March 14, 2000 - [Whittier Daily News, Whittier, CA, US]
Betty Wilson dies at age 84

By Valerie Marrs
Staff Writer

SANTA FE SPRINGS -- Betty Wilson, who retired from local government in 1997 after serving 40 years on the Santa Fe Springs City Council, was found dead in her home Monday, presumably of natural causes. She was 84.

She was the first-ever female mayor in Los Angeles County.

Funeral services are tentatively arranged to be held at Florence Avenue Foursquare Church, city officials said.

"Betty Wilson's life is synonymous with the city of Santa Fe Springs," said Mayor George Minnehan. "She helped to found the city, established its mission and served as its first mayor."

She was born Grace Elizabeth Harrold on June 13, 1915. She grew up in the farming community of Danville, Ill., where her father owned a dry goods store and an auto dealership. Her mother worked in the store, but was active in organizations such as the PTA, and Wilson credited her mother's community involvement for planting the seed of civic duty in her.

After she and Sterling Wilson were married, they moved to Washington, but decided the Southern California climate would suit them better and settled in Santa Fe Springs. Her husband, who died in 1990, worked for a steel company, and Wilson got a job with the city of Los Angeles, working 25 years as a field deputy for former L.A. City Councilmen L.E. Timberlake and Donald D. Lorenzen.

The Wilsons were still relative newcomers to the community when Betty began campaigning for cityhood. As a working wife and mother, she helped gather signatures for incorporation. When residents voted to become a city, they also elected Betty Wilson to the first City Council. One of the council's first official acts in May 1957 was to elect her mayor, making her the first woman mayor in Los Angeles County history.

In 1976, Wilson mounted her only unsuccessful political attempt, running as a Democrat for the new 33rd state Senate seat. After defeating Cecil Green of Norwalk and Gerald Olivet of Whittier in her party's primary, she lost to Bill Campbell, a Republican assemblyman from Hacienda Heights, in the November general election. If she had won, she would have been the first woman member of the state Senate.

During her 40 years on the City Council, Wilson served 11 terms as mayor.

Councilman Ron Kernes, who served with Wilson for 21 years, said she was a good influence on the city's early government.

"The decisions that Betty Wilson and the city's founding fathers made with its incorporation were far-sighted and unprecedented at the time. They determined that Santa Fe Springs would be a business community and set standards for development. We haven't deviated far from their ideas since," Kernes said.

"Betty was absolutely a class act all the way," he continued. "She was a feisty gal. She didn't just go along with the crowd; if she disagreed with something, she let us know. She didn't pull any punches."

Kernes said it was Wilson who talked him into running for the City Council.

"She walked up my driveway one day ... I was working on my boat ... and she told me I should run for council. I said, 'You nuts?' I told her I didn't have time. She said it was only two meetings a month. Boy, she laughed about that later when I asked her why I was putting in 70 hours a week."

City Manager Fred Latham, who ordered that the city's flags be flown at half-staff until after the funeral, said Wilson's experience in working for city government in Los Angeles was valuable to the Santa Fe Springs city staff as well as to the councilwoman.

"She was very supportive of staff; she fully understood public service, that a council member's job is to give vision and policy direction for the future of the city. She gave the staff leeway to do their jobs," Latham said.

La Mirada City Councilman David Peters remembers that when he was first elected in 1976, Betty Wilson was considered an old-timer in terms of longevity, but was still going strong.

"You name it, and she was there," he said. "And she was a gracious person and seasoned council member."

Santa Fe Springs Councilwoman Betty Putnam remembers Wilson as a career woman and "good mom," who fought very hard for urban renewal during her years on the City Council.

Putnam said she was grateful for the final days she spent with Wilson last week.

"She had been ill with heart trouble," Putnam said, "but Wednesday night I took her to the Southeast Mayor's dinner, and she enjoyed that, then to a lunch Thursday at the Betty Wilson Senior Center, where she visited with seniors. I feel good about those last few hours with her."

As a councilwoman, Wilson used her office to gain support for issues important to the Los Angeles County community. She served as a member of the county Children's Services Task Force and was instrumental in establishing a separate Children's Services Department in county government. She was a past president of the Los Angeles County Division of the League of California as an original member of the executive committee of the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority, serving on the committee for approximately 20 years.

She also served as a council liaison to the Santa Fe Springs Community Program Committee, Sister City Committee and Beautification Committee and was charter president of the Santa Fe Springs Business and Professional Women's Club. She also was a member of the advisory council for the Salvation Army Transitional Living Center in Whittier.

In addition to her work locally, Wilson was noted for her involvement with Sister Cities International. President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed her to the newly formed organization to promote people-to-people relationships worldwide to help erase the devastation of World War II. She served three terms as president and was named president emeritus of the Town Affiliation Association of the U.S., Inc. She was still an active member of the Sister Cities' Executive Community at the time of her death. In that capacity, she met and worked with presidents Kennedy, Nixon, Ford and Reagan and was awarded the "Peace Dollar" and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Award for the furtherance of the goals of international understanding.

Wilson received national recognition for her many civic activities. She's listed in "Who's Who in American Women," and in "Outstanding Civic Leaders of America." She received the U.S. Air Force Award for the advancement of peace through air power; the California Business and Professional Women's Club's Civic Award and the National Civic Committee's People-to-People Award. In December 1988, she was presented with the Good Scout Award by the Boy Scouts of America.

Wilson is survived by son, Robert, of La Habra Heights, who retired as chief from service with the Santa Fe Springs Fire Department; daughter Jacqueline of Oregon, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Staff Writer Debbie Pfeiffer contributed to this story.