More than 100 local activists, city officials and community members—some in wheelchairs—paid homage to Dona Spring, one of Berkeley’s most beloved public figures, at a memorial gathering at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park Sunday.
Those who spoke at the afternoon event remembered not just Councilmember Spring’s intelligence, compassion and wit but also stories they had previously not shared with anyone.
Spring, 55, died due to complications from rheumatoid arthritis on July 13. Her council seat will remain vacant until the November municipal elections.
Dona’s mother, Paula Althoff, remembered her as an avid skier during her high school days in Grand Lake, Colorado, where the majestic Rockies and the open prairies inspired her life-long love of the outdoors. Spring, her mother said, was an “all-American girl” —a good student and a prize-winning athlete.
Councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Linda Maio remembered the spunky visionary behind the city’s I-80 pedestrian bridge, her numerous cutting-edge City Council items, her commitment to her constituents and her attention to detail. Spring, they said, was an environmentalist who was “truly green” before it was trendy; a progressive who was “unabashedly spiritual before it was admitted in polite company that progressives could be spiritual.”
Little-known facts about Spring’s battle with rheumatoid arthritis came to light when her partner Dennis Walton recounted the time she almost died in March 2006 and lost the use of one of her eyes.
“She was hanging on for dear life from then on,” Walton said. “In the theater of pain, Dona was an accomplished actress.”
Walton’s brief speech brought tears to the eyes of many in the audience, some of whom wore pink—Spring’s favorite color.
“When Dona was born, I thought she was the cutest little baby,” Althoff said. “She loved animals—the kittens, the dogs, the puppies that we had over the years. Someone once traced our family tree all the way back to mayor Dick Whittington of London, who had a cat. It might benefit anyone in their quest for political office to go to the animal shelter and pick up a cat or a dog.”
The audience broke into laughter and applause at the last sentence.
“But most of all she loved the City of Berkeley with its climate of free speech and the political activism,” Althoff said. “I was proud of her five successful campaigns for the District 4 City Council seat. She once took a controversial political stand for which she received a death threat. But I think she was right.”
Spring was elected to the City Council in 1993. She was re-elected in November 2006 with 71 percent of the vote.
In a statement honoring Spring, Congresswoman Barbara Lee described her as the epitome of Berkeley’s activism, defending the disabled, the downtrodden and the meek.
“She was undaunted by big power,” Maio said. “It didn’t matter to her what power it was. We all knew how courageous she was. When Dona started fighting for the I-80 bridge, I thought it would never happen but she doggedly pursued it until one day I was present at the groundbreaking.”
Spring’s close friends and acquaintances at the memorial included San Francisco supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, Berkeley Board of Education President John Selawsky, her campaign treasurer Sara Shumer and the many caregivers without whom she could not have survived every day.
“For the past 27 years, I have had the great privilege to be Dona’s companion and primary caregiver but in recent years it would not have been possible without a team of caregivers,” Walton acknowledged. “Dona did not want the public to know of her pain. She was becoming increasingly quadriplegic but could still remember names and faces to an uncanny detail. She would tell me ‘could you call so and so and tell them such and such at this number’ even if she hadn’t met the person in 10 years. She loved life to the fullest and although she had many fears, she refused to let any of those stop her. Of course she was not perfect, no saint is.”
City Manager Phil Kamlarz announced during the event that Mayor Tom Bates—who was absent—had decided to name Berkeley’s animal shelter after Spring.
“Dona dreamt big but also dealt with the day-to-day stuff,” said Kamlarz, who spoke on behalf of city staff.
“She probably had more requests for neighborhood services than any other councilmember in the city, whether it was traffic disputes or taking care of services for the elderly and the disabled. Today we finally have a site for the city’s animal shelter because of her.”
The ceremony concluded with the rendition of “Amazing Grace” by Spring's friend Anna de Leon.