Along the shores of Newport Back Bay this past weekend, about 300 locals sat with memories of either stopping or saving something with Orange County’s longest serving activist, Jean Watt.
If anything was off in the waters that linked Upper Newport Bay with the harbor, the longtime resident, community organizer and former city council member could feel it – as if the inland delta was an extension of Watt herself, as if its ailments were her own, said Lisa Hinshaw, a 60-year volunteer at the local Girl Scouts where she and Watt met.
“For her, it was deeply personal,” said Hinshaw, who watched Watt’s ‘Celebration of Life’ from afar on Saturday, at the Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort & Marina, where local activists joined lawmakers, and loved ones wore white roses for the mother and grandmother who died in April, at age 96.
Next to Hinshaw in the back stood tables with pamphlets for a handful of local community activist groups – organizations whose histories were enmeshed with, or set into motion by, the Upper Newport Bay conservationist and co-founder of Stop Polluting Our Newport (SPON) and Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks.
Few others in Southern California could boast as much of an individual force in their community as this woman who looked for any reason to spend a night in the woods, who lost her wedding ring on a camping trip.
She left an “enormous influence” on the “modern development of Newport Beach,” said State Assemblywoman Diane Dixon, speaking on stage.
Like Watt, Dixon was once a City Council member, overseeing the coastal OC town of roughly 85,000 people, made iconic by its beaches and upper bay carved in the Pleistocene period.
“The soft power of Jean Watt lives in the clean waters of Back Bay and the happy, four-legged buddies in the Newport Beach animal shelter, evidence of her steady handed voice,” Dixon said on stage. “She is smiling and guiding us onto the next endeavor, to ‘Protect our Newport,’ as she would say.”
Watt co-founded one of the county’s first environmental groups, SPON, to defend against overdevelopment of the city’s commanding natural landscapes, in 1974. The group has since become one of the most influential and well known in local politics.
Seemingly destined for public service, Watt was elected for two terms on the Newport Beach City Council, from 1988 to 1996. In 1997, she took her conservancy efforts regional – co-founded Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, which in the following decades fought for parkland and natural open space across Southern California. But her idea of public good wasn’t limited to animals or the environment. She was also a founding member of the Newport Beach Housing Trust, which aims to provide low-cost pre-construction financing for developments that offer affordable housing.
“When she spoke at city council meetings … the council chambers became still,” Dixon said. “When Jean spoke, people listened.”
At the microphone, one of Watt’s four kids, Terry — a conservation and sustainability planning consultant — surveyed the crowd, surprised “there were still dry eyes” given her family “held it together barely.”
Perhaps because Watt made her presence at the gathering known in other respects.
Like in the blueness of the water behind them.
“Because Jean was there … “ a standing sign told passing guests at the event. “The Harbor is more beautiful.”
Or in the hawk circling high over a family member as he belted Tom Petty’s ‘Wildflowers’ on stage with a guitar.
“Because Jean was there … The bay is protected.”
Or in the frequency at which airplanes from John Wayne forced pauses to the program, and everyone would shake their heads and smile, remembering:
“Because Jean was there … There is Airport Control.”
After a pause for an airliner’s momentary scream across the sky, Terry Watt declared on stage:
“There would be a lot more of them if it weren’t for Jean Watt!”
Watt’s granddaughter, Kristina Tirman, recalled summer visits to the bay growing up, looking for crabs in the sea walls or cats in the windows of homes on Balboa Island.
“My grandma was always involved in the fun and the activities. But at some point during the day, she would always retreat to a room, to her desk, where she would work,” said Tirman. “And at the time, I never understood what she could possibly be working on.”
Things are a bit different now. Two years ago, Tirman formed her own non-profit — an animal shelter in her home city of Sitka, Alaska.
Friends and family members spoke of a woman undeterred by time who, like most, got more tired and less able in her later years but stayed involved in ways she could — who led a long and accomplished life but saw lifetimes more to be lived.
And at her own memorial, Watt had something left to say. Namely, in written messages to attendees.
“You inspired me to be of use for as long as I could and when I no longer could, I knew you would carry on the causes, the camaraderie, and the special community that is our Newport,” Watt wrote in a message prepared before her death, included on the program.
As it turned out, the event was not for the dead but for the living.
Another message, FAX copied and distributed freely, was for the American billionaire businessman Donald Bren in 2022, in which Watt urged his support as chairman and owner of the Irvine Company for a green, safe wildlife passage running through Irvine — along creeks and under freeways — and linking animals from the coast to the Santa Ana Mountains.
“I hope you will think long and hard and come up with a plan for this successful connecting overpass link.”
Behind the afternoon gathering flowed a waterway dotted with beach going recreation.
“Why are we in this place?” asked her daughter, Terry, of their surroundings on Saturday. “It invokes everything mom ever cared about.”
Off in the distance – while people spoke of the open space Jean Watt saved and the habitats she kept clean – a group of carefree swimmers goaded their friends on the sandy bank to “Get in.”
The water was fine.