Leslie Ridley-Tree, Santa Barbara’s one-woman powerhouse of philanthropic giving, died this week at
the age of 97. Since moving to Santa Barbara in 1988 with her husband, Paul, who died in 2006, Ridley-Tree has given away untold hundreds of millions of dollars. In person, Ridley-Tree, with
her signature shock of preternaturally red hair, was direct, shrewd, funny, commanding, and blunt.
When Sansum CEO Kurt Ransohoff first approached Ridley-Tree about donating to what’s since become
the new cancer center, she teased him for not asking for more. Ultimately, she would donate $10.7
million. Ridley-Tree’s name is attached to pretty much every major institution in Santa Barbara, from
UCSB to City College, from the treatment of alcoholism to Alzheimer’s care.
Ridley-Tree — a onetime violin player turned torch singer — gave generously to the arts as well, most notably the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Music Academy of the West, and the Museum of Natural History. She was a sustaining and compassionate donor to Casa Esperanza, the former homeless shelter on Cacique Street, not only writing big checks but volunteering every week to work in the kitchen.
The Ridley-Tree wealth stemmed from an airplane repair and parts company her husband, Paul Ridley-Tree, started in Chatsworth. When he died 16 years ago, she took over as CEO. Endowed with a gravitational attraction to leadership, Ridley-Tree told the Independent in a 2018 interview, “I take over,” adding, “And I try to do what’s best for the people without being too aggressive.” When she first took the helm of her husband’s firm, she encountered resistance. She attributed this to gender. “Maybe we have more power than we think we do, or they’re worn out with women’s lib,” she recounted. “Whatever it is, I think they’re afraid.”
Of her career in philanthropy, Ridley-Tree commented, “I don’t think of myself as a philanthropist. I think of myself as having the enormous privilege of sharing. And sometimes I get emotional about it.”