Margaret Emmington, 1904-2008

By Anthony Bruce
Thursday October 30, 2008 - 09:41:00 AM
Margaret Emmington
By Daniella Thompson
Margaret Emmington

On Oct. 15, Margaret Emmington died peacefully at Alta Bates Hospital at age 104, but not before she fulfilled her last wish: the day before she died, she was able to mark her absentee ballot for Barack Obama. Over the last year she had emphatically stated that it was her hope to live long enough (imagining, even, that she might live to see the inauguration) to cast her vote for the man who would change the mind of the country. 

Margaret Ware Emmington (Mrs. Leslie) was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her distinguished American heritage included being the great, great, great, great-granddaughter of Col. Jacob Ford Jr. who served as an aide to General George Washington and in whose home General Washington established his military headquarters during the hard winter of 1779–80. Her great-grandfather, Joshua Ford, was among the early Williams College graduates who formed the American Foreign Mission movement, sailing with his bride in 1847 to Beirut, Lebanon. Indeed, her grandfather was born in Aleppo, Syria, growing up with Arabic as his first language. It made Mrs. Emmington proud that members of her family had served as some of the first cultural ambassadors to the Middle East and continued such links into the 20th century. 

In 1945, when Mrs. Emmington moved with her husband and two children to Berkeley, she immediately became involved in the life of St. John’s Presbyterian Church (designed by Julia Morgan in 1908) and remained a devoted member. However, when it was announced in 1970 that the congregation would build a new sanctuary at another site and, perhaps, sell the old building, she and her husband spoke up with alarm.  

The Emmington family began to voice real concern that this remarkable building could fall into the hands of developers and easily be torn down. It was out of this concern that a movement evolved to save old St. John’s, now used as the Julia Morgan Theater, as well as many other beautiful buildings in Berkeley being demolished at that time, and, thus, the efforts ultimately led to the founding of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association and the adoption of the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance. 

Mrs. Emmington respected the time-honored social traditions of the era in which she was raised and in which she raised her family. She was a clear, forward-looking thinker, who acted upon her ideals and inspired others to move toward their goals. She was as much in her element serving luncheon to members of the Claremont Park Book Club or presiding at a tea at the Town and Gown Club as she was walking into the Stadium Oak Grove last year on the arm of her daughter to give moral support to the tree sitters.  

She charmed all those she met and had a special way of bringing out the best in each person. As a neighbor recently recalled, “She was always interested in the world around her.” 

Mrs. Emmington is survived by her son, Bill; daughter, Lesley; grandsons, Henry, Bertram, and Stewart; and a cousin, Lorraine Knight.