The family of Orange County philanthropist and environmentalist Joan Irvine Smith, a member of the family that founded the Irvine Ranch and a key figure in the development of UC Irvine and CHOC Children’s Hospital, Friday announced her death at the age of 86.
Smith “died peacefully” Thursday, according to her family’s statement, which did not reveal where she died or list a cause of death.
UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman, in a statement posted on the university’s website, credited Smith for the existence of the campus, where he said a celebration of her life will be held in the spring.
“It is no exaggeration to say that without Joan Irvine Smith there likely would not be a University of California, Irvine,” he wrote. “What we are today, and all that we contribute to the world, is due in large part to her far-sightedness, her tenacity and her generosity. We offer our condolences to the entire Irvine family on their loss.”
Gillman noted that Smith was a member of the Irvine Co. board of directors when, in 1957, the University of California Board of Regents authorized the creation of a new campus in Southern California.
“A visionary yet practical woman, she knew that the establishment of a research university on the ranch’s property would do for south Orange County what the establishment of UCLA had done for west Los Angeles,” according to the chancellor’s statement. “Leading a coalition of local leaders, and in the face of many competing sites, she succeeded, first, in winning the approval of the site selection committee and then in convincing the Irvine Co. to sell 1,000 acres to the University of California for $1.”
She was the first woman named Orange County’s “Man of the Year” in 1961 for her efforts in support of the establishment of UCI.
Smith made the lead gift to establish the Reeve-Irvine Research Center for the study and treatment of spinal cord injuries and the inaugural donation in support of the creation of the UCI School of Law. Named after her is Joan Irvine Smith Hall, which houses administrative offices, a lecture hall and research labs for the School of Medicine.
In 2016, Smith and son James Irvine Swinden donated The Irvine Museum’s collection of California Impressionist art to the university.
Smith founded The Irvine Museum, an admission-free public museum, organized 17 traveling exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe and published 21 books about the California School of Impressionism, her family said.
In addition to the California Impressionist collection she donated to UCI, Smith had Asian art and English sporting art collections.
Through her foundation, she provided the initial funding for the National Water Research Institute, a public-private partnership devoted to improving Southern California’s quantity and quality of potable water.
An accomplished equestrian, Smith developed the American Sport Horse, a now recognized breed known for strength and stamina.
Smith was the only child of James Irvine Jr. and his wife Athalie Richardson Irvine Clarke, who raised her in Beverly Hills, Pasadena and a rural part of Orange County that eventually grew into what is now Irvine.
Her father served as the vice president of the Irvine Co. as well as the general manager of the Irvine Ranch, and her mother was a commercial artist and businesswoman who became known as a social and political leader following the death of her husband in 1935.
As a young adult, Smith succeeded her mother as director of the Irvine Co., where she played a significant role in the development of the Irvine properties and was a proponent for a master plan for the City of Irvine.
She was also a driving force behind the founding of Crystal Cove State Park, once part of her family’s ranch and committed to public use by her grandfather.
Her family’s statement said her “activism grew out of frustration with the James Irvine Foundation’s control” of the Irvine Co. “As a result, she found herself wearing yet another hat — that of lobbyist. She played a pivotal role in what would become the Tax Reform Act of 1969 calling for rules of the governance of private foundations including the limitation on business ownership.”
Smith is survived by her three sons, James Irvine Swinden, Russel S. Penniman IV and Morton Irvine Smith, along with their wives and six grandchildren. Following a private memorial service, she will be interred at Fairhaven Cemetery in Santa Ana.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests any gifts in Smith’s memory be made to Mission San Juan Capistrano for its ongoing preservation or to the Joan Irvine Smith Fund, which will benefit the UCI Institute and Museum of California Art.