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By Marjorie Mader
Before receiving that telephone call back in 1969, Marion Softky had never dreamed of having a second career as a journalist — a career spanning four decades during which she has written an amazing range of stories about people, environmental issues, science, and local government.
The call was from Hedy Boissevain, one of three Portola Valley women who founded the Country Almanac in 1965.
"Hedy asked if I would be interested in doing rewrites and short news stories for the community paper," Ms. Softky recalls. "It was a time when the boys (Bill and Ed) were at Laurel and Encinal schools, and I was thinking about where I would like to focus my energy."
Ms. Softky had been volunteering for the League of Women Voters, serving as an observer of the San Mateo County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.
She had become interested in a number of local matters, including the county-wide master plan and regional planning, as well as environmental issues, such as Save the Bay, and a proposal to extend Willow Road in Menlo Park as a freeway through Portola Valley and Woodside and on to the coast.
In her first career, she had worked for large government agencies, such as the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C.
Now, she decided to take Ms. Boissevain up on her offer to work for the community paper.
"I spent 10 years in big government and decided to find out about little government," she says.
A physics major
Ms. Softky's entry into the newspaper business was a distinct departure from her first career. Graduating from Bryn Mawr College with a major in physics in 1949, she went to Washington, D.C., and worked for the National Bureau of Standards in spectroscopy.
After earning a master's degree in physics from the University of Minnesota, she found she didn't have "a calling for physics" and decided to explore options.
In the mid-1950s, she went to work for the Air Force as an intelligence analyst. A high point was a trip to Germany, where she helped debrief German nuclear scientists who were forcibly taken to the Soviet Union after World War II.
She met her future husband, Sheldon Softky, a nuclear physicist, in 1958, when she worked at the start-up, Aerojet General Nucleonics, near Danville. The company built small but safe nuclear reactors for use in training. Her job was teaching the theory and operations of nuclear reactors to enable her students to gain a "driver's license to drive the reactor."
In 1959, after a three-month trip in Europe, she returned and married Sheldon in October. He worked at Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International, in Menlo Park. They bought their home on Encinal Avenue in the Felton Gables neighborhood of Menlo Park.
It was 10 years later that she received the phone call from Almanac editor Hedy Boissevain. Co-founder and publisher Betty Fry recalls that "Marion sounded perfect, and she was."
"Hedy had a clear vision that the community paper would provide readers with factual, non-political information about city, school and other pertinent local affairs," remembers Ms. Fry. "Marion personified the qualities that Hedy wanted — intelligence, education, good research capabilities, 'fresh' journalistic writing skills, and strong ties to the community."
Ms. Softky's first reporting assignment was covering a meeting of the Portola Valley school board in the Little Red Schoolhouse. She jumped at the opportunity to switch to covering Portola Valley Town Council meetings. Over the years, she has covered Portola Valley, Woodside, Menlo Park and, a key interest, development issues in the county.
"Working at The Almanac has been a gift to me because of the people I've met and the experiences I've had," she says during an interview in her apartment at The Sequoias in Portola Valley.
Over the years, she has written feature stories about people, places, the environment, science, the area's colorful history, and geology.
She has interviewed such local celebrities as Shirley Temple Black; former Sunset publisher and ambassador to Australia, Bill Lane; and Nobel Prize winner Arthur Kornberg.
Among the assignments that most interested her was an interview of Prince Vasili Romanov, nephew of the last tsar of Russia, and his wife Natasha at their Woodside home. He related stories of growing up as a member of a royal family in the last great medieval empire and of the world-shaking revolution that followed.
Another highlight was interviewing — up close and personal — the gorilla Koko, who communicates in American sign language, according to Francine "Penny" Patterson, co-founder of the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside. The interview took place on July 4, 1979, Koko's 10th birthday.
Ms. Softky skillfully interviewed Burt Richter, the Stanford Linear Accelerator's first Nobel Prize winner and first director. She has continued to follow the pioneering work that's still going on at SLAC.
Another fascinating interview was with Bob Taylor of Woodside. He did pioneering work on the ARPANET, which evolved into the Internet, and he led the scientific team that developed the personal computer at Xerox PARC, now known as Palo Alto Research Center.
She has covered ground-breaking projects at SRI and key visionaries there: Doug Englebart of Atherton, who invented the computer mouse, and Portola Valley's Hew Crane, whose work led to more than 85 patents in the sensory sciences, including vision, speech, hearing and writing.
Stories about geology, geologists and the work at the Western Regional Headquarters of the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park appeared under her byline over the decades.
"I loved interviewing the old-timers, especially 'ole cowboys' Jim Rapley and Harry Conley," she says. She recalls Jim Rapley weaving yarns of his encounter with a grizzly bear when he was ranching west of Skyline Boulevard, and his "first drunk" as a teenager with "The Hermit of Jasper Ridge."
While many lament the changes that have taken place in the area in the past half-century, Ms. Softky takes a different view. "It's astonishing the things that haven't changed. The Peninsula today has changed very little," she contends.
The scale of open space from the valley to the coast is unmatched in a large metropolitan area, she says.
The "Freeway Revolt" stopped the extension of Willow Road to the coast; the proposed outer Bayshore Freeway was never built; and a plan was scuttled to "level" the top of San Bruno Mountain to provide fill for proposed development in and around San Francisco Bay.
Incorporation of Woodside in 1955, followed by Portola Valley in 1964, further contributed to preserving the rural atmosphere, undeveloped hillsides and forests. Voters wanted to take control of their future rather than let the county continue to make their land-use decisions.
While these incorporations tended to slow growth in the two towns, the citizen-based Committee for Green Foothills and the Sierra Club fought development of open space, project by project, to preserve the land.
Ms. Softky says environmentalists such as Olive Mayer, Claire Dedrick and Lennie Roberts followed the motto: "Victories are temporary; defeats are permanent. To save open space, you have to buy land fee simple."
In 1972, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District was formed in northern Santa Clara County to use property tax revenue to buy land specifically to preserve it as open space. Four years later, the district expanded to include southern San Mateo County.
Still, people worried about the possibility of losing prime open space areas to development. In 1977, concerned residents established the nonprofit Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) to raise private funds for land acquisition. POST and the district have preserved as open space more than 80,000 acres, and the district has expanded its reach to the coast, an evolution Ms. Softky persistently chronicled.
Her stories about environmental and other issues have garnered many state-wide prizes from the California Newspaper Publishers Association.
A continuing passion is traveling to interesting and often remote places. She visited son Bill when he was in Cameroon with the Peace Corps. In 2007, she and son Ed traveled to the Yucatan, where her parents met in a logging camp.
She has joined several Earth Watch archaeological digs in places such as Easter Island and Santorini. She joined Stanford professor John Rick in helping to excavate a pre-Inca cult center in the Peruvian Andes.
Many of her adventures she has shared with Almanac readers.
"The Almanac has been so enriching for me personally over the past 40 years — so many interesting people and issues," she says. "I like to think it's been of value to the community."
The author of this story, Marjorie Mader, has been a colleague of Marion Softky at The Almanac for the past 39 years.
■ To read Marion Softky stories, go to www.TheAlmanacOnline.com and use the search box at the top of the page.
■ Marion's son, Bill Softky, has posted many of Marion's stories on a Web site, www.softky.com/Marion/Almanac.