Norine Smith: A Happy Warrior for Causes Big and Small By BECKY O’MALLEY

Friday July 01, 2005

“If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution,” Emma Goldman famously said. Norine Smith danced her way through many of the revolutions of the last 50 years and had a fine time of it. She came from a quintessential San Francisco Irish background, born in 1938 as number four of six kids of Cornelius (Connie) and Nora Smith, both immigrants from Ireland, and raised in the outer Sunset District. She went to all-girl Mercy High School in the late ‘50s, then on to UC Berkeley where she majored in mathematics, which few women did in those days. She always said she chose math because she noticed that she was the only woman in her math classes, and she wanted to do things that women weren’t allowed to do. A tall, striking redhead, she worked a bit as a model while she was in school. After graduation in 1960 she entered the new field of computer programming, where she worked throughout her professional life. Norine was very proud of having run her own business as a computer contractor for major corporations in a period when few women ran their own businesses, even fewer of them in the high tech world. 

Her son Daniel Smith-Rowsey was born in 1971 when she was living in Sausalito, and soon thereafter she moved to Berkeley as a single mother to raise him. She’d always been interested in progressive causes, and Berkeley gave her new opportunities to enter the fray, especially after her son was grown and she had retired. In the last 10 years of her life she became a well-known figure on the Berkeley political scene, with a vigorous confident voice and red curls bouncing as she spoke. She was one of the first to insist that citizens should be instrumental in drafting the city’s latest General Plan. This involvement prompted her to run for City Council in District 6 in 2000, despite the fact that her Berkeley hills area had never been receptive to progressive candidates.  

In her campaign, Norine spoke up fearlessly on issues more important to people in less privileged council districts, and was proud to receive the endorsement of the Green Party. She was a great walker—for many years she walked every Friday night from her home near the Berkeley Rose Garden down to see a movie on Shattuck—which she put to good use as a candidate, making friends with many voters by going door to door throughout her district. She got a respectable vote, but she lost, which did not deter her from running again in 2004, because she enjoyed having a platform to put forward her strong opinions on a variety of topics. No cause was too large for her to take on (she marched against both Iraq wars) or too small (she campaigned to save threatened trees on the waterfront). Women’s issues remained central to her politics: She demonstrated many times outside Pasand restaurant urging that the owner be prosecuted in the death of a young woman he’d brought to this country. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she added her voice to those of activists in that arena as well. 

Norine was serious about the causes she embraced, but she also liked the good parties which are sometimes part of political activism. She was one of a small band of diehards who know that the Taiwan Restaurant is the last place open for Chinese food after late commission meetings. She was also a major fan of the Daily Planet, coming early and staying late for the paper’s launch and anniversary parties.  

In the Bay area, Norine will be missed by friends and co-conspirators much too numerous to list, including me. Kathy Donaher, another Irish-American who met Norine more than 40 years ago and has been her fast friend ever since, came out from Boston to take care of her in her last week. Her son Daniel, who now lives in Southern California, survives, along with her brother Jim Smith and his wife Julie, nieces Maureen and Colleen Smith and Norine Tweedy and nephews Aran and Brian Smith and Michael Emerson.  

A memorial gathering will take place at noon on Saturday, July 2, at the Berkeley Rose Garden at Euclid and Eunice.