There are moments in your life that you can look back on and realize how foundational they were to your life’s work. At 96, there were a lot of these moments for Jean Hahn Watt. And, these moments for her, whether the general public is aware of them or not, have left a legacy of protected nature, cleaner waterways, and healthier communities for everyone to enjoy.
Pasadena was Jean’s birth town, but her family travelled to Newport Beach to spend summers on the coast starting when she was just five. These trips led to introductions to a circle of friends that would last an entire lifetime—especially the Beek family, long time operators of the Balboa Island Yacht Club. This introduction was transformative for the entire family—especially Jean. She and her brother Richard spent hours swimming, exploring Newport Back Bay, and sailing. Joe and Carroll Beek were civic minded—as were Jean’s own relatives, which included a grandfather serving as a State Senator. Family and friends instilled important values: to care for your community, to get involved, and to do your part.
Her passion for the water, coast, and beaches led to an immense appreciation and reverence for the beauty that surrounded her. After meeting and then later marrying her husband Dr. James (Jay) Watt while at nursing school in Stanford, Newport Beach became their home. The beach was so important to the Watts, that Jean and Jay purchased the lot adjoining the ones her parents owned on Harbor Island. Jay and Jean had four children: Tammy, Terry, Michael, and Lorna.
It is here where generations of family fun, life lessons, and even city council campaigns played out. What a gift living here ended up being to Jean, her family, neighbors, the community, and greater Orange County region. Fledgling ideas were coaxed from the recesses of her mind, and formed into well planned, and later well executed actions that improved our collective environment. One of her most favorite places of all was Crystal Cove State Park, just down the street from the family’s home. This is where Jean went to solve problems. She surrounded herself with nature and let the answers arrive on the salty ocean breeze.
Another one of those moments of transformation was when Jean was asked to lead the Girl Scouts, which Jean did for 20 years. She even earned the Woman of Distinction Award by the Girl Scout Council of Orange County in 2000 for her decades of leadership and organizing—skills she acquired while taking girls camping, earning badges, and more. The City of Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce honored her leadership with the 2013 Citizen of the Year award. This leadership also expressed itself in a number of ways.
For example, in 1988 Jean ran for City Council in Newport Beach and was elected twice. Clearly, she never sat back and watched things unfold. She took action—in her own quiet, thoughtful, unassuming (yet fierce) way. This decision to seek public office came after 14 years of leadership and action with a non-profit group founded to protect Upper Newport Bay from pollution entering the local waters. She realized in 1974, after a conversation with a friend, that pollutants were entering her beloved Back Bay and ocean—and worse yet, no one was tackling that problem. Stop Polluting Our Newport (SPON), now Still Protecting Our Newport, is an integral part of the city’s fabric because of Jean. When developments impact the quality of life of residents and harm the environment, SPON is at the forefront of the fight. When Jean noticed action needed to be taken, she took it.
Besides her enduring love of the coast, in another transformative moment, Jean pieced together the implications of the Orange County bankruptcy to regional parks in 1996. Funds were siphoned off the parks department budget, then called Harbors, Beaches and Parks (now OC Parks), to pay off the debt. This would leave the parks department in a lurch for decades. With funding and therefore staffing reduced and increasing the maintenance backlog, the premiere parks, beaches, and historic facilities could easily slide downhill, but not on Jean’s watch. She then formed, along with nine other environmental leaders, the non-profit Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks (FHBP) to focus on county park and open space issues. Together they would unify the park voices, advocate for funding, and preserve additional habitat lands. This was the genesis of the Green Vision Map—a collection of potential available properties on a map of Orange County showing what preservation projects fellow conservationists were hoping to protect and what had already been protected.
The transformational opportunities kept coming. When an 895-unit housing development and resort was proposed on the last, largest remaining coastal land between the Ventura County line and Mexico—on land called Banning Ranch—Jean took action. Her goal was to create a 1,000-acre coastal park that straddled the remaining natural lands, wetlands, and beaches at the mouth of the Santa Ana River. A new non-profit emerged, the Orange Coast River Park, to ensure this coastal park could become a reality. In December 2022, Banning Ranch, now called the Randall Preserve, was protected forever thanks to the vision of Jean, the Randalls, Banning Ranch Conservancy, and many other committed activists, community groups, and non-profits who took advice, guidance, and tenacity directly from Jean’s playbook.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, Jean also wanted to ensure that animals in Newport Beach were well cared for. She put to use the same persistence, invited new volunteer recruits to this cause, and became laser focused on a goal to create the Friends of Newport Beach Animal Shelter. This shelter, just recently opened, now has a state of the art $3 million facility for all local ready-to-be adopted pets.
The list of Jean’s accomplishments are long, lasting, and legendary. Here’s a short list of other activities she spearheaded: Line in the Sand (a Newport Beach political action committee), Environmental Nature Center (a facility providing outdoor education experiences), the Newport Beach Housing Trust (a public-private partnership providing low cost financing for affordable housing construction), and the Good Neighbor Group (community members working to be better neighbors in Newport Beach). She also inspired her granddaughter, Kristina, to create the Friends of the Sitka Animal Shelter —in Alaska.
An avid bridge player, puzzle solver (both literally and figuratively), grandmother to five, great grandmother to four, Jean encompassed putting community above self, being a mentor for the inexperienced, and she always had an eye toward the finish line. She developed a cadre of volunteers who would (at the drop of a hat) help Jean with any project—not just because they trusted Jean, but also because they knew they would affect change and be part of history. It shouldn’t surprise you that instead of waiting for a referendum on a project to occur, Newport Beach developers would soon come knocking at Jean’s door to get her feedback early in the planning process. Many a meeting happened in her living room overlooking Newport’s coastal waters.
With grateful hearts, we are soon to celebrate and show our gratitude for this remarkable woman who set in motion so many activities that make Orange County a better place for all living things. Family and friends of Jean H. Watt will celebrate her life, achievements, and endeavors on Saturday, October 14, 2023 from 1 – 4 PM, with a program to begin at 1:30 PM. Since Jean touched so many lives the family is expecting a large turnout. Those that RSVP will get the Newport Beach venue details. Register online. Together, we will be inspired by a lifetime of action, commemorate a icon, and maybe find our own transformational moment ourselves.
Melanie Schlotterbeck is a long time family friend and Jean Watt colleague, mainly through the regional umbrella non-profit and park-focused Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, which Jean co-founded in 1997. Melanie’s background includes land conservation, policy creation, GIS mapping, and serves on the Brea Planning Commission. She was appointed by the California Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot to serve on the Partnership Coordinating Committee to help the state connect to non-profits working to meet the Governor’s goal to protect 30% of California’s lands and coastal waters by 2030.
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