Susie Van Kirk and Lucille Vinyard: partners in activism, friends to the end

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – Two women who made extraordinary contributions to local culture, history and the environment passed away within a day of each  other last week. Lucille Vinyard passed away Dec. 30; Susie Van Kirk on Dec. 31.

Van Kirk and Vinyard had, together and separately, transformed Humboldt’s landscape for the better in multiple ways. Their sudden loss stunned friends and colleagues across a range of activist causes.

Susie Van Kirk

Always shunning publicity and attention to herself, Susie Van Kirk was an intensely private woman of whom few photographs exist. Still, she was known to open her home to homeless individuals, taking personal responsibility for sheltering those with no other options in life.

“Susie had a very straightforward way of approaching the homeless issue and didn’t want shelter funding diverted for organizational purposes,” recalled friend Becky Price-Hall.

Susie Van Kirk

Susie Van Kirk

She remembered Van Kirk plainly stating her interests: “My wants are simple: feed and shelter folks,” she said. “That’s it. That’s all. I have no other agenda than sheltering, feeding and caring about people who mostly live without [shelter] and  [care].”

Toward that end, she served in multiple ways. A partial list:

• Volunteered for the Emergency Shelters in Eureka for six years in 1990s;

• Helped establish the Arcata Night Shelter, which opened in December 2002;

• Was a founding member of the Humboldt All Faith Partnership incorporated as 501(c)(3) in 2003 through 2009 or 2010;

• Volunteered with the Thanksgiving Community Meal at the Arcata Veterans’ Hall for many years;

• Volunteered for the Extreme Weather shelters in Arcata beginning in 2006;

• Volunteered with the Homeless Court in Arcata.

Van Kirk’s contributions didn’t stop there. She was Arcata’s de facto town historian, whose research into local history not only enabled historic preservation efforts, but provided background on numerous sites and institutions in Arcata when developments were under consideration. She was frequently found peering into the microfiche screens in the Humboldt State Library’s periodical archives, researching some matter for a project, or for personal interest.

“She was the number one historic researcher in Humboldt County,” said friend Alex Stillman. “She was dedicated to preserving the natural environment and our local history. She did the first survey of Arcata’s built environment and has been held in high esteem throughout her life.”

Beyond all that, the diminutive Van Kirk, often seen walking in her blue windbreaker down Bayside Road to her home on Buttermilk Lane, was also a giant in the environmental community.

Moving to Arcata in 1969, she abandoned her graduate work in biology for direct action on behalf of nature. She became involved with making freeway construction through Arcata more environmentally sensitive and less disruptive, then became active with the Sierra Club and Audubon Society. Her research skills were honed in scrutinizing environmental documents filed by the timber industry and U.S. Forest Service.

When the environmental justification for a project was lacking, Van Kirk was ready to file appeals and even participate in litigation.

“I have a real low tolerance for things that I think are unjust and unfair,” she is quoted as saying in a book titled The Environmental Crusaders, by Penina Migdal Glazer and Myron Peret Glazer (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998). “And when I see what goes on, I know it’s just not unfair, it’s wrong, and I feel I have to make the effort, even if I fail. Somebody has to speak for the resources and the trees, and often I am the only person there to do it.”

For her efforts, Van Kirk is remembered as a colleague of environmental titan Tim McKay, with whom she had joined forces on environmental lobbying.

“Susie Van Kirk, like Tim McKay, was moved by a strong sense of justice and a need to do something to improve an intolerable situation, wrote the authors in The Environmental Crusaders. “Van Kirk and McKay have no illusions about saving the world, nor do they assume a holier-than-thou position ... They believe profoundly that they are part of a larger society where social relations and political commitments matter.”

Lucille Vinyard

Lucille Vinyard’s environmental legacy runs deep in the North Coast, but one of her shared accomplishments is plainly visible – the preservation of half of all remaining old growth redwoods.

In 1963, at a conference of the Wilderness Society, Vinyard learned that Stewart Udall, the then-Secretary of the Interior, was considering creation of a national park on California’s North Coast.

“The alert went out to the timber industry, and all hell broke loose from then on,” Vinyard later reminisced.

Lucille Vinyard

Lucille Vinyard

The timber world and environmentalists then entered into a pitched battle on multiple fronts to allow logging in what would later become Redwood National Park, or to preserve the trees and rivers for future generations.

Vinyard responded by starting a new chapter of the Sierra Club in Arcata. Word spread through the college community. Dr. Rudolf Becking, Dr. George Allen, Dr. Ed Steele, Dr. Robert White and many other Humboldt State professors founded the Citizens for Redwood National Park (CRNP) in 1965, and started fundraising.

Vinyard organized outings to the area as well as publicity, personally photographing its verdant expanses to raise awareness. She took this message to the public on all available venues.

“I had the time, the energy, and the passion,” she said.

Her efforts weren’t appreciated by the timber industry. Vinyard’s license plate number was publicized, and massive logging rigs tailgated her car.

“Those great big trucks would come up close and rev their motors up and almost ride my bumper,” she said.

Her partnership with Van Kirk was rewarded when Congress created Redwood National Park in 1968. Ten years later, President Jimmy Carter added an additional 48,000 acres to the park.

While some of the bureaucrats who were charmed, cajoled and shamed into doing their jobs knew her as "that awful woman from Trinidad," many considered Vinyard “the mother of Redwood National Park.”

She went on to start the North Group chapter of the Sierra Club and co-found the Northcoast Environmental Center (NEC), among several other environmental organizations. Her efforts on many eco-projects won her national recognition.

“She was a brave pioneer woman,” said Dan Sealy, another founding member of the Northcoast Environmental Center. “She believed very strongly that protection of our beautiful North Coast was more important than her safety and comfort.”

Sealy said her contributions are almost without peer. “To me, she is the John Muir of Humboldt County,” he said.

Said Sealy in a message to friends, “I cannot tell you how sad I am at her loss. It is very difficult to imagine this world without her and her spirit and readiness to go out and save these beautiful places. When I visited Lucille this summer and she knew she was going to have a rough time, she told me directly, with no question on my part: ‘Dan, I’m not afraid to die. I have had a wonderful life and have seen beautiful places’.”

The North Group Sierra Club founded the Lucille Vinyard and Susie Van Kirk Environmental Education Fund, which sends children to environmental camp each summer.

Colleague Margaret Gainer said that Vinyard and Van Kirk were a very effective odd couple in activism, their styles and strengths varying, but symbiotic. "The two of them were such a good duo," Gainer said. "They had such respect for each other."

"Susie was a very good speaker  - not real flamboyant," Gainer said. "One of the reasons people found it hard to say 'no' to Susie was that she presented facts in such an ego-less way. Lucille was different – very polished, and she wore makeup."

Both, Gainer said, were "unrelenting. They just kept with it."

In recent months, Van Kirk was often at Vinyard’s bedside, comforting and reading to her.

Vinyard’s funeral arrangements are pending. Van Kirk asked that no memorial service or obituary be created. Her ashes will be buried next to those of her parents in a family plot in the Rogers, Ark. cemetery, per her wishes.

Former NEC staffer Connie Stewart worked closely Van Kirk and Vinyard. “If there’s a heaven, Susie’s already researching its historic places and Lucille is redesigning the campgrounds in its ancient forests,” Stewart said.

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3 Comments

  1. 2016 Draft Options said:

    Often, the best people in society help others, and as the years go by, real and true helpers tend to remove themselves from the spotlight so people can’t ridicule false reasons for the help.

    Opposite are the real bad helpers (false philanthropics) who use their wealth to help people who really dont need help or political maneuvers of benefit unconnected to humanity, and as such, hide away their identity for the deserved ridicule of faux help.

    Sigh.

  2. Dwain Goforth said:

    Susie never ever stopped helping people. I remember her cream of spinach soup as one of many wonder delicious meals she made and gave away straight from her heart. I always thought she should be an Arcata City Council member and told her so as often as I saw her.

    The world was a hard place when facing the struggles of people she cared for. I would say every single person in Arcata owes her a debt of gratitude for what she accomplished and yet no one knew her hand was in it.

    Lucille, similarly accomplished was was said to be impossible. They were both driving forces in the creation, and especially the expansion of Redwood National Park.

    Please, can there be two redwood trees, near each other, that can be named after them? The trees themselves would welcome them, I am sure. It was an honor for me to know both of them.

    Oh, and by the way. let’s add Tim McKay and have the grove of honor and respect for those who worked, so, so hard for us.

  3. Sikora said:

    Susie cared. She walked the walk. I had the honor of volunteering with her at Arcata House in its formative years, and on community groups to get the MAC center established. A humble, awesome person. Kathi

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