At Home With Joan Waitt
Published August 2011
She has come a long way from her modest roots in small-town Iowa to a nine-acre bluff-top estate with a sweeping view of the La Jolla shore. The years have brought soaring success, incredible wealth, and the break-up of a high-profile marriage to Gateway founder and tech tycoon Ted Waitt, but 51-year-old Joan Waitt is still very much the Midwestern native. Petite, but with a powerful presence, she is protective of her family, and yet surprisingly candid about her life then and now.
The Waitts considered Denver and Chicago before deciding to move their company and family to San Diego nearly 15 years ago for reasons both professional and personal. Although she considered La Jolla a paradise, Waitt says the move wasn’t without difficulty. Called “cold and indifferent” when they first arrived, Waitt says people now realize the couple was trying to guard their family’s privacy. “It’s not because of wealth,” she insists. “No, we were raised that way. We were raised to be extremely private. And whatever happened in your home, stayed in your home. And you only shared with those close to you because those are the people who take care of you. The other people just want the gossip.”
Waitt, the mother of four, a philanthropist and businesswoman, credits her quiet, humble father, now 80 years old, for a solid upbringing in Sioux City, Iowa, after her mother died in childbirth when she was just two years old. He resisted suggestions to split up his family of five children, then all under six years old, raising Joan and her siblings with the help of grandparents until he eventually remarried. “He’s the reason I do what I do,” she says, a reference to her many charitable causes, including Promises2Kids and Voices for Children, for which she opens her home to hundreds of guests for concerts and catered dinners on her vast green lawn. “We didn’t have a lot of money. He’s the one who said, ‘Someone has less.’ So every Christmas we had to donate something of our own to the Salvation Army.” Later, she and her husband founded the Waitt Family Foundation to fund scholarships for children in Sioux City affected by poverty, domestic violence, and drug abuse. Here in San Diego, their charitable work continues, with the Family Justice Center and Becky’s House, to name a few. Waitt also has her own foundation, the Joan Waitt Family Fund.
While she sits on several charitable boards, Waitt’s priority remains her four children: Hailey, in her final year at USC; 17-year-old Emily, heading to Brown this fall; and 14-year-old twins, whom Waitt shuttles to play dates around town. She credits the family’s move to La Jolla to opening “the floodgates” of opportunity and diversity for her children whom she believes would have grown up more sheltered in a small town where their dad once employed a good percentage of the population. “Ted and I are both pretty strict. I mean we’re home grown Midwestern. We don’t let you get your feet too much off the ground. But by the same token, if you’re in an area where you have 90,000 people and employ ten percent of the population, [your children] go to school and people praise you for all the wrong reasons.”
While still facing such challenges at times, Waitt believes La Jolla, which she now “definitely” considers home, was “a fabulous move” for her and her family. “Do I love where I grew up? Yes, it was great for me. But given [our children’s] circumstances, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. It’s just a great city, and everything is at your fingertips.” She cites top-notch schools, both public and private, along with restaurants, the arts and entertainment, and sporting events here and in Los Angeles. “I love the energy of sports,” particularly basketball and football, says Waitt, who was a bit of a jock herself growing up. “I’m not a girl’s girl. Ted called me one of the boys.” Recently, she’s taken up golf and loves to walk with the family dogs including Sammie, a five-year-old snow-white American Eskimo and Jackson, a four-year-old Siberian Husky. While there are Puccis and Guccis in her closet, Waitt doesn’t count shopping as sport. “I’m not a big shopper,” she jokes, “although I’m a huge buyer.”
Most of all, she loves to gather family and close friends, many of whom she’s had for decades, for outdoor parties at her stucco-and-stone hilltop home high above La Jolla. There, Tugger, the 13-year-old Golden Retriever, welcomes guests, and a sign tacked to a branch in a makeshift tree house cautions: “Children at Play.” Andrea Naversen
Photography by Vincent Knakal