Joan Magruder (1939-2016)

Santa Barbara's Fairy Godmother

“I love your mom.”

I’ve heard it a thousand times.

My mother was Joan Magruder, who died reluctantly of cancer at Serenity House on September 24.

If you knew Joan, it was probably in her role as director of news and public relations at UCSB for 27 years. Or maybe you live in Carpinteria, where Joan’s grandmother moved in 1929 and where Joan raised her family since the early ’70s. You might know Joan from one of the many local businesses she loyally patronized.

Joan Magruder
Courtesy Photo

Or maybe you know Joan because she saved you.

Joan mentored, sheltered, advised, and supported countless people, whether tentative young professional women or children in need. Joan was a fairy godmother writ large. She championed the underdogs, befriended the friendless, and helped the helpless. And she didn’t do it through politics or just through charitable giving. Joan’s style was to take personal ownership of other people’s troubles and help directly.

Joan bought an American Girl doll named Molly. She wanted to support the company, which made dolls of varying ethnicities. Like Joan, Molly grew up during WWII, wore glasses and braids, and loved books. Joan asked her daughter, Jody, to find a girl for Molly. Jody found a bespectacled, braided bookworm 7-year-old, and Joan sent her the whole set (doll, clothes, books). The girl and her doll became inseparable. Santa Barbara’s fairy godmother strikes again.

Joan was a woman of contrasts. She entered a room like a blonde hurricane and could hijack any party with her gregarious wit. She was loud and bold. Her high-voltage smile radiated warmth like the sun. In private, Joan spent her time reading, taking walks on the beach, or cooking amazing meals. On her birthday, she often treated herself to a solo trip to the Mexican marketplace on Olvera Street and the Los Angeles Public Library.

Joan was fearless in the face of authority, especially when defending others. But this was the bravery of a lioness protecting her cubs. She was, in fact, haunted by fears: claustrophobia, fear of flying, fear of crowds. She prevailed despite it all — the true measure of courage.

Joan was a California girl par excellence. Born in Whittier, California, in 1939 as Joan Oliver, she lived in Southern California nearly all her life. The daughter of California’s first female lifeguard, Joan grew up in the sun and sea. Blonde, beautiful, and athletic, she was a cheerleader at Canoga Park High School and rode in a 1957 parade as Queen of the Reseda Round-Up.

Joan lived in Las Vegas for a few years. She danced in an Ann-Margret show and dated a cowboy who gave her a horse. She also ran a teen center in a black neighborhood during a period of racial tension and was the only white person there. One day Sammy Davis Jr. was touring the center and stopped in his tracks when he saw her. He jokingly asked Joan which side she would be on if a race war broke out, and she said: “If I’m at work when it happens, you can count on me. But if I’m at home, I don’t know any of you!”

Joan was semi-aquatic. In her twenties and thirties, she worked as a lifeguard, taught swimming, and coached synchronized swimming. She taught her children to swim before they could walk. She loved water, and she took every chance to walk on the beach or soak in her backyard hot tub.

Later, she worked in media, first as a news writer and assignment editor at KEYT, and then later reporting on camera. She interviewed Ronald Reagan.

At UCSB’s Office of Public Information, Joan mastered the art of taking dry or arcane academic subject matter and uncovering its relevance and meaning for the public. Joan wielded a kind of soft power, an influence born of a thousand close, personal relationships. She contributed massively to UCSB’s rising reputation. Chancellor Henry Yang told Joan’s family that the campus flag at UCSB would be lowered to half-staff in her honor on Wednesday, October 5.

Joan loved libraries and local bookstores, and she bought books at Chaucer’s just to donate them to the library. (Chaucer’s sent a copy of Shakespeare and Company signed by all the employees to Joan’s family “as a tribute to her love of books.”)

Joan turned her Carpinteria home into a summer camp for her nine grandchildren, with fun, beach, movies, and ice cream on the agenda, with an occasional trip to Disneyland. “Your grandmother spoils you too much,” the owner of Linden Home Video laughingly told two of her grandsons as they picked movies and left without paying. (It all went on Joan’s hefty summer tab.)

Joan said that when her time came, she would not go peacefully. In the last few years, she found true happiness and had no interest in the acceptance of her own mortality. She just wanted to live. And she fought for every last breath.

If you knew my mom, you probably loved her. And she probably loved you, too.

In lieu of flowers, please give to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.


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