the founding of UCI, dies at 86

Joan Irvine Smith, a prominent arts patron and philanthropist who championed the creation of UC Irvine, has died, according to the university.
(Courtesy of UC Irvine)

Joan Irvine Smith, an arts patron and philanthropist who played a pivotal role in the founding and advancement of UC Irvine, has died, the university announced Friday. She was 86.

She died Thursday, her family said, but other details were not disclosed.

Born Athalie Anita Irvine in 1933, she was the great-granddaughter of James Irvine I — who established the Irvine Co., which eventually grew into one of Orange County’s most prominent real estate and development firms.

Her father died when she was 2, but she later created a charitable foundation with her mother, Athalie.

At annual roundups on the sprawling Irvine Ranch, Smith developed a lifelong passion for horses and a sense of stewardship.

Her grandfather died in 1947, leaving her a minority share in the Irvine Co., controlled by the James Irvine Foundation. Her battles with the foundation spanned 34 years but resulted in the establishment of UC Irvine and contributed to the preservation of Crystal Cove as a state park.

Smith was a member of the Irvine Co. board of directors in 1957 when the University of California regents decided to establish a new Southern California campus, according to UCI.

She championed the effort to locate the campus on the Irvine Ranch property and persuaded the Irvine Co. to part with 1,000 acres for that purpose for $1, UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman said in a statement on the university’s website.

“It is no exaggeration to say that without Joan Irvine Smith there likely would not be a University of California, Irvine,” Gillman said. “What we are today, and all that we contribute to the world, is due in large part to her farsightedness, her tenacity and her generosity. We offer our condolences to the entire Irvine family on their loss.”

Donald Bren, chairman of the Irvine Co., based in Newport Beach, said in a statement that “Joan was a longtime friend and I always admired her passion for the land and the environment. She was a very important participant in the history of the all-new city of Irvine and Orange County. She will be missed.”

Representatives of the Crystal Cove Conservancy could not immediately be reached for comment Friday.

Gillman said a celebration of Smith’s life will be held on campus next spring. He added that, in lieu of flowers, her family has asked that donations be made to the Joan Irvine Smith Fund, which will benefit the UCI Institute and Museum of California Art.

Luke Money is a Daily Pilot staff writer. Steve Marble is obituaries editor for the Los Angeles Times. Daily Pilot staff writer Lilly Nguyen contributed to this report.

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2:44 PM, Dec. 20, 2019: This article was originally published at 10:33 a.m. and has been updated with additional information.