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Sylvia McLaughlin ’39: Remembering the Woman Who Saved the Bay

In 1961, “environmental activism” wasn’t on most people’s radar, but that’s the year the late Sylvia McLaughlin ’39 launched Save the Bay with two other San Francisco-area women—Kay Kerr and Esther Gulick. More than 50 years later, the reverberations of McLaughlin’s work are still being witnessed in the teeming waters of the San Francisco Bay and the public parks and trails lining the coasts in and around the city.

“Sylvia was an amazing human being to whom we all owe a huge debt of gratitude. Her work and that of her two friends shows the power of the individual. If one sees something wrong—or sees that something needs to be done—then see what can be done to fix it. Save the Bay is a perfect example,” says Elizabeth Cushman Titus Putnam ’55, founder of the Student Conservation Association, where McLaughlin had served as a board member. “Sylvia will be very much missed, but her legacy will live on.”

When she began her environmental work, McLaughlin was living in Berkeley with her two children and husband, Donald McLaughlin, a professor of mining engineering at UC Berkeley. From her window, she could see the destruction of the bay as filler was dumped into the bay to aid in coastal development. The bay was disappearing and it bothered her greatly. Several published accounts recall the mountains of grunt work McLaughlin performed—calling and writing politicians, organizing supporters, and getting people to act. She excelled at the latter.

Four years after Save the Bay started in her home, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission was created by the state to oversee all coastline development issues. McLaughlin wasn’t one to rest on her laurels once the initial battle was won. In addition to exerting continued pressure to cease bay development, she also helped lead the fight to increase public access to the bay’s shoreline. To that end, she co-founded Citizens for East Shore Parks (CESP) in 1985. In 2012, McLaughlin Eastshore State Park was dedicated in her name. In addition, she sat on several boards and commissions over the years, including the Alameda County Board of Supervisors Advisory Planning Commission, the National Audubon Society, Save the Redwoods League, and the Trust for Public Land.

“Sylvia was more than an environmental mover and shaker,” says CESP president Robert Cheasty, noting that McLaughlin was in her 70s when she aided his organization. “She mentored many of us through example. She hosted events in her home, chaired various working committee meetings, did fundraising, visited a raft of elected and appointed officials, and made public appearances at hearings and board meetings whenever she could.”

There was even a documentary, Saving the Bay, chronicling the history of the bay and the work of Sylvia and others, narrated by Robert Redford.

Today, approximately 35,000 employees, members, and volunteers of Save the Bay work on cleanup and restoration projects, monitor development and legislation, and file lawsuits against projects that they believe might harm the bay’s ecosystem. It’s quite a step up from three women sitting in McLaughlin’s kitchen 55 years ago, determined to help save the San Francisco Bay.

“Sylvia and her friends just wanted to stop the bay from being destroyed. They were so successful that they launched the modern grassroots environmental movement in the Bay Area,” says 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.”

—Debbie Swartz

Posted by Office of Communications Monday, February 1, 2016