Hometown hero: Walnut Creek attorney's 40 years of handing out minority college scholarships

  • September 3, 2013

By Matthias Gafni
Bay Area News Group

Shortly after Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June 1968 and months after Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed, a young Ed Regalia met with his Democratic club in a friend's Walnut Creek backyard.

The idealistic young attorney, along with wife Gwen and others, thought of how they could honor the two men's contributions to society. They decided to create a scholarship fund for low-income minority students in Contra Costa County. They consulted a black professor at Diablo Valley College, Regalia said.

"He set up a program that he recommended, and we followed his rules," Regalia said in a recent interview from his Walnut Creek home.

More than four decades later, the Kennedy-King Memorial College Scholarship Fund has helped send more than 600 Contra Costa community college students to four-year universities, raising more than $3.5 million.

"We're very grateful," said Regalia, now 82, retired and recovering from a stroke five years ago.

The well-known attorney, whose wife served as Walnut Creek's mayor for many years, still sits on the fund's board. His work with minority students began even earlier, when he was a 16-year-old El Cerrito High student leading the Del Mar Hi-Y club. A district official wrote a letter to the teenage Regalia in 1948 about a recital, saying, "The spirit of your organization in being willing to agree to sponsor a colored boy before the public was, to me, far more important." It was a year after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in baseball, his wife pointed out.

Regalia was born in El Cerrito; his father laid bricks for a living. Regalia attended nearby UC Berkeley while earning a scholarship from the Navy. He served three years during the latter part of the Korean War, leaving the military as a lieutenant before returning to Cal and graduating from Boalt Law School.

By 1964, Regalia joined Boalt classmates Harry Miller and Marvin Starr to form the Miller Starr Regalia law firm. Dealing almost exclusively in civil litigation, Regalia led the firm in real estate and business issues, representing title companies, banks, savings and loans, and other companies.

The father of four was involved in many major cases, litigating one for a woman whose house was damaged from a landslide. That case wound its way to the state Supreme Court and led to requirements to provide disclosures for homebuyers.

His work with the scholarship fund raised some eyebrows, with most thinking it would quickly fizzle out.

At the inaugural dinner, held June 14, 1969, in Concord, Regalia's group awarded $2,000 scholarships each to the first two recipients. The organization spent months personally collecting pledges from various politicians and Contra Costa movers and shakers. U.S. Rep. George Miller's father, then a state senator, pulled a $100 bill from his money clip when the couple approached him, Gwen Regalia said. The younger George Miller continues to raise $8,000 each year to fund a scholarship, she added.

The fund has always reached across the political aisle. At the first dinner, the speakers included former Democratic U.S. Reps. Pete Stark and Jerome Waldie, and Republican State Sen. John Nejedly.

Over the years, more and more of the fundraising came from corporations, enabling more students to get help. The fund requires low-income minority students to have spent two years at one of Contra Costa's three community colleges, and the scholarships help pay for their junior and senior years at four-year universities. Graduate school scholarships also are available.

Alameda County deputy district attorney Mark Jackson, who is black, received an undergraduate scholarship in 1988 as a Contra Costa College undergraduate, and it allowed him to finish his degree at San Francisco State. He won the scholarship again in 1991 as he tackled his law degree at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

As a college student, Jackson struggled to earn enough money to attend college.

"The scholarship was very helpful in enabling me, in conjunction with working two jobs and with my family's help, in graduating college without any student loan debt," Jackson said. "These students need every dollar they can get from this program."

Jackson, now 45, has since served on the scholarship's board and started a pre-law program at Contra Costa College.

"Whenever they finished and got a job, they were expected to devote their time in the community," said Gwen Regalia, who has served on the scholarship fund board, as well as 21 years on the Walnut Creek City Council and nine years on the Walnut Creek school district board.

In May, Ed Regalia's organization awarded scholarships to another 20 students who will attend undergraduate and graduate schools, including San Francisco State, UC Berkeley, Mills College, University of Alaska, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Cal State East Bay, Holy Names University and Samuel Merritt University.

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