Sylvia McLaughlin, co-founder of Save the Bay, dies at 99

 Sylvia McLaughlin, founder of Save the Bay. Photo: David Sanger/Save the Bay
Sylvia McLaughlin, c0-founder of Save the Bay. Photo: David Sanger/Save the Bay

Sylvia McLaughlin, the last surviving member of the three Save the Bay co-founders, died in her Berkeley home Tuesday at the age of 99.

In 1961, McLaughlin, Catherine “Kay” Kerr and Esther Gulick, distressed over a Berkeley plan to pave over 2,000 acres of San Francisco Bay, formed Save the Bay. The trio, all wives of prominent UC Berkeley faculty members (Kerr was married to Clark Kerr, the president of the university), not only stopped Berkeley’s plans, but helped launch the modern environmental movement.

Mayor Tom Bates lamented McLaughlin’s death Wednesday and praised her work.

“If there were a Mount Rushmore of Bay Area environmentalists, Sylvia should be there,” Bates said in a statement. “I trust that her indomitable spirit and persevering vision will serve as an enduring source of inspiration for those who seek positive change against overwhelming odds.”

“Words are hardly adequate to convey her profound influence on protecting the environment, restraining runaway development around the Bay and providing a powerful role model for those whose power is based not on wealth or inside political connections but on determination and a just cause,” he wrote.

McLaughlin was born Dec. 24, 1916, in Denver, Colorado, and developed an early passion for the outdoors and the environment. Her father, George E. Cranmer, worked for the city and was the official responsible for creating Red Rocks Amphitheater and Winter Park, according to the Save the Bay website. Her mother was a violinist.

After graduating from Vassar College in New York, McLaughlin moved back to Denver where she met Donald H. McLaughlin, the president of Homestake Mining Company, in 1948. The couple married and, along with his mother, moved to Berkeley where they raised their two children. (Donald McLaughlin had two grown sons from a prior marriage.) He became a chairman of the Regents of the University of California.

The McLaughlins moved into a home into the Berkeley Hills with a sweeping view of the bay. But McLaughlin didn’t like what she saw, according to a 2011 San Francisco Chronicle article.

“She saw garbage being dumped on the shoreline, marshlands being filled and raw sewage being piped into the bay. By 1961, a third of the bay had already been filled or diked off, and only 10 percent of the original wetlands remained,” according to the article.

When the trio couldn’t get other environmental movements to take on the cause of stopping the bay from being filled in, they created their own group. They hatched plans over cookies and coffee in their kitchens, according to the Chronicle.

“McLaughlin said she hauled her children to meetings and organized busloads of activists to lobby politicians in Sacramento,” according to the Chronicle. “Before long, the women attracted the attention of radio personality Don Sherwood, who rallied people to their cause. Save the Bay soon had members all over California and from other states, McLaughlin said.”

Pete Seeger even wrote a song about the sorry state of the bay, calling it a “sludge puddle, sad and gray.”

Until that time, environmental groups were small and elite, Richard Walker, an emeritus professor of geography at UC Berkeley told KQED. The trio got the idea to charge $1 for membership “and they very quickly had thousands, even tens of thousands of members within two years,” said Walker.

In 1965, four years after starting Save The Bay, the state placed a moratorium on filling the bay and formed a permanent agency to watch over shoreline development, the Bay Conservation & Development Commission (BCDC). It became a worldwide model for coastal zone management.

Public access to the bay “has grown from only six miles in 1960 to hundreds of miles today,” according to the Save the Bay website.

McLaughlin went on to fill other civic roles, including holding a position on the Berkeley Waterfront Advisory Committee and on the boards of directors for the National Audubon Society, East Bay Conservation Corps, Save the Redwoods League, Citizens for East Shore Parks, Trust for Public Land, Greenbelt Alliance and many others, according to Save the Bay.

In 2012, the state named one of the areas she saved in her honor. The public shoreline that stretches from Oakland to Richmond is now called the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park.

McLaughlin is survived by her children, Jeanie Shaterian and George C. McLaughlin; her stepson, Donald H. McLaughlin Jr.; four grandchildren and six step-grandchildren. Her husband died in 1985.

Esther Gulick died in 1995. Kay Kerr died in 2011, also at 99.

There will be a public memorial service Tuesday, Feb. 2, at 4 p.m. at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 2300 Bancroft Way, Berkeley.

Save the Bay has posted a tribute page on which members of the community are invited to share remembrances and condolences. McLaughlin’s family requests that gifts in honor of Sylvia McLaughlin be made to Save The Bay and Citizens for Eastshore Parks.

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