Spirit of Vassar Award

By Rachel Beck '04
Sylvia Cranmer McLaughlin ’39. Photo: Save the Bay
Sylvia Cranmer McLaughlin ’39. Photo: Save the Bay

When Sylvia Cranmer McLaughlin ‘39 learned that she was the recipient of the Spirit of Vassar Award, she was “overwhelmed.” The award, which recognizes outstanding commitment and service to Vassar or another community, is “such a great honor,” said McLaughlin. “I’m very grateful when people express their thanks.”

Not as grateful as the many people who have benefited from McLaughlin’s infinite altruism. An unintentional activist, McLaughlin’s volunteering history spans more than 40 years and includes a multitude of accomplishments.

In 1960, the city of Berkeley planned to fill in much of the San Francisco Bay to create real estate for hotels, office buildings, even an airport. Around the same time, the Army Corps of Engineers in its “2020 Report” to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce showed that 70 percent of the bay was shallow enough to be filled. Alarmed by the prediction, which had been published in a local paper, McLaughlin joined up with Catherine Kerr and Esther Gulick to do whatever they could to protect the bay. From that simple motivation, the Save San Francisco Bay Association was born.

“Sometimes I look out at the bay and wonder how we did it,” said McLaughlin. But they did. With “persistence, determination, and lots of luck,” McLaughlin and her friends fought developers, politicians, and public ignorance. They won.

Now, the Save the Bay organization is a landmark environmental association, and its early accomplishments are regarded as legendary. McLaughlin and the others are highly respected as heroes of the conservation movement, and for being among the first environmental activists in the nation. In 2000, McLaughlin stepped down from Save the Bay, after four decades of hard work and achievements.

Her volunteer work, not limited to Save the Bay, has stretched far and wide. She has been a delegate to the White House Conference on Natural Beauty, former director of the National Audubon Society, and a member of the steering committee for the Governor’s Conference on California Beauty. She also served on the City of Berkeley’s first Advisory Committee on Waterfront Planning.

Somehow, McLaughlin also found time for Vassar volunteer work. She served as president of the East Bay Vassar Club from 1952 to 1956, was a special gifts chair for her 50th reunion, and a scholarship fund chair as well. In 1971, she was one of 39 distinguished alumnae/i to participate in the AAVC centennial. With so many activities, how does she find the time? “You just make time for what you think is important,” she says.

Currently, McLaughlin is active in the Citizens for Eastshore State Park (CESP), which she helped to found in 1985. This coalition of residents and organizations worked to protect open space along the Bay Area shoreline. In 2002, the organization celebrated the establishment of the Eastshore State Park.

In 1977, McLaughlin was given the prestigious community service Wheeler Award for “Berkeley’s most useful citizen.” In March, the City of Berkeley’s Commission on the Status of Women (COSOW) honored McLaughlin as an Outstanding Berkeley Woman. Recognized for their “contributions to the Berkeley community,” the 14 recipients were given certificates from the California Legislature and COSOW.

Meg Venecek Johnson ‘84, chair of the AAVC Awards Selection Committee, noted that McLaughlin’s “decades-long commitment, and her willingness to work for change on every front and in every form available to her, shows the impact that one person can have.”

“It’s been very gratifying,” McLaughlin said of her volunteer activities. Though she sees her extensive work as “almost a career,” she’s amazed by the AAVC recognition.

“A lot of people must be more worthy,” she said humbly. “I’ll try to live up to it.”