You Must Remember This: Local heroines never to be forgotten

By NANCY GARDNER

Imagine how different our city would be if there was no Big Corona, if, instead of a long, sandy beach there were 50 or 60 houses. That’s what it would be like if it hadn’t been for Mary Burton. I never met Mary Burton, although I passed her house many times. There was a period when there were a number of the original redwood houses that early Corona del Mar pioneers built, but one by one the owners died, the heirs sold, the houses were scraped and something new took their place until finally there was only one – Mrs. Burton’s. When I read her obituary, I knew the writing was on the wall, and soon her cozy single house was razed, replaced by two edifices reminding us that we are no longer a community of beach cottages but a city of large, expensive houses. But that’s an aside.

Back to Big Corona. Citizens Bank of Los Angeles owned the beach and proposed building houses there. The state was interested in preserving the beach, and many residents, including Mary Burton, strongly favored that, but the city council turned the state away. They had been informed by the city attorney that the sale to the bank must go through. This seemed the end of the matter, but Mary Burton wasn’t ready to quit. She did some sleuthing and uncovered a relationship between the city attorney and the bank, one that raised a lot of questions. Instead of answering the questions, the city attorney made a quick skip. The council then rejected the bank in favor of accepting the state’s offer, and the beach was preserved – making Mary Burton a significant name in our city’s history. Something like that is not enough to get a house preserved, but we certainly shouldn’t let her name be forgotten.

Another city star was Isobel (Izzie) Pease. I actually met her. I must have been eight or so, since we were living in the Iris house. My childhood memory of Izzie is of a woman with white hair and blue eyes, a sleeveless blouse and a voluminous pair of long, blue shorts which she filled, being a rather large woman. She was also the Joanna Appleseed of CdM. Trees, she felt, were what would transform a rather barren area into a lovely community, and she set about getting trees planted. According to my father, she was quite firm in her manner. Her approach to a new arrival in CdM was not, “Will you be planting a tree?” It was, “What kind of trees are you planting?” When we look around at all the greenery, we can thank Izzie for a lot of it.

Fortunately, we haven’t stopped producing heroines. Jean Watt has been a singular voice for the environment in our city. She has founded a string of organizations – Stop Polluting Our Neighborhood (SPON), Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, Orange Coast River Park (OCRP), Friends of Newport Beach Animal Shelter (FONBAS) – and has a knack for recruiting the right people to participate. She refuses to let losses discourage her, always focusing on the next step.

Evelyn Hart is another woman who has more than made her mark on the city. A very popular councilwoman and mayor, she joined with Jean in forming FONBAS and was the originator of Women in Newport, an annual lunch that brings together all the women who serve on the various city commissions and committees. She led the fundraising effort for the new Oasis where her various contributions to the city are recognized in the Evelyn Hart Event Center.

And finally, there’s Nancy Skinner. She and her husband, Jack, sounded the note about water quality long before it was recognized by most people, and there is not a water quality project in the city that doesn’t bear their marks. Like Jean and Evelyn, Nancy is politically active, and she brings a demeanor that reminds everyone of what things could be like if – no matter how much we disagreed – we treated each other with respect.

The nice thing about all three – their accomplishments haven’t gone unnoticed. Their homes have not been designated historical monuments, but each has been named Citizen of the Year in recognition of their efforts to improve our city. 

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Nancy Gardner, former Mayor of Newport Beach, long-time resident and daughter of Judge Robert Gardner, is a regular contributor to StuNewsNewport.