Lives of the East Bay 2016

We say goodbye to people of remarkable talents whose deaths leave us contemplative and saddened. Their legacies live on through their amazing art and the good works they set in motion.


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Photo courtesy of save the bay

Sylvia McLaughlin.

She Helped Save the Bay

Sylvia McLaughlin, 99

For generations, the San Francisco Bay was little more than a background feature to locals, its surrounding marshes better filled in for development or simply used as a garbage dump. But Sylvia McLaughlin saw the bay with new eyes when she moved to Berkeley in 1961; through the toxic sludge and the smog of burning trash, she imagined the bay as it once was. Together with fellow Berkeleyans Esther Gulick and Catherine Kerr, McLaughlin founded Save the Bay, the country’s first grassroots environmental movement, to clean, restore, and protect the bay.

The road wasn’t easy. In the ’60s, environmentalism was barely in the public consciousness, and McLaughlin’s small group was pitted against some of the wealthiest and most powerful real estate developers in the area. Critics derided her as an “impractical idealist,” but McLaughlin’s forceful personality, coupled with a charismatic flair for public speaking, drew thousands of people to her cause. Among other battles, McLaughlin led a decade-long fight to block a plan by David Rockefeller from developing 27 miles of shoreline south of the San Francisco airport. In 1961, only six miles of bay shoreline was open and accessible to the public; thanks to efforts like McLaughlin’s, today residents can explore and enjoy 343 miles of shoreline trails.

McLaughlin’s dedication helped spark the fledgling environmental movement and set a precedent for groundswell efforts across the country. She was famously cordial and friendly, even to her opponents, but her sweetness hid an iron will that made her a fighting champion for the causes closest to her heart. McLaughlin remained active in environmental causes for the rest of her life, serving on the boards of various environmental groups and always working to help preserve the natural beauty of California.




Reborn Via Evangelism

‘Vanity,’ Denise Katrina Matthews, 57

Better known by her stage name Vanity, Denise Katrina Matthews of Fremont was a versatile talent known for her sultry stage presence and her funky pop rhythms. She got her start in show business as a protégé of Prince, who made her the lead of the girl band Vanity 6. The group had a smash hit in 1982 with the R&B anthem “Nasty Girl,” but Matthews left the band after falling out with Prince. She went on to record two solo albums on the Motown label.

She was romantically linked to Billy Idol and Adam Ant, and was married to Anthony Smith of the Oakland Raiders for a year in 1995. She dabbled in acting, appearing in a few B-movies and horror flicks. Her biggest role was as video DJ Laura Charles in the hip-hop martial arts cult classic The Last Dragon, where her character helped karate champ Bruce Leroy defeat Sho’Nuff the Shogun of Harlem.

She struggled with addiction and was hospitalized in 1994 for a cocaine overdose. After her recovery, she renounced her stage persona and became a born-again Christian, leaving Hollywood to become a minister and found Fremont’s Pure Heart Ministries. Beginning a new career as an inspirational speaker, she told her story of salvation to packed audiences across the country. But due to her former addiction, she struggled with health issues and was crowd-funding a kidney transplant at the time of her death.


Photo by Michael Short

Dominga Velasco.

Activist Worked Tirelessly for Immigrants

Dominga Velasco, 114

Known as the “great grandmother of Latino Activism in Oakland,” the centenarian Velasco remembered all the way back to a time when there was no barrio in Oakland and Mexican residents were an oddity in the East Bay. Born in Mexico in 1901, Velasco and her family fled to avoid the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution and eventually settled in Oakland in the 1920s as some of the city’s first Mexican immigrants. At first she found it difficult to adjust to living in a new culture. She vividly recalled how her mother suffered from homesickness because local stores didn’t stock traditional corn tortillas. But the experience gave Velasco a fierce pride in her Mexican heritage and a lifelong determination to celebrate her roots.

During World War II, Velasco and her husband opened a Mexican restaurant called Chapala on Seventh Street. After the sudden death of her husband and daughter from tuberculosis, she persevered and eventually opened another restaurant, The Enchilada Shop. Always ready to offer an open hand to fellow immigrants, Velasco became involved with Mexican community organizers meeting at a nearby church, inviting the group to meet at her restaurant. The group helped new arrivals find work and get U.S. citizenship. During the 1960s, several different community groups joined forces to form the Unity Council. Velasco worked often with Arabella Martinez, one of the council’s founders and current chief executive, who brought the council’s funders to Velasco’s restaurant to sample her famous enchiladas. In recognition for her work, the Unity Council’s Casa Velasco Senior Housing was named in her honor.

Velasco lived through hard times and turmoil, but always stayed positive, an attitude that she credited for her longevity. She was California’s oldest verified resident, the second-oldest person in the United States, and the seventh-oldest person in the world. She never slowed down or abandoned the community she loved, even canvassing and stuffing envelopes for the election campaigns of former Oakland City Councilman Ignacio de la Fuente into her 100s. Today, she’s remembered not just for her persistence in the face of adversity or her love of homeland, but also for her boundless warmth and generosity. She died in October 2015.

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