Sylvia McLaughlin, lifelong Berkeley environmentalist, dies at 99

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Sylvia McLaughlin, a lifelong Berkeley environmental activist whose work helped preserve the integrity of the San Francisco Bay, died in her home Tuesday. She was 99.

McLaughlin was the final surviving founder of Save the Bay, formerly Save San Francisco Bay Association, a group that profoundly influenced state policy and attitude toward the natural preservation of the bay in the 1960s. A Berkeley resident since 1949, her work with co-founders Kay Kerr and Esther Gulick spawned a movement throughout California. Today, the organization has more than 50,000 volunteers.

Born in Denver, Colorado, on Christmas Eve in 1916, McLaughlin had an active childhood spent on the prairies within view of the Rocky Mountains, according to McLaughlin’s daughter, Jeanie Shaterian. She spent her days competing with her two brothers as they skied, swam and rock-climbed. McLaughlin’s father, George Cranmer, was a city Parks and Recreation official who built a reputation for relentlessly creating parks and theaters across Colorado.

One time, Cranmer convened his supervisors to pitch a new project, neglecting to mention that he had already started the demolition process, complete with dynamite. As Shaterian recalls, he figured it would be easier if the work had already started.

“She had that in her blood,” Shaterian said. “He was a person who never took no for an answer.”

In 1961, McLaughlin, then living in Berkeley, was inspired to action by a city proposal to double its size by filling in approximately 2,000 acres with landfill. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced a plan that would fill in 70 percent of the bay by 2020.

In those days, the shores were of little concern to many residents. Often lined with industrial plants, it was a popular destination for residents to dump their garbage.

“It seemed like it was a foregone conclusion,” Shaterian said. “But these women refused to give up.”

Shaterian recalled how McLaughlin and company — as wives of prominent men in the University of California crowd — didn’t think of themselves as activists at first.

Many saw the lucrative potential of the filled-in land for jobs and property values, but McLaughlin and friends envisioned a future when the Bay Area’s natural beauty would be one of its best and most accessible appeals.

“Today when we think of the bay we think of beautiful views from our favorite hiking spots and our favorite hill in San Francisco,” said Monica Canfield-Lenfest, editorial and outreach manager for Save the Bay. “They truly had a vision for the San Francisco Bay as a national treasure.”

Canvassing wasn’t easy in the days before Xerox, computers and telephones. It was a low-tech operation — McLaughlin and volunteers would compose letters on a pre-World War II typewriter. Shaterian, Kerr’s daughter and other friends would stuff them in envelopes addressed to the Sierra Club’s entire mailing list.

Save the Bay wasn’t a hobby, Shaterian said, but an “all-consuming passion.” McLaughlin served on the board for nearly 40 years.

Shaterian remembers her mother as fun-loving, uninhibited and eccentric, a woman who enjoyed parties and loved to wear red. The outgoing socialite played frequent hostess for her husband’s UC circle and was always “immersed in people, though McLaughlin thought of herself as naturally shy.

“She was a very determined person and very not scared,” Shaterian said.

Save the Bay’s work resulted in a statewide moratorium on filling the bay and the closure of more than 30 garbage dumps lining the shoreline. In 1965, a state agency — the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the world’s first coastal protection entity — was created to oversee shoreline development. The state has since dedicated millions to preserving the Bay Area’s wildlife and habitats.

Through the years, McLaughlin remained active from her home on Euclid Avenue, advocating with another organization she founded, Citizens for East Shore Parks. She served on a variety of local boards and commissions, including those in Berkeley and Alameda County, the National Audubon Society and the East Bay Conservation Corps.  

In 2012, an East Bay park was named in her honor. In 2007, at the age of 90, she and several other wisened activists scaled an oak tree marked for demolition by UC Berkeley administrators.

“If there were a Mount Rushmore of Bay Area environmentalists, Sylvia should be there,” said Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates in an email Wednesday night.

McLaughlin is survived by her children, Shaterian and George C. McLaughlin. She has a stepson, Donald H. McLaughlin Jr., four grandchildren and six step-grandchildren.

A memorial service is scheduled for Feb. 2 at 4 p.m. at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley. The family has asked that gifts in honor of McLaughlin be made to Save The Bay or to Citizens for East Shore Parks.

Alexander Barreira is the lead schools and communities reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @abarreira_dc.