|Jean Siri, "Wild Woman of West
January 23, 2006
At an age when most have long since taken up a quieter life, Jean Siri continued to storm the bastions of traditional power and money to make the world a better place. Until her death on Friday, she represented Richmond and Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, El Cerrito, El Sobrante, Kensington, a portion of Oakland, a small part of Pinole, and San Pablo.on the East Bay Regional Park District board of directors.
I particularly admired Jean for her total irreverence toward anything in the way of her mission to improve the quality of life for everyone, particularly those who have the least. She proved time and again that you donít have to kiss up to power brokers to get elected to public office and to be effective.
She was an inspiration to me, and I will miss her greatly.
In the end, after a lifetime of dashing passionately from cause to cause as one of the "Wild Women of Contra Costa County," social issues activist and former El Cerrito Mayor Jean Siri died the way she probably would have wanted to.
She suffered a heart attack sitting in her car outside her home Friday morning -- with the engine running and her hand on the shift lever, apparently about to push it into drive.
She was 85 years old, but she had the energy, drive and restless spirit of someone half her age, friends and family recalled.
"She died fast, independent and getting ready to go somewhere," said her daughter, Lynn Siri Kimsey, managing a chuckle even as she struggled with the blow of her mother's death. "It was a perfect way to go.
"And she certainly had a full enough life."
That, Ms. Siri's many friends and admirers said, could be an understatement.
At the time of her death, Ms. Siri was a member of the East Bay Regional Park District Board of Directors, a position she held for 14 years. When asked in 2004, just before her last election, whether she might think of stepping aside for younger candidates, she harrumphed: "Only if I have a dead body would I stop running, and it's not quite dead yet."
The comment was typical of her irreverent, bluntly honest wit. That characteristic, coupled with her high-octane vigor, propelled her into dozens of political and organizational posts throughout Contra Costa County over the past half-century, from two stints as mayor in the 1980s to co-founder of the influential environmental groups Save the Bay and the California Native Plant Society.
Together with homeless activist Susan Prather and their late friend Fancheon Christner, Ms. Siri fought so fiercely with county and city governments on behalf of the elderly, homeless and ecological causes that the three were nicknamed the "Wild Women of Contra Costa County" in the early 1980s by the local press. The three were instrumental in keeping homeless shelters and senior centers open in Richmond and Concord and in protecting access to the bay for the public by opposing industrial expansion plans all along the East Bay shoreline.
"She was the mother I should have had," said Prather, 55-year-old director of the Fresh Start homeless aid center in Walnut Creek. "We both went pretty far in getting into people's faces, I guess, but we sure had fun doing it."
Ms. Siri was born Jean Brandenberg near Bismarck, N.D. After earning a bachelor's degree in biology at Jamestown College in North Dakota, she enlisted in 1943 in the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and ran a cryptology unit in Klamath Falls, Ore.
Upon her honorable discharge, she took a job managing the animal lab at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. There she met her husband, biophysicist William Siri, who helped create the atomic bomb as a member of the Manhattan Project. The two married in 1949 and were a perfect fit in their verve and temperament, daughter Lynn Siri Kimsey recalled.
"She and my dad both made it clear that you can't just sit back and wait for someone to do the right thing," said Siri Kimsey, an entomology professor at UC Davis. "You have to get out there and do it yourself."
Ms. Siri quit her lab job in 1952 to raise their two daughters at home in El Cerrito, but she quickly added more ways to fill her time. As her husband pursued a storied interest in mountain climbing -- he co-led the first American expedition up Mount Everest -- and became president of the national Sierra Club, Ms. Siri began protesting on behalf of civil rights and environmental causes.
When her children left high school, she entered local politics, getting elected chairwoman of the Stege Sanitary District from 1975 to 1979. In 1980, she won a seat on the El Cerrito City Council, and served until 1991, except for a break from 1985 to 1987. She took the rotating post of mayor in 1982-83 and 1988-89.
Along the way, she also was active in the Gray Panthers senior citizens advocacy group and served on a plethora of local and countywide commissions, including the West County Toxics Coalition and the county Homeless Committee.
"Will and I have had a pretty good time stirring things up," Ms. Siri told The Chronicle in August 2004 for an obituary about her husband, who had just died of complications due to Alzheimer's. "Hell, someone has to. Why not us?"
"Any one of her experiences would have been a career for anyone else," said park district General Manager Pat O'Brien, who ordered district flags flown at half-staff. "She reminded me of an eight-cylinder car. Everyone else is down to four cylinders, so to speak, and can be kind of subtle, but she was full bore. When she stepped on the gas, you heard it."
Mayor Tom Bates, who with Ms. Siri and others helped create the Eastshore State Park, was shocked to hear that the energetic woman he had fought alongside -- and even with, sometimes -- for many years was silenced.
"Jean was a great advocate to have on your side," he said. "She always told you exactly where you stood, what she believed in. What a great fighter she was."
Ms. Siri is survived by her daughters, Lynn Siri Kimsey of Davis and Anne Siri of Philo (Mendocino County), and two grandchildren.
Donations in her name can be made to Fresh Start in Walnut Creek, (925) 935-8446, or to the East Bay Regional Park District, (510) 635-0135. Services are pending.