Lifelong Berkeley resident and activist dies at 81

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Lifelong Berkeley resident and political activist Lucy Watson Sells passed away peacefully in her home from natural causes Feb. 10. She was 81.

Sells attended public schools in Berkeley her whole life and received both her undergraduate and doctorate degrees in sociology from UC Berkeley. Sells’ family describes her as a brilliant and dynamic woman who enjoyed spirited political debate and determinedly fought for equality.

“When she got excited about something, she just would throw her whole heart and soul into it,” said Margery Watson Royer, Sells’ sister.

In the 1970s, Sells coined the phrase “critical filter” to describe the significant role that high school mathematics plays in preparing women and minorities for college-level mathematics and, correspondingly, careers in science- and mathematics-based fields.

In her dissertation research, Sells found that women and minorities were vastly misrepresented in high school science and math classes and were therefore grossly underprepared for basic calculus classes at UC Berkeley, in comparison to first-year male students.

Sells’ research helped launch a national response that included funding for additional research on women in math and science.

“She was this master of taking a well-chosen statistic and trying to use it to mobilize people to take action,” said Elizabeth Stage, director of the Lawrence Hall of Science and Sells’ former colleague. “Lucy was indomitable and relentless.”

After retiring in the 1990s, Sells volunteered for the Democratic Party at the local, state and national levels, eventually becoming a regional director for the party. In a statement, John Burton, California Democratic Party chair, noted her tenacity and unwavering commitment to Democratic Party ideals.

Sells was passionate about immigration reform, abolishing the death penalty, police practices, reforming the “war on drugs” and defending reproductive rights, according to her family.

“It was wonderful to see someone who spent all of her discretionary time acting on the principles she felt were so important,” Stage said.

Sells enthusiastically nurtured and supported young Bay Area progressives, including UC Berkeley alumnus Paul Hogarth, who remembers Sells for her work with Cal Berkeley Democrats in the late 1990s.

“She came to a lot of our club meetings and was an incredible mentor,” he said, adding that Sells was instrumental in his decision to pursue a career in politics. “She was basically like the ‘resident grandmother’ for the club.”

“Aunt Lucy was a beacon of light,” said Robina Royer, Sells’ niece. “She showed me a path of intellectual curiosity and self-reliance when the whole world … would have pointed me in a different direction.”

Sells is survived by her two sons, Karl Sells and Robert Sells; her ex-husband, Ernie Sells; her siblings, Royer and Richard Llewellyn Watson; seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. The family will likely have a private memorial service later in the spring.

Contact Angel Grace Jennings at [email protected]