A Life of Accomplishments and Philanthropic Endeavors

| July 5, 2023 | 0 Comments

By Ginny Ollis

Mission Hills is treasured for its history, architecture and genuine sense of community, but it is also home to many people who do and have created a legacy far beyond our neighborhood borders.  Ben and Nikki Clay are among them.  While they have been homeowners in Mission Hills for 40 years, they have managed to spread their accomplishments from here to Sacramento and Washington D.C. and back. 

Ask what they are most proud of and they simultaneously blurt out “Jonathan and Siris.”  Jonathan is their 51 year old son who is now head of JDC Consulting, working in Sacramento for Scripps Hospital, the City of San Diego, the Port of San Diego, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the City of Imperial , SDSU and the well-known Kobey’s Swap Meet. 

Siris (pronounced like Cyrus) is 13, subject of the proudest grands, and happily focusing on swimming, cooking and baseball, with a destiny he is still too young to appreciate.

But then, success is also hereditary.  Ben and Ken Carpi were founders of Carpi and Clay Co, which is now known as the Clay Company, which Nikki started, developing long-term strategy, major wins, and short-term results for clients in government, community, and media relations. 

Nikki was born in San Francisco to a large Italian family, moved, before she knew City-By-the-Bay well, to Seattle then Riverside and chose San Diego State University for college.  Ben was born just as his father was released from WWII military service and the family returned to La Mesa. 

Ben also chose San Diego State.  Although he and Nikki had shared interests while in school, student governments and university organizations, they really connected their senior year while serving as SDSU reps at the Model U.S. conference in Portland.  They decided to spend a day touring what is also known as “The Golden Gate City,” and recognized a bond.  Not only had they both inherited a passion for volunteering, but it is immediately obvious that they share caring, determination, and a frequent natural sense of humor that seems to empower all challenges.

It was a different time.  As a kid growing up in La Mesa, Ben remembers playing on the river and building rafts, visiting the 52-mile headwaters in Julian, and from San Diego State they would rent horses and ride down in the valley all the way to the beach and back.  And when one of the valley’s dairies closed, Clay was one of 14 who rented the property for a while to “do what they wanted.”

Working on her masters at San Diego State was a big challenge, Nikki confesses.  Because by then there was so much going on in her life.  Ben confesses that, when he graduated in 1968 with his degree in Public Administration, he was well aware of the restored military draft and increase of the height limit which no longer exonerated him, and immediately enrolled in the Army Medical Service unit. 

When he was released, he aimed to become City Manager in SD but instead was recruited as a lobbyist for San Diego.  From their earliest steps after SDSU, they created their various companies and began big steps into public achievements. She became chair of the Regional San Diego Chamber of Commerce, the first woman chair of the Downtown Partnership, and first woman board chair of the Holiday Bowl.  She loves to thank John Reid who personally escorted and welcomed her to the Pacific Ten Conference board where she was one of two women with 100 men. 

Rotary Club members are internationally welcomed to visit any other clubs.  In Avignon France, there were no women members and the club kept calling her a Rotary Ann (spouse not member), and although smiling, talked in French about this should-not-have-come woman.  When the Clays left, she spoke to them all for the first time in her college French, “Thank you all for having us,” letting them all know she had heard all their conversation. 

In 1989 the couple traveled to Seoul and Bejing for a Rotary conference.  While there were state department alerts, they were not told they could not go, and were in Tiananmen Square during the enormous conflict.  They had a fax machine and while photos could not be faxed, they immediately sent information to Diane Bell about the goings on. All the students in the Square spoke English and knew all about our democracy including early founders and Bill of Rights.  There were no cars and one amazing observation was the many families of six or more sharing one bicycle, wheelbarrow, and the like.  Afterward, Ben and Nikki reported to many groups about their experience. 

For those of you who know Ben, you are aware he is very tall.  In sixth grade, when their son went to school at Grant Elementary to take advantage of the special math-science specialty, he was also tall, and known to his friends as “Big Jon.”

Ben and Nikki are still very involved.  They serve on the board at the Old Globe, the San Diego Symphony, the California State Railroad Museum and San Diego Natural History Museum, the Midway, and sometimes teaches.  He is past president and still active member of our city’s largest Rotary Club.  He was originally appointed to the San Diego River Conservancy by Governor Schwarzenegger, where he is now chair.  She also serves on the Scripps Health Board and the Campanile Foundation at SDSU.  A few years ago, the couple donated $750,000 to San Diego State University for the 34-acre River Park at SDSU Mission Valley to provide support for its development, operating and maintenance. They co-chaired the University’s centennial celebration in 1997 where an internship scholarship in their name supports students for the School of Public Affairs and other significant scholarships. 

In 2016 the Clay Gateway was opened as the formal campus entrance with shining plaques: “Through These Gates Will Pass Our Future Leaders.” Since 2021 Nikki has served as SDSU’s Campanile Foundation board chair.  It is “family” to them.  Ben says, “San Diego State helped launch us.”

But now they are “home” and retired from their jobs, but never from their volunteering.  They especially love walking around their community, enjoying Pioneer Park with its dogs and events, our beautiful homes and shops, and their decision to settle here 40 years ago. 

Ben and Nikki Clay are alumni of San Diego State University and continue to contribute to various campus causes.


Category: Business, Local News, Seniors

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