Remembering Sylvia McLaughlin

Photo of Sylvia McLaughlin

With the death of Sylvia McLaughlin on January 19 at age 99, the Bay Area environmental movement has lost one of its preeminent founding figures. At the Oral History Center, we knew Sylvia as a generous narrator in two oral histories and a donor to the Bancroft Library of her extensive personal papers; taken together, these documents tell the story of a half-century of pioneering activism to protect the San Francisco Bay. We also remember her with gratitude as a supporter and advisor for myriad oral history projects on environmental and water resources history as well as the history of the western mining industry.

In 1961, Sylvia, wife of UC Regent and mining executive Donald McLaughlin, joined with two other prominent UC-connected women, Catherine Kerr, the wife of UC President Clark Kerr, and Esther Gulick, wife of a Berkeley economics professor, to do something about the deplorable state of the San Francisco Bay: “We could see the dump trucks going down and filling the bay constantly. . . . It was a dump,” recalled Sylvia in her 2007 oral history. The three women formed Save San Francisco Bay Association and began a campaign not only to halt further degradation of the bay but also to return privately owned shoreline lands to public ownership and to restore them for public use as parklands and wetlands. They proved to be amazingly effective, drawing on university experts, energizing a broad swath of public opinion, organizing citizen caravans to lobby in Sacramento, and eventually getting a groundbreaking regulatory body, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, signed into law by Governor Ronald Reagan. In his book on the development of the Bay Area’s environmental consciousness, Berkeley geography professor Richard Walker credits the three women: “Nothing was more essential to the foundation of the Bay Area’s green culture. It all goes through Save the Bay.” [Richard A. Walker, The Country in the City: the Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area, University of Washington Press, 2007].

Sylvia joined the organization’s co-founders in 1985 for an oral history conducted by Malca Chall looking back at their first twenty-five years working together, in Save San Francisco Bay Association, 1961-1986. In 2007, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Sylvia for an eight-session biographical oral history. This time she reflected on her family and formative years in Denver, Colorado, and more than forty-five years of activism in the Bay Area and beyond. She discussed the incredible network of local, national, and international environmental organizations that she had helped to found, served on the boards of, acted as trusted spokesperson and advisor for, and attracted new activists to. In Citizen Activist for the Environment: Saving San Francisco Bay, Promoting Shoreline Parks and Natural Values in Urban and Campus Planning, she sums up her keys to successful advocacy: “These things take time, but persistence as well. . . . Determination. Never give up. And then it’s always helpful to have good leadership along the way.”

We will all miss Sylvia McLaughlin’s eternal vigilance and determination, as well as her vision, quiet persuasiveness, willingness to listen to opposing views, and genuine concern for both people and the environment. A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Feb. 2 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 2300 Bancroft Way in Berkeley. Memories and condolences may also be left at

Ann Lage
Interviewer Emeritus
Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley