Remembering Ruth Spangenberg

For over a half century, California has been at the leading edge of the wave of environmental activism, and, not surprisingly, the Bay Area has provided numerous leaders in this effort. The majority of these enviro-pioneers were talented and dedicated women, many of whom were housewives and mothers. These visionaries recognized that the post-World War 2 construction boom was threatening to destroy the Bay Area’s natural open spaces — farm fields and hillsides, forests and creeks, and even the Bay. They looked beyond their families, homes, and neighborhoods, and resisted what was called “Progress”. Against tremendous odds – and to their eternal credit, they changed the future of our area.

One of these extraordinary women was Ruth Spangenberg who in 1962 offered her living room for the first organizing meeting of Committee for Green Foothills, and served as our first Vice President, along with Wallace Stegner as President. Back then, Green Foothills’ Board was a ‘working board’, serving as the organization’s unpaid advocates.

At that time, Ruth was a full-time mother raising a family of six children, ages 17, 16, 13, 11, 8, and 4, and was also deeply immersed in community and school organizations including the PTA, Girl Scouts and the First United Methodist Church in Palo Alto. When Ruth’s husband, Karl, died of cancer in 1964, she had to become the family breadwinner.  She earned a Master of Arts degree in counseling and guidance from Stanford in the summer of 1965, and became a beloved teacher in the San Mateo Community College District including courses on Marriage and the Family, Human Sexuality, and Parapsychology. 

Although of necessity her professional work and family took priority, Ruth never lost her enthusiasm for protecting the green foothills above Palo Alto and beyond. She returned to serve on Green Foothills Board of Directors for two consecutive years in 1968 and 1969, continued participating in many of our hikes and events, and even wrote an article for our newsletter in the spring of 2000 on the fight to protect the Stanford foothills, the issue that led to the founding of Green Foothills and one in which she was intimately involved.

Ruth inspired many of us who followed the path she helped to create. Radiating positivity and creativity, Ruth was not shy about speaking up for what was right and just, even if it was not popular. Her infectious smile and big hugs were memorably accompanied by effusive praise upon hearing of even a small step towards a greener future: “Oh, Honey, this is just marvelous!”  I’m forever grateful to have known and worked with Ruth, albeit in small but memorable moments, and to be privileged to follow the vision “for Green Foothills” that was created in Ruth’s living room back in 1962.

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