Marion Softky covered community for 40 years | January 4, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Cover Story - January 4, 2012

Marion Softky covered community for 40 years

The longtime Almanac writer died on Christmas evening

In a business where the news is here today and gone tomorrow — or, in the Internet age, more like here at 10 and gone by 11 — Marion Softky devoted her 40 years at the Almanac to subjects of more enduring value, from portraits of characters who played a role in local history to examinations of environmental issues and scientific developments, all from the local angle.

Ms. Softky, who had written thousands of such stories for the Almanac, 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 some of her favorite topics. Among the many 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.

"Marion is one of those rare people who are not replaceable," said Almanac Managing Editor Richard Hine. "She played such an important role in the Almanac community for so many years. She will be greatly missed by friends and colleagues, the many people who knew her in the community, and the many more who read her stories in our pages."

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. She enjoyed an early childhood of horses, servants, and country clubs, but 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. When Ms. Softky was 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, Ms. Softky took two part-time jobs in addition to the job of raising two small boys — "more hours than full-time, for less money" — working as 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 for 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 Winery).

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 Sierra. 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 that's now shaded by a giant redwood tree, grown from a seedling Ms. Softky received in appreciation for her work on a county logging committee. She is also survived by grandchildren Sophia (17) and Benjamin (14) 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.'"

More information

• Visit to see a story about Marion Softky by fellow longtime Almanac writer, Marjorie Mader.

• Visit to see some of Marion Softky best articles and interviews in the Almanac.

• Visit to see a 121-minute video of Marion Softky being interviewed by Portola Valley historian Nancy Lund (recorded by Virginia Bacon). During the interview, Ms. Softky discusses her 50 years of covering county planning issues.


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