Gentleman farmerWalter Cottle Lester

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Lester was a lifelong farmer. The farm he happened to be born into was in California’s Silicon Valley, south of San Jose. In the old days, California was better known for its agriculture than its high tech businesses, and Lester worked his farm as his parents did before him. He was born in the same farmhouse as his mother, sister, and some aunts and uncles. They had 287 acres, and Lester wasn’t interested in the microchips nor the other computer businesses that eventually surrounded him, just cherries, plums, apricots, peaches and grains. IBM was the first to come calling, in the 1950s, offering big bucks for a portion of the land for their local campus, but Lester wouldn’t sell; the company built elsewhere.

Over the years, San Jose kept growing, annexing land to take the city from 17 square miles to 137, including Lester’s 287 acres. Lester, who also cared for his sister, who was deaf and blind, kept farming, but it cost him: the farmland ended up being worth more than half a billion dollars, but he refused to take the cash and retire. When his sister died, Lester was declared her heir, and he was handed a $100 million tax bill for her half of the land’s value. He got his way (and virtually all of the tax bill erased) by donating his land to the state — with the majority permanently set aside to lease for agricultural use. A small portion went to the city of San Jose — for a city park with exhibits on the area’s farming traditions. Improvements for the $26 million Martial Cottle Park, named for Lester’s grandfather, started last summer. “People ask, why didn’t Walter sell and go buy an island? Well, his world was right here,” said his farm manager, David Giordano. “His duty in life, as he perceived it, was to preserve the ranch in its entirety.” Last year, Lester himself explained it this way: “It’s part of history here. It would be nice for kids in future generations to know what it was like before it all changed.” Lester died January 31, in the farmhouse where he was born. He was 88.

From This is True for 9 February 2014