By Helen Burke
On July 13, long-time Berkeley community activist Kitty McLean died of complications from a stroke. Kitty was an unsung heroine of many progressive causes and candidates: a volunteer par excellence.
The wife of UC Berkeley Professor Hugh McLean, Kitty was very active in politics. She was always there as a committed volunteer for a variety of progressive/environmental causes, candidates and organizations, including the Sierra Club, League of Women Voters (LWV) and Citizens for an Eastshore State Park (CESP). No job was too small for Kitty—she was willing to lick stamps, address envelopes, work to develop consensus on LWV issues, canvass door-to-door, participate in phone banks, talk to people, count votes in Sierra Club elections, keep up with elected officials and follow candidates running for office.
She never sought a highly visible leadership role, preferring instead to work behind the scenes. However, in her low-key, friendly and unassuming way with a quick wit and keen sense of humor, Kitty was very effective in scouting out new candidates, working for candidates and issues, and maintaining good relations with elected officials. Kitty enjoyed making environmental policy and was elected repeatedly to serve on executive boards for the local Sierra Club chapter and group and CESP. She was active in the Sierra Club’s Bay Chapter Political Committee that was responsible for endorsing candidates and taking positions on local ballot measures.
Kitty also supported excellence in education in Berkeley schools. In the wake of Proposition 13 shortages she worked hard to pass the BSEP (Berkeley Schools Excellence Program) local tax measure in 1986 and subsequent renewals/expansions to fund smaller classroom size, libraries, arts programs, and more. These measures passed with healthy majorities and now make up $25 million or 20% of the school district budget.
I got to know Kitty and husband Hugh in the mid-1970s during my first term as a Director on the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) Board. She became a close friend and advisor, giving me moral support and advice on issues before the board as well as with constituent issues. A funny story illustrates how resourceful Kitty could be. In July 1978, toward the end of my first term, Kitty agreed to coordinate efforts to collect signatures to nominate me as a candidate for re-election to the EBMUD Board in lieu of paying a filing fee. I went off on a trip to a remote part of Canada in the Waterton Lakes area – the Canadian version of Glacier National Park. The end of the filing period happened when I was away. I figured any developments about possible candidates filing against me could wait until I got home so I didn’t leave Kitty a detailed itinerary. But when a candidate filed with the support of the then Mayor and Vice Mayor of Berkeley, Kitty knew I would want to know immediately! She somehow located me at a motel near Waterton Lakes. The situation was complicated by the fact I was travelling with my parents under my maiden name, King. I was just going to bed one night when the motel owner said I had a phone call! I couldn’t for the life of me figure out who would be calling me. It was Kitty with the news about the opposition. The long arm of Kitty had succeeded in reaching out and grabbing me in the wilds of Canada!
Kitty is survived by husband Hugh and her three children, Anna, Clara and Gregory, and three grandchildren. She will be missed by the Berkeley and environmental community she loved and served so well.
Friends of Kitty’s are organizing an event to celebrate her life on Sunday, Sept. 20 from 2-4 p.m. at the Northbrae Community Church, 941 The Alameda. Sponsors include: Ed Bennett, Norman LaForce, Ann-Marie Hogan, Miriam Hawley, Judith Bloom, Joanne Drabek, Helen Burke, Rita Minjares, Pat Kuhi, Linda and Steve Lustig, Becky Evans, Monica Thyberg, Anna Marie Taylor, and Nancy Bickel. Speakers include: Former Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, Mayor Tom Bates or Vice Mayor Linda Maio, EBMUD Director Andy Katz, City Auditor Ann-Marie Hogan, Norman LaForce, Robert Cheasty, Monica Thyberg, Pat Kuhi, and Helen Burke. The public is welcome.
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