Remembering Sylvia McLaughlin

Sylvia McLaughlin
Sylvia McLaughlin 1916-2016


Save The Bay is deeply saddened at the news that the organization’s last living founder, Sylvia McLaughlin, passed away at her home in Berkeley on Tuesday January 19, 2016 at the age of 99. Sylvia McLaughlin’s commitment to saving the San Francisco Bay created a lasting legacy for the region and the environmental movement.

“Sylvia and her friends just wanted to stop the Bay from being destroyed. They were so successful they launched the modern grassroots environmental movement in the Bay Area,” said Save The Bay Executive Director David Lewis. “We have a cleaner, healthier and more vibrant Bay because of Sylvia’s efforts. Her drive, determination and spark will remain an inspiration to us all.”

“Words are hardly adequate to convey Sylvia’s profound influence on protecting the environment, restraining runaway development around the Bay and providing a powerful role model for those who whose power is based not on wealth or inside political connections but on determination and a just cause,” said Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates.

A long, full life

Sylvia McLaughlin was born December 24, 1916 in Denver, Colorado, the third of four children and the only daughter of George E. Cranmer and Jean Chappell Cranmer. Her father was the city official responsible for creating Red Rocks Theater and Winter Park, her mother a trained violinist and patron of classical music. Their house was surrounded by open prairie and commanded a view of the Rockies. She enjoyed horseback riding, skiing, and mountain climbing wtih her brothers. After her graduation from Vassar College in 1939, she returned to Denver and the family home.

Sylvia married Donald H. McLaughlin, President of Homestake Mining Company, in 1948 and moved in with him and his mother in Berkeley, California. Don had two grown sons from his first marriage, and Sylvia’s first step-grandchild arrived before her own two children. In the early years of her marriage she was active in civic and charitable activities alongside her supportive role as the wife of a mining executive and UC Regent.

Sylvia forms Save The Bay, shapes Bay Area environmental movement

Save The Bay FoundersIn 1961, Sylvia and her two friends, Kay Kerr and Esther Gulick, formed Save San Francisco Bay Association (now Save The Bay), spurred into action by the City of Berkeley’s plan to fill in 2,000 acres of San Francisco Bay and the fear that the Bay could become a river-like shipping channel if all the region’s bay fill plans moved ahead. Appalled that the filling of their beautiful natural treasure was considered “progress” and that there was very little public access to the Bay, the three women quickly mobilized their communities.

Establishing BCDCWith Save The Bay, Sylvia helped build and lead a massive citizens’ movement that won a moratorium on landfill in the Bay and then a permanent state agency to regulate filling and shoreline development, the Bay Conservation & Development Commission (BCDC).  BCDC was the first agency of its kind, and is the model for coastal zone management world-wide. Sylvia helped ring the Bay with a necklace of shoreline parks, including McLaughlin Eastshore State Park on the very shoreline that she stopped Berkeley from filling, which was renamed in her honor in 2012. Public access to the Bay – one of the many causes she championed – has grown from only six miles in 1960 to hundreds of miles today.

A lifetime of conservation

Over the course of her career, Sylvia occupied several appointed positions – including seats on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors Advisory Planning Commission and on the Berkeley City Council Waterfront Advisory Committee.  She sat on Save The Bay’s board of directors for almost 40 years, and on the board 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.

In addition to Save The Bay, she co-founded Urban Care, a Berkeley group, and Citizens for East Shore Parks.

Even in her nineties, Sylvia refused to retire, remaining an active and articulate advocate for the Bay and open recreational spaces – with a busy schedule of speaking engagements, board of director duties, and community meetings. At 93, she captivated an audience of Bay scientists, stewards and supporters at a premier screening of Saving the Bay – a documentary film chronicling the history of San Francisco Bay and the unprecedented work Sylvia did to save it. In 2012, the East Bay Regional Parks officially named McLaughlin Eastshore State Park in honor of Sylvia’s work to preserve the Berkeley shoreline.

Sylvia is survived by her children, Jeanie Shaterian and George C. McLaughlin; her stepson, Donald H. McLaughlin, Jr.; four grandchildren and six step-grandchildren.

“Her work and achievements are unparalleled and serve as inspiration to every individual or group working to protect and conserve the natural beauty and resources in the region and beyond,” Lewis said.

San Francisco Bay would not be what it is today without the work of Sylvia McLaughlin and we are humbled to carry on the legacy of her commitment to San Francisco Bay. May her drive, determination and spark remain an inspiration to us all to improve our region for future generations.

A public memorial service will be held Tuesday, February 2, 4:00 pm, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley. We also will host a special event in honor of Sylvia’s life in the coming months, and will share more information as the details come together.

The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, gifts in honor of Sylvia McLaughlin be made to Save The Bay or to Citizens for Eastshore Parks.

To honor Sylvia, we invite you to please share your memories or appreciation of Sylvia in the comments below. We’ll share this outpouring of love and gratitude with Sylvia’s family and assemble it into a fitting public tribute.

7 thoughts on “Remembering Sylvia McLaughlin

  1. For as long as I can remember the beautiful San Francisco Bay, I will forever remember Sylvia Mc Laughlin. A Bay Hero indeed. Her legacy lives on today that we are all deeply inspired by. As a thirty six year life long activist, environmentalist myself, we must all do as Slyvia and her friend’s did for us. It is our responsibility to make our habitats, preserves, and Bays protected under conservation. I thank you, Sylvia, and SavetheBay.org for what you have created and being forever our champion and hero for our beautiful San Francisco Bay.

    David La Porta -Activist, Environmentalist, Humanitarian, Historian

  2. Ah Sylvia, oh how we will miss you, your memory surely for a blessing..
    I remember that Save the Bay poster that depicted what the Bay would look like if the fill projects went in, so dramatic, vital in establishing BCDC. “If Emeryville has its way, soon there will be no more Bay” our signs read as we picketed along the freeway by the proposed Emeryville fill. Well, Sylvia knew that…and she and her two friends put their skills to work ….and we are all the inheritors of their precious legacy. May we and the generations to come honor your gift with manifest deeds, Judith Bendor, Seattle

  3. Save the Bay co-founder Sylvia McLaughlin has long been one of my role models. Pushing on when people told her it wasn’t possible, advocating for what her community needed, leading with grace. The highlight of my time as Board Chair was escorting Sylvia to Save the Bay events, hearing her stories, learning from her wisdom. When I’m feeling stuck, I ask myself what Sylvia would do. Our world is a much better place because of her. I’m honored to have known Sylvia.

  4. With your determination, you have created an environmental movement like no other. My wish is for our generation, and those that follow, to continue your work. You are a shining light that will continue to inspire.

    1. Gracias Sylvia. Tu ejemplo nos sirve a los que queremos un mundo con agua y aire limpio a seguir luchando.
      Yo desde Zalamea la Real. Huelva. Andalucía. España. Europa.
      Siempre al tu lado. José Luis Carcela.

  5. Sylvia McLaughlin. A name I have known all my life as my early years were spent with my parents in an apartment over the McLaughlin’s garage. Then later I came to know how Sylvia helped keep our Bay beautiful unlike the early years when the Bay had sewage and garbage poured in it. And now I live in a home where I see the Bay and feel grateful everyday for its beauty. Thank you, Sylvia, what you did for our Bay.

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