Marion Softky covered community for 40 years

Longtime Almanac writer died on Christmas evening

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Marion Softky, who wrote thousands of articles for the Almanac over more than 40 years, died at The Sequoias in Portola Valley on Christmas evening of complications from long-term abdominal cancer. She was 84.

"During the previous week, countless visitors from as far as Texas had massaged her feet, helped moisten her mouth, sang Christmas carols, brought flowers and cards, and mostly listened to re-told stories of her childhood, marriage, and Open Space (!)," her son Bill Softky said in an email.

Open space and the environment were among her many favorite topics. Among others: local history and people, the town of Portola Valley, science, San Mateo County government, and just about any other subject of significance in the Almanac area.

Born on Sept. 1, 1927, she grew up in a stone farmhouse outside Philadelphia, the youngest daughter of Edward Feild Harvey and Lurline Mosely Harvey. After an early childhood of horses, servants, and country clubs, the family's fortunes plummeted in the Great Depression.

She attended the all-girls Springside School and studied at Bryn Mawr college (in Pennsylvania) on scholarship, ultimately earning a bachelor's degree in physics in 1949 and a master's in physics from the University of Minnesota a few years later.

She was acquainted with several influential figures in technology. As a young girl, she played with local technologist Severo Ornstein (author of "Computing in the Middle Ages"), who helped construct the first Internet node and worked at Xerox PARC. In college, her family entertained Presper Eckert and John Mauchley, inventors of the first digital computer ENIAC (represented for fun by a cardboard box with blinking lights labeled MANIAC). She briefly dated Bill Shockley, inventor of the transistor, and explained rock-climbing to him using friction-force vectors.

The Washington Post ran a photo with a caption about a pretty young brunette next to a battleship-gray industrial console of huge dials. "Physicist Marion Harvey teaches professors to use the new Mark II Research Reactor," that caption read. Another article profiled her as the only female spelunker in the area.

She married a fellow nuclear physicist, Sheldon Softky, and started a family in the Felton Gables neighborhood of Menlo Park in 1961. When government cutbacks shuttered Sheldon's research work, she took two part-time jobs in addition to raising two small boys -- "more hours than full-time, for less money": executive secretary of the Environmental Quality Coordinating Council and part-time reporter for the Country Almanac, a job she kept for 40 years.

Those jobs exposed her to the issues and people involved in local environmental protection and land-use planning. She was involved with the founding of the Committee for Green Foothills and the Peninsula Open Space Trust, and proudly showed off many parcels of parkland (Edgewood Park, Coal Mine Ridge, Bair Island, and various wetlands) that were acquired by the sustained and concerted efforts of her friends. The most prominent, Windy Hill, a favorite family gathering-spot, was visible from her room at The Sequoias in Portola Valley where she lived the last eight years. (Her family frolicked on and enjoyed the panoramic views from a private parcel of open space on Skyline Boulevard, now the site of Thomas Fogarty Vineyard).

As a reporter, she was proud to have interviewed world-class scientists, business people, diplomats, even royalty, along with storied local old-timers, and blended their individual personalities into her reportage of their accomplishments.

Sheldon died in 1993, three months after backpacking with Marion and their son Bill across the Sierras. Bill and her other son Ed both attended Menlo-Atherton High School and ultimately earned physics degrees. Ed died in 2008, while Bill still lives in the Menlo Park house (now shaded by a giant redwood tree, grown from a seedling she received in appreciation for her work on a county logging committee). She is also survived by grand-children Benjamin (14) and Sophia (17) Softky.

Anyone who knew Marion is welcome to the "Remembering Marion Softky" gathering at her family house on Sunday, Jan. 22, at 3 p.m. (Please RSVP by email if you were contacted that way; otherwise contact directly.)

Donations in her name to the Peninsula Open Space Trust are appreciated in lieu of flowers.

"Marion's last week alive was in many ways surprisingly intimate and graceful," her son said. "Her mantra, even to her last day, was her husband Sheldon's last words 18 years ago: 'It's been more than wonderful.'"

A 121-minute video of Marion Softky being interviewed by Portola Valley historian Nancy Lund (and recorded by Virginia Bacon) is on YouTube. During the interview, Ms. Softky discusses her 50 years of covering county planning issues.

Click here to see Marjorie Mader's cover story on Marion Softky, "Covering the community for 40 years."

Links to some of her best Almanac articles and interviews are online here.

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Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Dec 27, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Marion was a classy Lady and a superb writer - she will be missed.

Like this comment
Posted by David Lewis
a resident of another community
on Dec 27, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Marion was an insightful and articulate voice of Peninsula journalism for decades. I'll miss her very much.

Like this comment
Posted by Linda Craig
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Dec 27, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Marion gave a presentation about the draft Open Space Element of the San Mateo County General Plan in 1969 at a local meeting I attended. I then joined the League of Women Voters, to which she belonged. The League and conservation of all sorts have been important issues for me since then. I will miss her.

Like this comment
Posted by Sybille Katz
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Dec 27, 2011 at 10:44 pm

I always enjoyed her stories. My best wishes for her family. May she rest in peace.

Like this comment
Posted by Thank You
a resident of another community
on Dec 29, 2011 at 11:43 am

I am so sad to hear this news.

Ms. Softky was a wonderful woman and a great reporter. She would call me at least once a month to ask about the goings on at the agency I worked for. I learned very early not to try and feed her the "sound bites". If you did she would rip you a new one. But she was no fifth estate tyrant, if I was not able to answer her questions, all I had to say was give me an hour and I will call you back with the answer.

She had no problem with that, and even when I could not get the answer, if I called her back to say I need some more time, she had no problem with that either, she always appreciated that I called her back when I said I would.

While she never forgot that she had a job to do, she did it with dignity, integrity and compassion. I can't say we were friends, but we certainly were not adversaries. We shared the idea that the public should know how its money was spent.

We shared many laughs together, I recall her telling me about a problem Sheldon had with Blue Jays in their garden, he took matters into his own hands.:-)...Ed will no doubt remember.

God bless Marion, may God hold you in his arms forever, you will certainly be missed here.

Like this comment
Posted by Observer
a resident of Woodside High School
on Dec 29, 2011 at 11:17 pm

<salute!> to reporting well-done and to a life well-lived and wel-loved.

Like this comment
Posted by Gail Slocum
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jan 3, 2012 at 1:17 pm

Such sad news. Marion was such an integral and abiding part of weaving the fabric of our community. She will be missed.

I first met her in person when I was running for City Council back in 1990. She had me over to her home in Felton Gables, poured some tea and we talked about so many things, gazing out at a huge old oak tree in her yard. She had a quiet and insightful way about asking questions. And we found a shared love for preserving open spaces and caring for the natural beauty with which our area is blessed. She did a great job of covering Menlo Park when I was on Council - with such a long and deep connection to our town and its people as well as places.

I continued to get to know Marion when I was appointed to the San Mateo County Planning Commission. Even as she moved through very challenging personal losses, and her own illness, she still hiked out to site visits on important proposals.

May her memory be a blessing and an inspiration to us all to carry on her best qualities in service of our community. As for Marion, I suspect she's already doing things to make heaven an even better place.

Gail Slocum
Former Mayor, Menlo Park

Like this comment
Posted by Paul
a resident of another community
on May 24, 2012 at 12:02 am

Although I only knew the family for less than a year in 1973 I have always harbored fond memories of my times spent with them.

I went to Encinal school with Ed in 4th/5th grade and every time I was at their home she and her husband always made sure I was included in any current activities. Things like a day trip to some area out in the countryside for a picnic and an afternoon that included things like a bit of exploring and learning to use a bow and arrow. On that trip Bill, Ed and I discovered plants growing in coffee cans beside trees and the afternoon was cut short at that point if I remember correctly, and since I was only 9 at the time I had no clue what was going on. Other times were just being invited to stay for dinner or having sandwiches with Ed that she had made for us.

My absolute favorite memory involving her involved cinnamon graham crackers. I loved those things back then with a passion, but in my family situation they were actually a bit of an extravagance at the time (money was tight). She always seemed happy to let me have one or two and I think she was amused a bit by whatever story I would come up with as to why we never had them at home. :)

I never knew she had been anything other than a cool mom up until reading this article, and while I think it's great about all the other things she did, she will mostly be remembered by me as Ed and Bills' cool mom still. Which to me is one of the best titles I could ever think of looking back at that time in my life.

Not to be forgotten, I remember Mr. Softky as a pretty cool guy too :)

They brought up a couple of pretty interesting kids too it seems.

Paul Taffe
(Paul Nicolson back in 1973)

Like this comment
Posted by Maryann Harvey
a resident of another community
on Feb 24, 2013 at 9:45 am

Aunt Marian came to our home in Williamsburg for dinner in 2003. My son was about 13 at the time, and after having dinner and cleaning up, I asked Teddy (Edward Field Harvey IV, named for Marian's nephew) what he thought. He said, " Boy, she sure can talk about a lot of subjects!" She sure could. She was sweet, kind and always interesting and we are saddened to hear of her passing.

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