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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 email@example.com 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.