Remembering Hal Conklin
By Leslie Dinaberg
After five decades spent in service to Santa Barbara, including serving as a City Council member and Mayor, former Community Environmental Council Executive Director Hal Conklin passed away on May 21 2021. He spent his final days in hospice care at Serenity House, coming full circle in the beautiful spot at the top of TV Hill which was once the site of CEC’s Mesa Project and Gildea Resource Center.
CEC’s current Executive Director, Sigrid Wright, talked with two of Hal’s oldest CEC teammates — founding Board Member Maryanne Mott and founding Executive Director Paul Relis — to hear some of their memories of their friend and colleague.
Sigrid Wright: Hal lived with so much heart and passion that it feels impossible to sum up his life. What do you think were his greatest traits and biggest contributions to Santa Barbara?
Paul Relis: Hal is going to be deeply missed in Santa Barbara. His contributions, of an environmental and cultural nature, are unparalleled. Because he was a politician, there will be different views of his political decisions regarding the city, but from my perspective no elected leader before Hal had such a vision of the city and a hand in so many physical outcomes.
Maryanne Mott: His impact was his ability to think big and to connect and network very strongly. He was a big picture, long-term thinker, and he was also creative, with the leadership qualities to make ideas come into reality.
Paul: I consider his two great contributions to be the preservation of Stearns Wharf and our wonderful public waterfront, and his cultivation of the arts. He nurtured the beauty of Santa Barbara and our artistic life as a city. Not since the legendary Pearl Chase have we had a civic leader of such depth and breadth. He was the intersection between the arts and the environment.
Hal was conciliatory by nature. People found him approachable, kind and not coercive in the way that one thinks of with many political figures. His demeanor was calm, he spoke softly as he pursued his great vision for Santa Barbara.
Sigrid: How did he get involved with CEC?
Maryanne: Hal came to town to work with Bishop James Pike and his wife, Diane Kennedy Pike, who had established a foundation to give support to priests who were transitioning from the church to secular life. Many of the priests were opposed to the war in Vietnam. Hal, as a conscientious objector and person of deep faith, was a great fit with the foundation. However, as a consequence of Bishop Pike’s untimely death in the Israeli desert, the foundation was closed.
Hoping to be able to remain in Santa Barbara, Hal was exploring his options right at the time when CEC was being formed. I was on the Board at CEC when the thought came to me that he might be interested in working there. At the time I had no sense of his interests but did believe he would bring considerable talent to the organization. CEC had very few resources, but we could give him a position with minimal funds to assist in the founding and the development of the organization.
Sigrid: So running the CEC was kind of like an arranged marriage between Hal and Paul?
Paul: He was like a foreign object planted by Maryanne (laughs). I didn’t know Hal Conklin, zero, until she walked in the door and introduced him.
I was just out of college and trying to figure out how to run this new fledgling nonprofit. So we set up a co-directorship of CEC, which became dedicated to a big environmental vision that encompassed much of what today we know as sustainability, community gardens, recycling, urban planning, renewable energy. Of course this was the early 70s when all of this was new. In a word, it was fringe.
Sigrid: How did you and Hal work together in the early days?
Paul: Hal focused on the recycling side of things. I focused on the gardens and the, what we called then, “alternative technology.”
Our main collaboration in those early days was to fend off the proposed massive development of the Santa Barbara waterfront being pushed by Southern Pacific Railroad and Hyatt Hotels, which owned a huge parcel that is now the Fess Parker hotel and Chase Palm Park north of Cabrillo. The plan was to reroute Cabrillo Boulevard behind a massive hotel convention center, three-four stories high, which we referred to as the Great Wall. It would be nearly half a mile long and then interior to that it was to be commercial and residential all the way to the freeway. To get a sense of the scale, it would have been a development about the size of the entire downtown core.
I’ve always said that if this proposal went as planned, Santa Barbara would not be the city that it is today. And Hal along with other leading lights like the late James Gildea, Robert Easton and Selma Rubin blunted that prospect Residents of the eastside community asked us to help, because if the proposed project were developed it would be the end of a waterfront that was heavily used by the Eastside community. That touched off a 10-year epic battle to tame this huge project and create the waterfront that we have today.
As a result we have a hotel that’s quite set back off the boulevard with mostly two story buildings, preserving views of the Riviera and mountains, a park strip along the length of the hotel fanning into an expanded Chase Palm Park, and no rerouted Cabrillo Boulevard. Hal and I led that effort with the others under the rubric of The Committee for Santa Barbara. Pearl Chase was our honorary chair. After the Hyatt and Southern Pacific bowed out, they sold a small portion of their land to Fess Parker who leveraged that into a controlling interest. And so Hal and I then dealt with Fess – or “Davy Crockett,” my childhood idol.
Sigrid: When I imagine the founders of the local environmental movement and the beginning of the CEC, I picture more of a hippie culture. That isn’t my image of Hal.
Paul: Yes, I think that If you went back in time it would be just as you put it (laughs). Hal wasn’t at all hippyish. There’s a picture of him with a shovel at the downtown garden probably around 1972, and he was dressed so smartly. He doesn’t look like he should be digging at all!
When Hal and I started out we were pushing programs the city wasn’t at all favorable to. They didn’t want community gardens, they didn’t want recycling, they didn’t want energy conservation. They looked at young people like us suspiciously, even contemptuously. So when we would go before the city council and the board of supervisors we weren’t treated kindly. It’s amazing to think that how quickly, by 1976 or 1978, when Hal had become a councilman, this signaled a larger transformation in the body politic. With Hal in office the outside had become the inside.
Sigrid: Was Hal’s foray into politics something expected?
Maryanne: I wouldn’t have predicted it when I first met him, but at some point he clearly had gotten so involved in the community that it made sense that he would take a leadership role. And, I might add, Scott Kennedy, his good friend and the brother of Diane Pike, was mayor of Santa Cruz at the same time Hal was mayor here. So there’s some kind of parallel trajectory between the two of them that one might not have expected.
Sigrid: I particularly feel like we’ve lost our resident historian. Over the years he shared photos and files on CEC that went into our archives at UCSB on our 50th anniversary, and I know that he kept detailed history of the Santa Barbara City Council. I don’t think any of that was ever published, it was just something he created out of interest.
Maryanne: Yes, one trait that is emblematic of Hal in our church and community gatherings is anytime we would say, “do you remember when we did blah, blah,” he would pull out his iPad and bring up photos of whatever memory we were talking about. He was incredibly organized and obviously sentimental or caring about the records. He was a very strong record keeper and historian in that sense — not just in the public domain but in the personal domain as well.
Sigrid: It seems very fitting that Hal passed away at Serenity House, which was once the home of CEC.
Paul: Hal called me a few days before he died and said: “guess where I am? I’m at Serenity House.” I thought how fitting it was for him to be at there and how much I think it meant to him. You see, when CEC sold its home to Visiting Nurse and Hospice, the parent of Serenity House, we were so relieved to know that this was its fate. We were very concerned about who would end up with the property because we considered it a sacred place, an “ institution of hope” as I called it. That it ended up becoming a hospice and that Hal would spend his final days there was a beautiful outcome.
Sigrid: That’s a lovely idea of him coming full circle.
Paul: It’s very moving. And it wasn’t lost on Hal.
In memory of Hal Conklin’s service to the City of Santa Barbara, the City flag will be lowered to half-staff from Monday, May 24, 2021 until sunset, Sunday, May 30, 2021.
For more information about the life and work of Hal Conklin: