Photo courtesy of Humboldt State University
Susie Van Kirk would probably not have approved of Humboldt State University's plan to immortalize her. The decades-long activist for homeless and environmental rights was not a fan of the spotlight, according to all who knew her, going as far as to ask her son not to hold a memorial service or write an obituary after she had passed. That didn't stop many from mourning her Dec. 30 death
, which came a day before her friend and collaborator in activism Lucille Vinyard also died. Now the university is taking steps to honor both women by gathering their papers into a special research collection.
Among the papers may be letters like the one Van Kirk's friend and fellow homeless advocate, Becky Price-Hall, often thought of sending her.
"She was so humble," Price-Hall says. "She was very pessimistic about what could be done, but she really made more difference than anyone else. Sometimes I just felt like writing her a letter and telling her why she shouldn’t be discouraged. She and others were really instrumental in making things happen."
Van Kirk helped establish what would become the Arcata House Partnership and was, according to Price-Hall, "single-minded about getting people someplace to sleep that was dry." But when the Arcata Night Shelter bought a new building and wanted to name it for her, she strongly refused. Today it bears only her initials: The SVK House.
Vinyard had no less of a legacy. Often referred to as the "Mother of Redwood National Park," she formed the region's first Sierra Club in 1964, and advocated for the inclusion of the North Coast in the national park system. Despite considerable blowback from the timber industry, her efforts and the efforts of other activists were ultimately successful. She went on to receive a Woman of the Year award from state Assemblymember Patty Berg in 2003, among other accolades.
Dan Sealy, vice-president of the board of the North Coast Environmental Center, recalls Vinyard as a "really, really brave person."
"She loved to hike, loved to be outdoors, wanted everybody to love the outdoors the way she did," he says, adding that he is glad the university is taking steps to preserve Vinyard and Van Kirk's legacies. "It’s a great gift to Humboldt County. It's an opportunity to show the role of women in conservation."
Both women inspired many in their community. Margaret Gainer, who called Van Kirk her mentor, recalls drawing on their experience negotiating with CalTrans to modify bypass plans through what is now Newton B. Drury Parkway to avoid removing old growth trees.
"A couple years ago, when CalTrans was planning for the Highway 101 Corridor between Arcata and Eureka, I asked Susie to tell me what they did to be so successful in getting CalTrans to modify their original plans to address what the community wanted," Gainer says. "I’ll never forget her response: 'Lucille and I just made it clear to them that we were not going away and that we would not take “no” for an answer.'"
The Van Kirk & Vinyard Research Collection Enduring Memorial & Learning Opportunity is projected for completion in spring 2017. HSU is currently soliciting donations
in order to aid this project.