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Dona Spring: An Appreciation

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday July 17, 2008 - 09:34:00 AM

Dona Spring was the bravest person I’ve ever met. No, she wasn’t just brave, she was fierce, as fierce as a lioness defending her cubs. She loved justice as much as she despised injustice, and for Dona “Justice for All” included all species, not just all humans. 

She might have complained to someone about her gradually deteriorating physical capacity (she had a progressive and particularly pernicious form of arthritis) but if so, I never heard her do it. She turned her reliance on a wheelchair for mobility into a political plus, rolling along the sidewalk for door-to-door campaigning and calling voters on her cellphone to come out to talk.  

When she was no longer able to maneuver around Berkeley’s notoriously inaccessible City Council chamber, she telecommuted, participating in council meetings by speakerphone from her home after a legal battle over her right to do so. Last week, while she was hospitalized with the pneumonia that eventually took her life, she tried unsuccessfully to join Tuesday’s meeting from her hospital bed. 

She never gave up. She was often a lone vote, or one of two or three, for something that she believed in, but that didn’t deter her from speaking up for what she knew was right. She demanded respect from her fellow councilmembers, some of whom from time to time fell prey to the temptation to treat a disabled person in a patronizing way.  

It’s been said that Kriss Worthington has been the brains of the current Berkeley City Council, and Dona its heart. That’s true to a degree, but besides having a quick intuitive grasp of which issues were important, Dona worked hard to make sure she mastered all the ins and outs of policy matters in order to vote intelligently and speak coherently for what she believed in. 

On many occasions in the last few years, the majority of councilmembers would be ready to rubber-stamp yet another attempt to take something from the public for private benefit when Dona would ask over the speaker phone to get on the speakers’ queue—often needing to be persistent even to get recognized—and she would set them straight (not, sad to say, that they would often change their votes at her behest). 

She joined Betty Olds and Shirley Dean, formerly tagged as adversaries when the old progressive–moderate split was perceived as defining the Berkeley City Council, in actively supporting the tree-sitters who are opposing the destruction of UC’s Memorial Grove to build a gymnasium close to the Hayward fault. Despite her failing health (toward the end she couldn’t even sit up in her wheelchair) she went out to the grove and spoke to the press about the cause. 

But Dona Spring was no plaster saint. She could make wicked and telling comments about political opponents on occasion. And she loved pretty clothes, usually of the ethnic or tie-dyed persuasion, with sequins if possible. Over the years she sported an assortment of far-out hair colors and hairdos.  

People who lack Dona’s experience (that’s most of us, after all, thank goodness) are prone to make knowing comments about the importance of “quality of life” for physically challenged people. What such comments often miss is that your quality of life can and should be whatever you make of it.  

Dona Spring loved her life, just about every minute of it, even the many painful ones, and she fought to the end to hang on to it as long as possible. She was well aware that many Berkeley citizens relied on her to speak up for what is right—she relished the opportunity to do so and hated the idea of letting them down  

At the end, she obeyed Dylan Thomas’s exhortation to his father: “Do not go gentle into that good night…” 

Friends who visited her in the hospital during her last illness report that her spirit was still full of fight even as her body betrayed her. Later lines in Thomas’s poem describe her end: 

“Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright 

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, 

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” 

Dona left her life as she had lived it, with many items on her to-do list. Those who loved and appreciated her should take to heart Joe Hill’s dying advice to his comrades: “Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize.” The best memorial to Dona Spring would be to carry on the work she so ably started.