By Susan Wengraf and Frances Dinkelspiel
Betty Olds, an environmentalist, feminist, and animal rights activist who served on the Berkeley City Council for 16 years and was known for her candor and humor, died July 16. She passed away in her sleep at 96.
Olds, who lived in Berkeley for 67 years, served Berkeley residents as a member of the Rent Stabilization Board, the Zoning Adjustments Board, and the Berkeley Library Board. She was elected to the City Council in 1992 and was a moderate who tried to steer her colleagues away from a focus on international issues to ones that more directly impacted Berkeley residents.
Olds became well known for her witty repartee and unexpected comments, which came to be known as “Bettyisms.” According to her close friend Susan Wengraf, who replaced her on the Council, when constituents objected to the construction of a synagogue in their neighborhood, claiming it could harm salmon in a nearby creek, Olds observed, “The only fish around here is the red herring.”
When Olds encountered a smart woman with a less than stellar male partner she’d observe, “There’s a jackass for every Jenny.” And when she wanted to show her disdain for an individual she would let fly, “He’s as worthless as a tit on a boar.”
Olds made national news in 2007 when she protested the construction of a sports training facility next to UC Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium that would necessitate the destruction of a grove of oak trees. Even though Olds was in her late 80s, she, former Mayor Shirley Dean and Save the Bay founder Sylvia McLaughlin climbed into an 80-foot-high tree in the grove that was slated to be cut down. The protest (but not Olds’ involvement) continued for a year, but the university eventually won the fight.
Olds was known on the Council for speaking her own mind and taking unpopular positions. For example, she opposed her colleagues when they voted in 2008 to call the Marines, which had a recruiting office on Shattuck Avenue, “unwelcome intruders” in Berkeley.
When Olds retired from the City Council in 2008, she walked into the Council Chambers to a standing ovation as people cheered “Yay, Betty!” The mayor declared a day in her honor and many friends and those she represented presented testimonials about her into the microphone.
Olds observed that she had outlasted four mayors and five city managers. “I’m sad to be leaving,” Olds said as she readied to step down, according to The Daily Planet. “But if anyone thinks it’s easy to sit up here to make decisions, they don’t know anything about it.”
The San Francisco Chronicle described her departure in the larger context: “Berkeley’s City Council will lose its crankiest, wittiest and often most rational member tonight…”
Olds had her own markers. She said she’d never fallen asleep at a City Council meeting and that she had outlasted four mayors and five city managers. She added, what for her was a redundancy, “Women are the strongest.”
“In Berkeley, where everyone is passionate and people don’t talk to you if you don’t agree with them, Betty would embrace her opponents if she thought they were nice people,” said Wengraf.
East Bay Express readers voted Olds “Best Politician,” in the newspaper’s 2008 Best of the East Bay competition.
Olds was instrumental in building a new firehouse on the edge of Tilden Park after the Berkeley-Oakland fire of 1991 destroyed 2,500 homes. She helped preserve and renovate the WPA’s exquisite Berkeley’s Rose Garden. And she campaigned for a new animal shelter.
A path that connects Sterling and Whitaker avenues in the Berkeley hills was named for Olds in 2014. The children’s room at the North Branch of the Berkeley Public Library also bears her name.
Betty Marion Milne was born in St. Joseph, MO on October 19, 1920, and grew up on a soybean and corn farm in Holt County where she learned the value of hard work and a love of nature and animals. She had two brothers – one of them her twin — and owned a pet pig.
While a student at Iowa State University Betty met Walter Olds, with whom she would share her life. Walter Olds would often say that the first time he saw Betty striding across the commons at Iowa State he knew instantly that he had to talk to her. They graduated in 1942 – she in home economics and him in architecture and civil engineering and married in St. Louis on June 17, 1942. The young couple moved to Charleston, SC, where Olds worked as a switchboard operator for the phone company and Walter designed aircrafts for the government.
In 1947, the Oldses moved to Racine WI and then to Arizona where Walter had been accepted as a fellow at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taleisin workshop.
Betty and Walter had three children – Lore (1946), Marcia (1948), and Colby (1953).
By 1950, Betty and Walter had moved to the Bay Area. Walter’s work took him to Okinawa, Japan for several years. During this time, Olds held down things at home, raised the children and began developing deep roots in Berkeley. She brought her children to live in Okinawa for six months and returned to Berkeley. While Walter was still in Japan, Olds found and purchased a beautiful home in the Berkeley hills. She and Walter lived there for the rest of their lives and took endless joy in their home. Together, they raised their family, turned their home into a work of art, kept bees, cultivated a stunning raspberry patch, gardened, and started every morning drinking coffee at their kitchen table, with their beloved view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
In the late 1950’s Betty was a substitute teacher at Garfield Middle School. Later, she became the dean of students at Willard Middle School on Telegraph Ave. As such, she was responsible for evacuating the school and seeing to the student’s safety when Governor Reagan tear-gassed UC Berkeley protestors in 1969.
Long before it was in vogue, Betty exhibited the ideals of the organic woman. She was a devoted mother of three, a seamstress, sewing her own stylish creations, a fanatic birder who traveled with her husband Walt to Mexico, Guatemala, Botswana, Afghanistan, Tibet, and Sri Lanka. She climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and rafted down the Grand Canyon multiple times. She was a gardener, a beekeeper, and an extraordinary chef and baker.
She was a founding member of Save the Bay, the pioneering group that fought to keep the bay from being filled-in.
After helping their son Lore purchase land on the top of Mt. Veeder, Betty and Walter went to Napa regularly for over two decades helping make wine for Lore’s winery, Sky Vineyards.
Betty remained closely connected to her Missouri roots throughout her life. She ran her active soybean farm with her nephew, returned often for the annual Milne family reunions, and brought two of her granddaughters with her to her 50th high school reunion in Oregon, MO.
When she retired, she gardened, went to the library several times a week, and watched her beloved Golden State Warriors. Friends knew not to call her during a game. She attended Cal Women’s Basketball games until she could no longer climb the bleachers.
Betty’s husband Walter died in 2007. In the last year, Olds’ health declined rapidly. She passed away surrounded by the love of her children and grandchildren. She is survived by her children, Colby and his wife Deborah, Marcia, and Lore, and her grandchildren, Mayacamas, Skyla, Olivia, and Samuel, and by all the people whose lives she touched.