Monday, March 13, 2017

Park Superhero

By C.J. Hirschfield

I’ll never forget the day, nearly 15 years ago, when I met Anne Woodell. It was at a Fairyland event, just after I’d been hired as the park’s executive director. I found myself literally backed into a corner, where Anne poked at my chest and told me what needed to be done to continue moving Fairyland forward.

I was shocked. Who was this woman, and what gave her the right to talk to me this way?

I quickly learned what many people in Oakland knew quite well: that Anne Morrow Woodell was a fierce advocate of parks and recreation, and never shy about promoting this cause.

Anne died on Jan. 25, and last week a large crowd gathered at the Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate to honor her life. In her eulogy, Mayor Libby Schaaf called Anne a “park superhero” and a “superhero of citizenship,” and she was both. She was also my inspiration and a strong ally. Last week, as I listened to all the admiring speeches, I realized that one person — particularly a strong willed and persuasive one – can change the face of an entire city.

Anne Woodell, 1936-2017.

Anne hailed from Ann Arbor, Mich., but lived in Oakland for 47 years. She first became involved with Oakland’s Parks and Recreation in 1974, when she was appointed to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission – only the second woman in its history to serve in that capacity. She stayed on for 27 years and was the organization’s chair for 20. When she learned about Friends groups being started all around the country, Anne created Oakland’s first Friends of Parks and Recreation group.

To give you an idea of Anne’s passionate commitment to parks, here is a list of organizations on whose boards she served: Friends of Oakland Park and Recreation, Citizens for Oakland’s Open Space, Children’s Fairyland, Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate, Oakland City Stables Advisory Council, California Park and Recreation Society, the Hillside Gardeners of Montclair, Alameda County Historical Society, and the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club.

The What's Up Big Band performs at Anne Woodell's memorial. (Photo: C.J. Hirschfield.)

Most recently, she was the driving force behind the Oakland Municipal Band, whose summer concerts in Lakeside Park delighted so many, and whose members performed at Anne’s memorial. She was a member of the “Ladies of the Lake,” also known as the Oakland Women’s Rowing Club, whose members attended the celebration wearing their distinctive white outfits with blue scarves.

The event was a veritable who’s-who of Oakland citizen activists. Attendees included city staff, elected officials and committed volunteers, a testament to the respect—and friendship—Anne had earned from so many.

Councilmember Annie Campbell Washington (left) and Mayor Libby Schaaf at the Anne Woodell memorial. (Photo: Brooke Levin.)

And, of course, there were stories.

Anne Woodell (front row, fourth from left) with Lake Merritt Breakfast Club members and city officials "testing the sturdiness" of Fairyland's Yankee Doodle Junction bridge, 1984.

The mayor recalled the time when she was a newly minted council aide, and Anne insisted that Measure K, a bond measure, be used to purchase Castle Canyon in Piedmont Pines as open space. Schaaf suggested this might not be a possibility. Undeterred, Anne proceeded to write the language and campaign for the measure. It passed.

John Bliss, a longtime supporter and leader of the Parks and Recreation Friends group, told about recent discussions to merge the Friends with the Oakland Parks Coalition. But what should the new name be? The general consensus was “The Oakland Parks Foundation.” But then the general consensus encountered Anne Woodell, who was adamant that “recreation” be included. “The park is the land, the recreation is the people who use it,” she insisted. 

Oakland Parks and Recreation Director Nicholas Williams (left) and Oakland Parks and Recreation Foundation President John Bliss at the Anne Woodell memorial. (Photo: Brooke Levin.)

Anne was a fierce advocate of both. She stormed out of the meeting at John’s house and drove away. John was perplexed, because he couldn’t figure out how she’d operated his elevator, which required the efforts of two people.

Signing of the incorporation papers for the Friends of Oakland Parks and Recreation, July 1981. Anne Woodell is second from left, back row; Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson is seated at right.

In the end—as often happened when an impassioned Anne Woodell was involved—the Oakland Parks and Recreation Foundation it was.

Why was Anne poking me years ago? Because in 1994, when Children’s Fairyland was a hair’s breadth away from closing because of lack of city funding, Anne and others had taken up the charge, creating a nonprofit corporation that would operate and administer the city property. The new nonprofit status meant Fairyland qualified for funding from bonds, corporations,and foundations. Anne had worked too hard on behalf of Fairyland to have anyone screw it up.

In recent years, Anne and I worked together to ensure that her beloved summer band concerts – located just yards from Fairyland’s theater – wouldn’t interfere with our performances.

Anne was one in a million, an inspired citizen with a wicked sense of humor and a generous heart.

Contributions benefiting causes supported by Anne can be made to the Oakland Parks AND RECREATION Foundation at Look for the Anne Woodell Memorial Fund link. 

C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children's Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation's first storybook theme park.

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