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Eve Sterry, hellraiser, 1910-2002

By Bruce B. Brugmann

EVE STERRY, a pioneering conservationist on the peninsula for decades and the first woman to be elected to the Belmont City Council, died Jan. ll in De Soto, Texas. She was 91.

To my mind, Sterry was the model hometown conservationist and hellraiser for good causes of the l960s, the decade that started the process of "saving the bay" and "saving the peninsula" from the ravages of development and the local political establishments that rolled the process along on ball bearings.

Lois Hogle and author Wallace Stegner and the Committee for Green Foothills were saving the hills of the deep peninsula. Janet Adams, Gus Wright, and Gloria and Austin Clapp, with help from U.S.-representative-to-be Pete McCloskey, were leading the fight to stop Pacific Gas and Electric Co. from ramming huge overhead power lines through Woodside to the Stanford Linear Accelerator. Pat Barrentine and the Redwood City Civic Association were working to protect the salt flats. Lou Drake and Paul Goercke, up on the Brisbane hillside, were firing off missives to one and all in their fight to save San Bruno Mountain.

The air was crackling with the electricity of citizen outrage and action up and down the peninsula, and nowhere was the battle more heated and more important than in Belmont, which was the key mid-peninsula link for the dirt-hauling trucks that facilitated the destruction of the bay and the hills.

That was the stage for the emergence of Sterry and a tough little group she inspired called the Belmont Improvement Group (BIG). When I got to Belmont in January of l964, as a reporter for the old Redwood City Tribune, I found Sterry locked in battle with Mayor Wallace Benson, with his trademark cigar, and his allies who had kept the dirt-hauling trucks rolling down Ralston Avenue, night and day, for years.

At my first council meeting she got ahold of me and started filling me in on what was wrong with Belmont and what she and her group were doing to fix it. She loved to roll out the phrase "the double-gondola dirt-hauling trucks," which she pronounced with a derisive sneer. The trucks, she said, symbolized the destruction of Belmont and the peninsula. The developers were wrecking the hills by scooping out the dirt; then they were wrecking Ralston Avenue by using the street for the big trucks; then they were wrecking the bay by using the dirt as bay fill.

And, she said, all of these destructive policies were promoted by a high-handed old-boys club of local politicians, headed by Benson and operating in what she called "wine and dine" secrecy. She explained that the council used to meet, before the official council meeting, at the Villa Chartier restaurant across the city line in San Mateo, and secretly work out the plans for a sanitized council meeting, all on the city tab. The attitude Sterry was up against at city hall is illustrated by the line Benson would use with me when I confronted him: Bruce, if you don't think I deserve some champagne and some Maine lobster, with all the free service I give the city, then you just vote me out of office.

Sterry was a classic do-it-yourself civic watchdog. She didn't have any formal training as a planner. She just got mad and did the research and fed me stories that helped move her "save Belmont" agenda. The first thing she got really mad about was when, in the late l950s, developers thwarted the council and chopped down a beautiful grove of trees on the old Pullman estate, at the corner of Ralston Avenue and Avenue de las Pulgas, to build a Safeway store. But she was a quick learner and laid out a masterful campaign statement in her successful run for the council in l966.

"This is not a program for politicians," she would say. "It is a program for the people of Belmont. In the long run, people get the sort of community they deserve. I will work to see that the people of Belmont get the best." She blasted open the old-boys club by becoming the first woman elected to the council and paving the way for a council that had five women at one time.

"She was the most important person ever to be elected in Belmont," said former council member Coralin Feierbach, who looked on Sterry as her mentor. "She effected more change than anyone else." Feierbach and others listed some changes she was responsible for or fought for: a city master plan, a library, key open space, low-density development in the hills, retention of the city's single-family character, restriction of dirt hauling on Ralston Avenue, a more open and inclusive city hall and city government, and more participation by the public in city affairs.

Sterry was also a closet journalist. She knew what the story was, the story that would break things open at city hall, dramatize a key issue, and put Wally and his boys on the defensive. By the time I got on the beat, she had a raft of good stories for me. It was a reporter's dream: she always had a good solid story, she had always done the research, and she was ready to stand by her story, not as a secret source but as a local citizen activist who would have a newsworthy quote.

She liked to use the phrase "informing the public through the press." And so I did big stories on how the council had secretly and illegally amended an initiative ordinance to open up the city for more dirt hauling, on how the city was losing thousands of dollars by not charging fully for excavating and dirt hauling, on how the city had instituted a "clampdown" on public documents, on how the council was secretly planning a general obligation bond issue to pay for sewers and drainage for hill developers. Perhaps her juiciest tip was the one alerting me to a secret council meeting that Benson was hosting at a lunch at his private club in San Francisco. The hot potato issue: for a year the council had kept secret a series of experts' reports that repeatedly warned the city that the Notre Dame dam behind Belmont was a danger to lives and property in the city. I called Benson and the council members at the club, but nobody would come to the phone, so I wrote a story detailing the wine list, the decor, the paintings, the spiffy menu that the council members were enjoying.

That ended private council meetings at Wally's club. And that story helped give Sterry a major victory that, as she trumpeted during her council campaign, brought strong public reaction, emergency council action, threats from the state attorney general, and finally the repair of the dam.

Murrell Boyd neatly caught an essential Sterry trait: "She was crusty as hell; she wouldn't agree with you just to be politic. She was a bulldog who grabbed and barked and chewed away. I really admired her." Boyd was the Boyd in the "watchdog team of Boyd and Wiener," as I labeled them in my stories. They were key BIG allies of Sterry in the mid l960s. Her son Clint, of De Soto, Texas, said his mother "was able to marshal her resources and reach out to the community. She was able to stay the course."

Sterry was born on Oct. 22, l9l0, in Zlunitz, Bohemia, to an American mother and an Austrian father. Her father sold the family farm when she was four years old and moved the family to Australia. After her father died, her mother moved the family to Los Angeles in l927. She was married in the l930s to Charles C. Sterry, a manufacturers' representative. The Sterrys moved to Belmont in l95l, raising three sons at their home at 2045 Munroe Ave. Charles Sterry died in l974. Eve Sterry moved to Texas in l994 to be near her son Clint. She is survived by three sons, Clint, Phil, of Honolulu, and Steve, of Whittier, Calif., and five grandchildren.

The family suggests that donations be made to the Belmont Historical Society, l225 Ralston Ave., Belmont, CA 94002.

There is an irony to the Sterry era. When her nemesis, Wally Benson, died, the council did not give him a proclamation. However, Eve Sterry will be properly remembered by the council with a proclamation signed by the mayor at the council meeting Jan. 22.