In Memoriam | Leslie Ridley-Tree: 1924-2022

Leslie was a lady.

While the word “lady” connotes a woman of noble rank; it actually derives from a term for “breadmaker,” seemingly appropriate for the woman who metaphorically kneaded, baked, and distributed bread throughout Santa Barbara.

Leslie and her late husband, Paul Ridley-Tree, were the leading philanthropists of Santa Barbara during the last 30 years, funding hundreds of millions of dollars to organizations.

Leslie’s grounding in social service started in New York City’s West Side. Leslie began volunteering at the Episcopal Church of St. Matthew & St. Timothy. Her natural gift for organization came to the fore: She ended up running the church’s neighborhood community center for seven years, attracting recognition from then-governor Rockefeller. Always with an eye on how to improve the lives of others, Leslie established the first Head Start program in New York City to help underprivileged children prepare for school.

When the courts tossed in her lap 15 troubled teenaged girls expelled from school, with no place to go, Leslie took them in and established a Bridge Academy to prepare them for life. With her indefatigable encouragement, they not only finished high school, but some even went on to nursing school.

Lady Leslie Ridley-Tree at her home in Montecito. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Leslie herself valued education: She had attended Columbia University, and when living in Europe, she studied at the University of Madrid.

Then, at the age of 60, when most people think of retirement, Leslie contemplated the idea of starting law school.

She discussed the idea with her daughter, Suzette, and confessed, “I will be the oldest person in class! At my age, what I am doing — going back to school?”

Her daughter wisely responded, “Well, you will be that age anyway.”

And with that, Leslie matriculated the University of West Los Angeles Law School to become a paralegal. She was soon working at a law firm and found herself driving up north to personally deliver legal documents for a client’s signature.

That 90-minute drive to Montecito would change her life. Along with Santa Barbara.

The client was Paul Herbert Ridley-Tree, the founder and CEO of Pacific Air Industries (PAI), a multimillion-dollar airplane-parts distribution company. And it seems his signature was barely dry on the papers when he was taking a long, second look at the remarkable, intelligent, and utterly interesting “young woman” before him. She was 63 years old.

A decisive businessman, Paul pursued and wooed Leslie; two months later, they were married on Valentine’s Day in 1988.

Paul was absolutely smitten, and Leslie took full advantage of the situation to open his eyes, his heart, and his wallet to help the community. Leslie provided the vision of a joyful, loving life together as serial philanthropists, providing funds to worthwhile projects and programs throughout the area. And with that, the two became the most prolific philanthropists in Santa Barbara since Max Fleischmann.

Paul loved to joke that he “still had to go to work” so that Leslie would have some money to give away. And he also noted that whenever she had a “certain twinkle in her eye,” he knew it was time to get out his checkbook.

Through her influence with Paul and her outreach within the community, Leslie raised the bar for benevolence in Santa Barbara. Within scant years, fundraising gifts locally were moving — from $10,000 to $100,000.

Lady Bountiful

Their first act together was a $100,000 gift to the Museum of Art. Leslie had an eye for art and curated the canvases they collected. Later, she donated their works by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and other Barbizon artists to Westmont College.

Besides Paul, Leslie had another love — music. In a previous life, she had trained in violin and voice, considering a classical career, but enjoyed many seasons singing professionally as a chanteuse.

Her dinner soirees and legendary Christmas parties always ended with a crowd singing around her Bösendorfer piano. On one occasion, Leslie started crooning “Autumn Leaves” in the original French. It was so stunning, the entire room went absolutely silent until her last beautiful note.

She served on the Westmont Music Council and was generous to the Music Academy and the Santa Barbara Symphony. Moreover, as an underwriter for UCSB Arts & Lectures, Leslie made it possible for her community to experience world-class artists such as Yo-Yo Ma in Santa Barbara.

A woman of faith, Leslie believed in a personal God who provided solace and direction. Her family treasured the memory of her reading her Prayer Book every morning. She explained to a conference of powerful women, “Faith is everything for me … I also happen to believe in Something bigger than I am. And that has helped me all through life.”

Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

She considered any advantageous circumstances she had as a gift — with a responsibility to share it wisely. She took to heart Luke 12:48, “To whom much is given, much is required.” Her own mother instilled: “Whatever you have, you must share. The more you have, the more you must share.”

What was especially endearing about Leslie’s lodestar was that neither Leslie nor Paul came from money. Despite the later nomenclature of “Lord and Lady,” they were not raised with wealth, but both were industrious and worked their whole lives. Paul was a self-made millionaire through his company. This is what kept the pair practical and thoughtful of what they had, and how best to give it away.

Incredibly, after Paul passed, Leslie — at 80 — took the helm of his company. With no background in aviation, Leslie again became a committed student and quick study, happily driving down to work in Santa Monica three days a week. Leslie kept the company going so that — as she confessed unabashedly — she would have more money to give out. And as she often stated, “It felt like a privilege to be able to give.” And she did so with a tremendous sense of gratitude for the very opportunity.

Leslie was a lovely study in contrasts. While comfortable in designer clothes and beaming when bejeweled with her favorite gems from Paul, she would not hesitate to roll up her sleeves, pull off her rings, and dirty her manicured nails to work in the kitchen at Casa Esperanza. Or dig a ditch for groundbreaking at Cottage Hospital. Or serve food for the Rescue Mission.

Especially noteworthy was that Leslie never missed an opportunity to find and fund the unglamorous but desperately needed smaller necessities: paying off the mortgages for the Eastside Medical and Dental Clinics, providing scholarships for those easy-to-fall-through-the-cracks scholars with learning disabilities, or funding medical scholarships for needy individuals. Leslie was always about upholding the dignity of individuals.

In addition to her donations, Leslie gave organizations her total dedication. If she served on a board — and there were many — she gave it her complete focus. She did her homework, made calls, reflected, prayed, and then gave a thoughtful analysis of what could be or should be done. If a door ever closed, she advised never to stew but to just pick up and keep going. This resiliency is what made Leslie so grounded and approachable. It also kept her real; she would never “speechify” or read from prepared notes. She spoke from the heart so that people might be moved by her purpose and passion rather than her prose.

With a life well lived and a life well given, Leslie Ridley-Tree passed away at the age of 98. Gracious, generous, kind, and thoughtful, she will truly be remembered as Santa Barbara’s First Lady.

Credit: Paul Wellman (file)


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