Elizabeth and Tom Tierney are the Legacy Award honorees at this year’s National Philanthropy Day Awards Luncheon.
Elizabeth and Tom Tierney strongly agree that any positive contributions they have made to their family and the community have been a direct result of them creating it together.
“We’ve been in escrow a long time,” Tom quips, regarding the couple’s 38-year marriage.
The “escrow,” as Tom calls it, started in 1978 when the two met in Newport Beach at a human potential movement called Lifespring. Lightning struck and they were married in quick order, agreeing that their wedding gift to each other be a founding donation to the Orange County Performing Arts Center, while it was still a dream. Their journey in philanthropy had begun.
The Early Years
Elizabeth was born in Los Angeles and raised in Bakersfield, where her father Leon Carr worked in the oil fields and her mother Cordelia was a dispatcher for the fire department. Elizabeth grew up in a citrus grove, learning to ride horses through her uncle, who supplied horses to the rodeo.
“I’ve always looked to horses to ground me,” Elizabeth says.
While her friends were attending UCLA and UC Berkeley, Elizabeth, after graduating from Bakersfield High School, knew Cal Poly San Luis Obispo was where she wanted to be.
“I wanted to marry a cowboy,” she laughs, “and they were all at Cal Poly.”
The school had a huge agricultural and equestrian presence. After attending Cal Poly for several years, Elizabeth finished up at California State University, Fresno, where she earned a BA in English Literature, and much later, a MA in Counseling from Chapman University. Following working as a copy editor for the Telegram Tribune and SLO Tribune, she did a social work stint in Bakerfield before teaching high school journalism, English and government at East Bakersfield High.
By this time, Elizabeth had married (not a cowboy), had two children, divorced, moved to Idaho and then to Orange County to raise her children.
Tom was born in Detroit, Michigan, the son of Rosalie and Carroll John Patrick Tierney (“A nice Irish name,” Tom says, smiling), who maintained high pressure boilers to provide steam power for Willow Run Airport in Michigan.
The parents, with their three children, moved to the suburbs, where Tom attended Redford High School and worked at Miller’s Feed & Hobby Shop unloading freight cars of chicken and cattle feed and selling model airplanes, skin diving equipment and seeds for Victory Gardens.
He had no vision of his future when recruiters from Detroit’s Wayne State University came calling and offered to accept him as a trial student if he could maintain a C average and take a physical education class in boxing or wrestling.
Lucky for him, Tom met the ROTC guys on campus.
“I could fulfill my physical education requirement, make $85 a month, and, on graduation, receive a commission as a lieutenant in the Air Force–and go fly jets!”
After receiving a BS in Business Management from Wayne State, Tom’s 11-year Air Force career began, which saw him serve in Japan as supply and logistics staff officer for the 39th Air Division, serve as staff officer for U-2, SR-71 and remotely piloted vehicles when assigned to Strategic Air Command (SAC) headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, earn a MS in Logistics Management from the Air Force Institute of Technology in Dayton, Ohio and go on to serve as deputy chief of logistics planning for the 7th Air Force in Vietnam, working in Saigon during the Tet Offensive. In 1969, he was transferred to the prestigious RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, to serve as a Pentagon Research Associate, one of seven officers selected world-wide to do so.
Resigning his Air Force commission as a major, in 1971, Tom declined a Pentagon assignment and joined his former father-in-law as VP/general manager of Linwilco Laboratories, Inc., a small vitamin manufacturing company. By 1984, he purchased the company, which he renamed Vitatech Nutritional Sciences, Inc., and went on to establish it as a thought-leader in health empowerment nutritional formula innovation and production processes. Moving its offices to Tustin, the meeting between he and Elizabeth was preordained.
Married and raising four children between them (Tom’s Gabrielle and Kirsta and Elizabeth’s Robert and Susan), Elizabeth was shuffling them between four different schools while teaching psychology and women’s studies at Saddleback College, and Tom was busy growing Vitatech.
UC Irvine was their initial philanthropic focus, and 30 years of investing their time, talent and treasure began. They served as UCI Foundation trustees, and in 2015, after 30 years of service, Tom was installed as Trustee Emeritus, one of only four individuals so honored in the university’s 50-year history (others were Donald Bren, Joan Irvine Smith and Arnold Beckman). They established the Tierney University House, the chancellor’s residence, endowed a lifetime chair in peace studies, the first of its kind in the UC system, led the $50 million capital campaign for the UCI Douglas Hospital, and Elizabeth provided leadership to establish the UCI Women’s Opportunity Center. The couple continues to offer scholarships for students, including student veterans as a way to honor their service. There are many other involvements, too numerous to mention. Both Tom and Elizabeth have received the UCI Medal, the university’s highest honor.
Elizabeth brought together diverse cultures in her service as president of the Orange County Historical and Cultural Foundation, and her work with foster children through her board involvement with the Orangewood Children’s Foundation.
Other philanthropic passions include Segerstrom Center for the Arts, with Tom an 18-year board member, and Elizabeth an Angel of the Arts member and past president; Laguna Art Museum, where Tom was president during its reconstruction; Orange County Museum of Art trustees, naming of the Tierney Alumni House, naming of the 125-year-old mansion at Wayne State University, and many more.
Most recently, the Tierney’s $1 million gift to create the Tierney Veterans Service Center at Goodwill of Orange County will provide full-spectrum support for physical rehabilitation, housing and employment qualification for veterans in California and will be a model for 164 Goodwill locations across the country. While at Chapman University, Elizabeth had provided career counseling at military bases to transitioning veterans, so it was a good match.
The Coto de Caza couple continues to spend summers at their Busterback Ranch in Ketchum, Idaho, where Elizabeth rides her beloved Peruvian Paso horses and hosts pack trips into the Sawtooth Mountains on horses for family and friends.
With Tom selling Vitatech in 2015, life is a little more laid back for the Tierneys. Tom loves his dogs and his donkey, Larry Longears, Elizabeth’s Christmas present to him in 2014. They’re taking turns making coffee for each other and enjoying it in bed each morning. Tom, of course, has a few business endeavors already active, including BeeHive.ComLLC, a unique social networking enterprise.
Life is good for this extraordinary couple, and our lives are all the better for their commitment to this community. Their marriage in 1978 truly demonstrates the truth that “the whole is greater that the sum of its parts.”