On the University of California campus that he was instrumental in helping secure for Orange County nearly 50 years ago, Raymond Leslie Watson was remembered Sunday as the "master builder of human communities."
At a memorial for Watson, who passed away at 86 last month from complications of Parkinson's disease, the architect and planner turned business executive was remembered as one of the most influential forces in the evolution of two Southern California iconic brands: the Irvine Company and the Walt Disney Company.
As the Irvine Company's first urban planner in 1960, Watson has always been considered the "Architect of Irvine," the most important individual in shaping the look, feel and ultimately the flow of this 66-square-mile city, perhaps the most successful master planned city in American history. He went on to become president of the company and then vice chairman until he retired in 2003.
Current Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren, in a rare public display of emotion, was visibly moved when he told nearly 200 people at the memorial in the Pacific Ballroom on the UCI campus, that saying goodbye to his friend and confidant "is my biggest challenge yet" as owner of the vast development firm. No single individual, Bren said softly in measured tones, was as important in "fostering the relationships" between the company and the community as Watson.
As Bren, dressed in a dark suit and tie, concluded his remarks, he said of Watson, "We will miss you more than you can imagine."
A similar refrain about Watson's impact was echoed by Rev. Leo J. O'Donovan, the 47th president of Georgetown University and former colleague of Watson on the Walt Disney Board of Directors. O'Donovan recalled 1984 when Watson was chairman of the Disney board and helped successfully fend off a hostile takeover of the entertainment giant by outside investors. Without Watson's leadership in those "difficult, dark days, there would be no Disney as we know it today," O'Donovan said.
In the front row, a few seats from Bren and his wife, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner sat and listened intently. It was Watson who helped engineer the move to name Eisner the chief executive officer of Disney and Frank Wells president during that period. "We can not praise (Watson) too much," said O'Donovan, who added he would have traveled to “all points on the globe to celebrate Ray’s grand life.”
Those in attendance included Irvine Co. executives present and past: Dan Young, Gary Hunt, Ralph Grippo and Rob Elliott, who heads up the company's planning and design efforts today and spoke at the memorial. Elliott, who was recruited and hired by Watson, said as much as he was a visionary in terms of planning, he was “first a humanist who cared about people and how they treated each other." While other developers or planners might recoil at public input into projects, Elliott said Watson welcomed the comments and criticism that resulted from the public review process.
“Ray taught me to embrace the process because it ultimately made our projects stronger and more lasting,” Elliott said.
Among other local dignitaries who attended the memorial were former California State Secretary of Education Marian Bergeson, Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang, and former UCI assistant Vice Chancellor Liz Toomey, whose father Dan Aldrich was the first chancellor at UC Irvine.
Despite his executive positions, Watson placed the highest priority on his family life, which was evident when his four grown children spoke lovingly and longingly at the memorial about his interest and unwavering support for their success. They painted a picture of a father and a husband to his wife Elsa of 58 years whose happiest times were spent with his children and grandchildren. Burgers, fries and a shake was the perfect meal for Watson, who was an avid Lakers fan, tennis player and jogger. Said his oldest son, Bryan: “He simply wanted people to succeed.”
Watson passed away in his Newport Beach home of 48 years, one of the first Irvine Company residential villages that he helped design and plan in East Bluff. He is survived by his wife, Elsa, four grown children, Kathy, Bryan, Lisa and David and their wives, and 10 grandchildren.