Sylvia McLaughlin


Recorded: 2/12/12

What would the San Francisco Bay Area be without the Bay? Sylvia McLaughlin recalls the beginnings of Save the Bay in the 1960s.  She was the driving force behind the three 'housewives' that launched an epic battle to save San Francisco Bay.

Sylvia McLaughlin was instrumental in preserving San Francisco Bay during the critical era of the 1960’s, when the Bay was threatened by myriad landfill and development proposals. Mrs. McLaughlin’s activism grew from within the civic and intellectual fabric of U.C. Berkeley, where along with two other formidable faculty wives, friends and co-conspirators, Mrs. McLaughlin became one of the nation’s best known environmentalists. Mrs. McLaughlin, Esther Gulick and Kay Kerr founded Save San Francisco Bay Association, now known as Save the Bay. When two enormous Bay fill projects were proposed, one in Berkeley and another that planned to remove the top of San Bruno Mountain for bay fill, these women mobilized. For the past 50 years, Save the Bay has led hundreds of grass-roots campaigns and it continues to publish a wide range of educational materials for the protection of local wetlands and Bay resources. Mrs. McLaughlin serves on Resource Renewal Institute’s Board of Directors.

Huey Johnson: This is a series, that an organization – who you are on the board of – Resource Renewal Institute, is doing – of capturing some of the events in the history of the environ era in America. I view it as a time that will not be repeated and we who were in it were very fortunate to be in it and we didn’t realize the importance of it when we were struggling away.

Sylvia McLaughlin: One of the things I remember was meeting David Rockefeller because they had a big plan to fill the south bay and he said, well, you won. It was really quite a tribute.

Huey Johnson: Well, I’ll say it was.

Sylvia McLaughlin: I think one of the important things is to find good allies and co workers and I was very fortunate in knowing several people who were extremely helpful like Kay Kerr – Mrs. Clark Kerr, the wife of the President of the University, and Ester Gluck whose husband was in the economics department. They would meet at Kay’s house every Monday morning for several years. There was persistence. I asked Kate Kerr fairly recently before she died, why actually did we become involved in Saving the Bay and she said, “Just because it was beautiful”. My first effort was to forbid the city of Berkley from filling in over 2,000 acres; they wanted to double the size of the city! One thing leads to another and we realized that communities around the Bay were having similar plans. So then our group became more bay-wide and it sort of took off from there.

Huey Johnson: I recall reading someplace that you talked about looking out your window and seeing garbage trucks filling the bay. And that really motivated you to do your work.

Sylvia McLaughlin: Yes, it just didn’t seem right. To eradicate something that was so beautiful.

Huey Johnson: You should be remembered for saving the bay, but I wager some people who will remember you better for climbing up a tree.

Sylvia McLaughlin: Yes, I was over 90. Well I didn’t actually climb the tree, but went up the tree on a ladder and sat on a branch.

Huey Johnson: You got a lot of press out of it.

Sylvia McLaughlin: I should say. I wanted to call attention to the fact that the University was trying to cut down this beautiful grove of trees to put up a building. They could put the building somewhere else!

Huey Johnson: Well one skill for survival in this work is to accept the loss and keep going.

Sylvia McLaughlin: Absolutely. You have to keep going and follow your goals. It has been an interesting road to travel. I am still involved and another aspect I am interested in is creating shoreline parks from Carquinez to San Jose. And that’s coming along. People are interested; lots of time it is a matter of letting them know how they can help and keeping them informed of what is going on.

Huey Johnson: I think today you have heard an important leader define what it takes.

Sylvia McLaughlin: Thank you Huey, I really enjoyed having a chance to spread the word.