Katherine Strehl, a former Planning Commission member and longtime civic volunteer who lived in Menlo Park for 30 years, died at home on Jan. 24 at the age of 76.
She had a 40-year career working in public affairs throughout the Bay Area, including as executive manager of external affairs for BART, manager of public affairs for Lockheed Martin, and at the Bay Area Council. She owned KS Public Affairs Consulting, which handled public relations for the California High-Speed Rail Authority. She also was a member of the California Transportation Commission.
Strehl was born in Oakland and graduated from Skyline High School before attending University of California at Berkeley, where she earned a degree in economics and sociology in 1977. In 1979, she earned a master's degree in communications research from Stanford University. That year, she also graduated from the Coro Women's Program.
She had many longtime friendships – among them former Almanac staff writer Pam Jones, who provided much of the information for this obituary, and with another longtime friend, Dennise Carter of San Jose, was present for the last week of Strehl's life; and Carola Barton, a Santa Cruz resident who served on the board of the Valley Medical Center Foundation with Strehl.
Barton said she, Strehl, and two other women – Avis Stafford and Gayle Jones – joined the board around 1992, and the four quickly became friends. The four became known as The Dissenters, Barton said, since the women felt there was a lack of fiscal responsibility on the board and wanted to change that. Around 1994, she said, they all resigned at the same time in protest of the foundation's rising expenses.
"It just speaks to the fact that Katherine didn't put up with stuff that she didn't think was right," Barton said.
The four friends traveled together a number of times after their stint on the board, including one trip to Hawaii where Strehl revealed she'd spent time riding motorcycles around the island on a previous trip.
"That's a side of Katherine you don't usually hear. She was quite sparkly," Barton said. "She was just a character, she really was, even to the end. She never took herself too seriously, and yet she was a very loving person and had so many friends who just adored her because she was a good friend herself."
Through her work at Lockheed Martin and BART, she also got to know Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, who officiated Strehl's wedding to husband Bill Dempsey in 2011, Jones said.
Over the years, Strehl became the "'neighborhood go-to person' if you had questions about the Willows, whether it was about building a house, taking on a remodel, the crazy traffic or the politics of the city," said Kathleen Daly of Cafe Zöe, adding that Strehl had been a "very wonderful friend."
Strehl joined the Menlo Park Planning Commission in 2013, and had previously served on the city's Transportation Commission.
She chaired the Planning Commission in 2016 and was a member of the city's General Plan Advisory Committee. During that time, she was vocal in expressing her reservations about Menlo Park's general plan update, and co-signed a 2016 guest opinion in The Almanac, arguing that the plan did not account adequately for the infrastructure that would be needed to accommodate the major increase in growth the updated zoning permitted. It also argued for the need for a fixed Dumbarton corridor.
As a commissioner, she often asked about how a project would affect the city's jobs-housing balance and what developments planned to contribute in the way of affordable housing.
She was also a longtime supporter of the Commonwealth Club and served on its Silicon Valley Advisory Board.
She is survived by her husband, Dempsey, whom she met when they were involved in California environmental issues and he was at the Nature Conservancy.
Last week, City Council members teared up talking about her many contributions to the community, and Mayor Drew Combs read a proclamation describing her accomplishments and noted that he and the council "recognize and gratefully acknowledge Katherine Strehl both for commitment to addressing some of our region's most challenging issues and for being an all-around great neighbor."
"As someone who has sought her counsel and advice – I will miss her and recognize she was a great member of this community," he said. "She's one of the people that makes this community special. It was a life well lived and I applaud her."
Other council members added their condolences: Councilwoman Jen Wolosin said she often bumped into Strehl at Cafe Zöe. "She's Menlo Park," she said. "I'm glad I got to know her."
Councilman Ray Mueller praised her "sharp public policy mind, amazing political acumen, quick wit and class."
"She was one of my dearest friends in the city and it's hard to stomach she's gone," he said.