Joan Irvine Smith, the daughter of one of Southern California’s powerful pioneering families whose vast stretches of farmland were meticulously turned into what’s now much of modern-day Orange County, has died at the age of 86.
Her death was announced by UC Irvine, a school whose very existence was due in large measure to Smith’s role in providing the land and guidance for the university in its early days. The school did not say when or where Smith died.
“In the history of our university, few have played a more important or compelling role than she did,” said Howard Gillman, the university’s chancellor.
Athalie Anita Irvine was born in 1933, the great-granddaughter of rancher James Irvine I. Her father died when she was 2, but her childhood was enriched by her mother, Athalie, with whom she later created a charitable foundation, and her grandfather James “Jase” H. Irvine Jr., who taught her to revere the land.
Smith spent time on the family ranch, which originally sprawled for 115,000 acres, now owned by Donald Bren, the president and owner of the Irvine Co. It was at annual roundups on the ranch that Smith developed her lifelong passion for horses and a sense of stewardship.
Smith’s grandfather died in 1947, leaving her a minority share in the Irvine Co., controlled by the James Irvine Foundation. Her image in the 1950s as a glamorous sportswoman perhaps led the foundation directors to underestimate her deep commitment to environmental preservation and social programs in which she believed the foundation should participate.
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 rather than its development.
A separate foundation established by Smith and her mother in the 1990s heavily endowed the university’s medical school and has pledged money to create a long-desired law school. They also founded a museum to preserve the plein-air art for which Laguna Beach is famous.
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