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Pierre Claeyssens, 94; Beloved Santa Barbara Philanthropist

October 25, 2003|William Overend | Times Staff Writer

Pierre Claeyssens, one of Santa Barbara's most influential and admired philanthropists, has died. He was 94.

Claeyssens died in his sleep Wednesday at his Santa Barbara home.

A Belgian immigrant, Claeyssens came to the United States in 1938 to become an architect, helping design Liberty ships at Terminal Island during World War II. He never stopped expressing his gratitude to the American GIs who helped free his native country in two world wars.

Claeyssens was a beloved figure in the world of Santa Barbara philanthropy, often confined to a wheelchair in his later years but remembered by those who knew him as a man who never lost his gentle outlook on life, his vitality and his enthusiasm for helping other people.

"He was a lovely man," said Naomi Schwartz, chairwoman of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. "In addition to his unique contributions to our community, I always remember him smiling. Obviously, he had an enormous heart."

Born in Antwerp in 1908, Claeyssens spoke often of his childhood memories of World War I.

"I know what it's like to go hungry, and it's not fun," he told the Santa Barbara News-Press. Claeyssens said he believed that "no one should go hungry, and no one should go without clothes and shelter."

He was drafted into the Belgian army at age 21, but he didn't like it, and got out as soon as possible. When Claeyssens left Belgium at the age of 30, Europe was facing another war. He first went to Chicago and later moved to California.

After World War II, Claeyssens worked as an architect, designing schools, libraries and other buildings throughout Southern California, including a school in Lompoc.

He married the late Ailene Wood, an oil heiress from Santa Barbara, and was never shy about saying that was how he became a multimillionaire. Wood died in 1995.

The Wood-Claeyssens Foundation, established in 1980, now distributes $3 million annually to more than 200 charities, Claeyssens told The Times in August.

He was interviewed at the start of a campaign to build a military museum in Santa Barbara. Claeyssens had pledged $1 million to help start the project.

Claeyssens also sponsored a lavish dinner for 500 people every year honoring military leaders, often flying them into Santa Barbara at his own expense. The annual tributes cost about $1 million each.

Asked about his special feelings for the military, Claeyssens said: "First of all, Americans set Belgium free. I still feel an obligation to the United States, especially the military. That's why I am behind the idea of a museum to honor the soldiers who died. To be killed in a war is not the worst that can happen. To be lost is not the worst. To be forgotten is the worst."

Still, his focus was not just on the military. Most of the money donated by the Wood-Claeyssens Foundation over the years went to charities, ranging from programs to help the poor and the homeless to the city's major cultural institutions and a variety of environmental causes.

Sue Adams, an activist involved in creating Santa Barbara's Cacique Street homeless shelter, remembers a day when Claeyssens joined other major donors in the center's new kitchen, stirring pots of food for a video being filmed as a special gift of thanks to a couple, Paul and Lesley Ridley-Tree, who had given $500,000 for the kitchen.

"Pierre was so excited. He was just bubbling away, talking about how important it is to help people," Adams said. "He was already past 90 then, and he had more enthusiasm and more vitality than I remember having when I was a teenager."

She added, "He was a gentle man. He had a quiet elegance, not overbearing. He didn't need to dominate the conversation or lord it over other people." Claeyssens is survived by a daughter, a son, five sisters and five grandchildren.

At his request, no public services are planned.

Donations may be made to Visiting Nurse and Hospice Care of Santa Barbara or other causes.

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