W&M football's most generous benefactor, Walter Zable, leaves enduring legacy

Walt Zable was a California treasure, an innovator whose business, philanthropy and volunteer work benefited legions for more than 60 years. But this self-made "man's man" never forgot the small Virginia college where he was a football All-American, served on the Board of Visitors and met his bride.

Zable died last weekend. He was 97 years young, but his legacy will endure far longer at the College of William and Mary.

"Throughout all these years, Walt's annual support of the college, and especially football, was very significant," said Bobby Dwyer, William and Mary's lead fundraiser for athletics. "At our times of greatest need, that's when Walt would be the most generous. … He would always step forward and say, 'Tell me what you need, and I'll do the best I can.' "

That he did, and then some. Moreover, Zable's generosity extended far beyond annual giving.

In 1990, he bequeathed the school $10 million, $5 million to endow football scholarships, $2.5 million for graduate fellowships and $2.5 million to be used at the board's discretion. Hence the name: Zable Stadium.

A decade later, he donated more than $3 million toward the Laycock Center, the $11-million football support complex rightfully named for long-time coach Jimmye Laycock. The building opened in 2008.

"Just something you have to have," Laycock said. "Kind of like your profession. If you didn't have a computer, you might be in trouble. It enables us to be able to do the business we need to do."

Zable jetted in from his San Diego home for the dedication, holding court with any and all who cared to talk. Laycock keeps a picture of him from the event in his office.

"He appreciated what we did," Laycock said. "He appreciated the way we did things. He was very proud of his relationship with William and Mary, and William and Mary football."

A 93-year-old traveling across the country? We should all be so lucky.

But Zable was, by all accounts, a marvel, nearly as active in his mid-90s as he was a half-century earlier. He exercised daily and continued to head Cubic Corp., the technology firm he founded in 1951 and turned into a billion-dollar business that, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, employs 7,800.

"Exercise is the best medicine," Zable told the paper in 2006. "But it's hard and takes effort. It's easier to just stay in bed. But once you start exercising, and that blood starts flowing, you feel great."

Laycock knows first-hand how sharp Zable was.

They played golf together — the San Diego paper reported Zable shooting a 79 at age 71 in a round with Arnold Palmer at San Francisco's renowned Olympic Club, site of last month's United States Open. Zable also delighted in talking football with Laycock.

"He and Sid Gillman were really close friends," Laycock said, referencing the late Hall of Fame coach. "He knew football, and of course like a lot of guys, he had his pet peeves. Poor tackling was one of his."

A 1937 William and Mary graduate, Zable played well before the advent of mass substitutions and spread offenses. His football was more about the basics.

"He was a man's man," Laycock said. "Self-made and smart and tough."

Those traits were evident in Cubic, an industry leader in combat training systems for the military and in automated fare collection for mass transit. Such products seem natural for someone who studied math and physics — he also found time to court Betty Virginia Carter — at William and Mary.

"He was fascinating to listen to, how he started the company and all the different things they were involved in," Dwyer said. "Any time I go through the E-ZPass when I'm driving, I think of Walt. Or, if you get on the subway in New York, D.C., or Boston, the fare cards, that's Cubic.

"His company under his leadership was so innovative and impacted so many."

A Boston native, Zable was also an activist. He was a trustee at the University of San Diego, and a theater at the city's Air & Space Museum carries his name. He volunteered for the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame.

"Why would I retire?" Zable said in a Union-Tribune story marking his 90th birthday. "What would I do."

Zable turned 97 on Father's Day and hosted a party at his home. He was in "great spirits" and "his mind, as usual, was sharp as a tack," a friend, Robert Sullivan, told the San Diego paper.

That is precisely how Laycock, Dwyer and the William and Mary community remember Walt Zable.

"He left a lasting impression," Dwyer said, "on America as well as William and Mary."

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP

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