by Paul Relis, former CEC Executive Director
Long before she made a name for herself as a cultural writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press, Joan Crowder was a volunteer editor of the Santa Barbara Survival Times, a fledgling monthly magazine published by CEC in the aftermath of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.
As Joan put it, the Survival Times was the voice for CEC’s distinct brand of environmentalism. Some of its material was prophetic. In the early 1970s, Survival Times writers predicted that the Goleta Valley would one day be filled with houses—and it was. They explored the idea of making the Channel Islands a national park—and that happened, too. Some warned that the land north of El Capitan Canyon would be developed, but fortunately CEC and others were able to prevent this from becoming a reality.
During those years, the Survival Times was an alternative voice to the daily paper, the Santa Barbara News-Press—a fine newspaper with a noble tradition, but very conservative when it came to matters of the environment. Eventually another alternative weekly, the Santa Barbara News and Review (now the Santa Barbara Independent) took over this role, and the Survival Times was no longer the only publication to call for environmental action in the community.
Joan had an early love affair with newspapers that began with her first sight of a printing press, one of those massive and loud machines that people seldom see or hear today. “We didn’t have computers; it was all typing, hand drawing, cutting and pasting,” she said. “Everything was done from scratch, and then it had to be put together for printing.” She took to writing while in high school, where she edited her school paper in Redwood City. Her writing skills and excellent grades won her acceptance to Stanford University, where she majored in journalism and met her husband, John, who was a medical student.
John’s career took them first to Minneapolis, then to Florida where Joan took a position with the Miami Herald. After a short stint in New York they made their way to a home in Montecito, accompanied by their three young sons.
Following her divorce from John in 1975, Joan set about building a new life, including further establishing her career as a journalist. Her volunteer editing of the Survival Times caught the attention of the editors of the News-Press, which hired her to cover cultural affairs, plays, movies and features until her retirement from the paper in the mid 1990s.
In early 2000, Joan moved to Cambria, a town she loved at the edge of the Big Sur. She found Cambria a perfect fit for the life she wanted to live: simple and more fitting with her modest retirement budget, and full of people who loved the outdoors, tennis and volunteerism. She quickly made many friends, became a dedicated volunteer at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery in San Simeon just north of Cambria, and resumed her journalism, covering theater productions in Cambria, San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria.
About four years ago, I needed an editor for a book project and called Joan. She graciously agreed to help, and for the past four years we have collaborated, meeting at times at her place in Cambria or mine in Santa Barbara. A month ago, Joan was in Santa Barbara to see a friend, and she dropped off my manuscript with her final edits. As I walked her out to her car, I told her how much her help meant to me and how much fun I had working with her.
One Sunday morning in June, I opened my email and was stunned to find this message from Joan’s daughter-in-law: “RIP Joan Crowder, 1934-2014. Paul, I suppose you have heard the tragic news…”
All I could think of was how beautiful Joan’s life had become. She told me what a thrill it was that she had a grandson late in her life—something she didn’t expect. His arrival seemed to knit her already close family even more tightly together. Her social life in Cambria had brought many interesting friends, as did her life on the tennis courts. And her contributions to sustaining the elephant seal rookery continued to give her much pleasure. She was plugging along at age 80, driving her beat up Toyota up and down the coastline to cover her plays.
Joan had recently rekindled a romance with a boyfriend of long ago. He was with her in Hawaii, where they had just arrived for a vacation. He was on the beach while adventuresome Joan took to the waters. He was watching her when she ceased swimming. This diminutive woman—not much taller than five feet—mother of three, writer, friend, perennial volunteer, beloved by all her friends and most all her family, was no more. I can’t help but to see Joan in that moment in her totality: a lion of a soul, a force of nature, a keeper of those rarest of flames in life, joy, adventure and curiosity.
I shall always hold in my mind an image of her, so alive in those warm Pacific waters, her mate close to shore, buoyed by the rich life she had built through her generosity, caring nature, her relaxed and easy intelligence, and her innate sense of fun. It’s as if her sun never set, the waters still glowed in the twilight and she continued her swim.