By Jack Williams
1912 WILLIS M. ALLEN SR. 2004
He raised and rode exquisite polo ponies. He shared his wealth generously and without fanfare. And he oversaw the growth of his real estate company into a luxury-housing leader.
Willis M. Allen Sr. did it all, it seemed, with a breezy informality and accessibility that endeared him to everybody from the poorest ranch hands to captains of industry.
“He had a sense of humor and sense of style that made people feel very comfortable around him,” said Andrew E. Nelson, who bought the remaining shares of the Willis Allen Co. real estate firm in 1995. “He treated everybody equally, and people who met him loved him.”
Mr. Allen, who had a hand in the operation of the real estate business that bears his name for 55 years, died Sunday at his La Jolla home. He was 91. The cause of death was cancer of the throat, said daughter Louise Knowles.
Mr. Allen’s holdings included three ranches in Baja California, where he raised polo ponies and cattle, Crystal Pier and Cottages in Pacific Beach and a share of La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla.
His philanthropy, estimated to be in the millions, benefited such institutions as the San Diego Humane Society, the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park, the San Diego Aerospace Museum and a variety of Scripps Health entities, including the McDonald Center for alcohol and drug abuse treatment.
He created the Allen Field sports complex in La Jolla and he bought property in Ramona for the Pemarro center, a long-term drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility operated by Group Conscience Inc.
“He paid for scholarships anonymously and supported orphanages in Baja California,” his son, Willis Jr., said. “If you wanted to call somebody for money, you called Willis.”
Although his Willis Allen Co. became synonymous with multi-million-dollar coastal properties, Mr. Allen started in business on a much more modest scale.
With a loan from his grandfather in the 1930s, he bought a half interest in the College Riding Academy at 70th Street and El Cajon Boulevard.
“They rented horses to ride for 1 cent per minute,” his son said.
A few years later, he sold insurance policies for $16 a week. After joining a La Jolla real estate firm founded in 1914, Mr. Allen would settle for a $1 commission on a rental property, Nelson said.
In 1940, Mr. Allen and three others bought the firm, known then as Cooper Co. Mr. Allen bought his partners out within a year.
When he went overseas in the Navy during World War II his wife, Ruth, took over the reins.
Mr. Allen left the Navy as a lieutenant commander after serving in the Pacific and expanded his company during the postwar housing boom.
Offering a range of services, Mr. Allen established separate mortgage and insurance firms as he built up the business. “He knocked on doors to sell insurance and founded a mobile mortgage company in a Volkswagen van, going to people’s homes to set up their loans,” Nelson said.
In 1949, Mr. Allen sold an expansive parcel of land that today encompasses Clairemont and University City. As his client base expanded, he opened a second office in Rancho Santa Fe in 1952, a third office in 1973 in Del Mar and a fourth in Point Loma in 1988.
In 1980, Mr. Allen’s firm recorded its first million-dollar sale, closing a deal on a physician’s home on El Camino del Teatro in La Jolla for $1.6 million.
By 1981, the company was reporting $60 million in annual business. In 1989, it did $300 million in sales, making it the largest and most profitable independently owned real estate firm in the county, according to a 1989 article in San Diego Home and Garden magazine.
In his office on Wall Street in La Jolla, Mr. Allen often preferred jeans to more traditional business attire.
“When I met Willis, he was wearing Levi’s with a tie and button-down shirt, in days when you didn’t do that,” Nelson said. “There was an informality, warmth and openness in his office. He had a way of making people feel good about themselves.”
Mr. Allen, the son and grandson of rear admirals, was born in Philadelphia.
As a youth in Connecticut, he became enamored of polo, a sport he would play until weeks before his death.
At 19, he accompanied some friends in driving from Greenwich, Conn., to San Diego, where he found work at stables in Mission Valley.
Later, he sold Chevrolet automobiles, schooled polo ponies and competed in polo matches in an arena on the old show grounds in Coronado.
In 1934, he married Ruth Annable, who shared his passion for polo ponies.
For many years, the Allens raised horses, cattle and hay on a Sorrento Valley ranch that later became El Camino Memorial Park.
Mr. Allen polished his polo skills in the late 1930s in matches conducted at low tide at La Jolla Shores.
In 1987, he helped found the Rancho Santa Fe Polo Club on land developed by his son-in-law, Harry Collins. The grounds became a popular site for charity fund-raisers over the years, beginning with a match to benefit the San Diego chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
At age 70, Mr. Allen rode on a four-man team that won the seniors tournament at El Dorado Polo Club, which he helped found in Indio.
“He knew how to pick horses, whether they were $500 or $5,000,” his son said. “They trusted him and he made the sport fun for them.”
Mr. Allen also indulged an interest in recreational flying, logging about 3,000 hours in private aircraft.
“He was involved in everything from flying down to Baja to chase goats and shoot rattlesnakes to going to black-tie events,” his son said.
For every black-tie event, though, there was a casual get-together at his home in Pottery Canyon that exemplified the diversity of his friendships.
“It didn’t matter to Dad if you were a kid from Mexico or Prince Philip,” his son said.
Mr. Allen’s wife died two years ago. Survivors include his daughters, Louise Knowles of La Jolla and Judy Collins of Rancho Santa Fe; son, Willis Jr. of Mount Helix; 14 grandchildren; and 27 great-grandchildren.