Hal Conklin: 1945-2021

It was just five days before Hal died. He called me. “Guess where I am?” he said, with that familiar endearing chuckle of his. “I’m at the Serenity House. I’ve come full circle.”

The significance of Hal being at Serenity House, the beautiful hospice facility on the Mesa overlooking Santa Barbara, can’t be overstated. Serenity House was built at the site of the Community Environmental Council’s (CEC) headquarters, and a portion of that original CEC building is incorporated into the Serenity House complex as it stands today. Hal and I were CEC’s codirectors back in 1970, the year CEC was founded by a community galvanized by Santa Barbara’s momentous 1969 oil spill.

Credit: Courtesy

Hal told me that he was about to exit this life from a place and an organization that was, in many respects, his birthplace in Santa Barbara. His call was a poignant one. I sensed it could be our last conversation. Sadly, it was.

Born and raised in Oakland to a close-knit Armenian family, Hal attended UC Berkeley, where he graduated in sociology and psychology. In the Bay Area, Hal became connected with the famous Episcopal bishop James Pike and his author wife, Diane Kennedy. Pike died in a tragic accident only a year or so before Hal moved to Santa Barbara to assist Diane Kennedy Pike with one of the bishop’s publications. The Pikes’ friend Maryanne Mott, a founding CEC board member, introduced Hal to me in the spring of 1970, when the CEC’s Ecology Center was being set up at 15 West Anapamu. Maryanne thought Hal would be a good fit for our fledgling organization.

My first impression of Hal was that he was polished, very well-dressed, had impeccable manners, and seemed to be competent. He exuded the kind of confidence that made everything seem all right and in order. Nothing seemed to faze him. Little did I know then that Hal and I were on our way to becoming lifelong friends and colleagues. That first impression I’d had of him more than held up through the 50 years I knew him.

Hal became known to thousands of Santa Barbarans through his time with the CEC, his 17 years as a City Councilmember, and his short stint as mayor of Santa Barbara, and I consider that he was Santa Barbara’s greatest civic leader since Pearl Chase reigned over the city from the late 1920s to the 1970s. Like Ms. Chase, Hal’s public service interests were wide-ranging. Although his primary focus was the environment, his interests spread to the arts, historic preservation, community planning and development, and city governance. He was a recycling pioneer, a city councilmember, an esteemed mayor, head of the California League of Cities, a candidate to lead the National League of Cities, an executive with Southern California Edison, a leader in the upgrading of Santa Barbara’s train station, and most recently, a convenor of an effort to reimagine Santa Barbara’s languishing downtown.

PITCHING IN: Hal Conklin was instrumental in setting up the Community Environmental Council’s first recycling center for Santa Barbara. At a photo from the dedication ceremony, Conklin is at the far right, tossing a recyclable onto the pile, with Paul Relis, then-Mayor David Shiffman, state senator Gary Hart, recycling manager Mark Thomasee, and Robert Klausner. | Credit: Courtesy

It was clear from his earliest endeavors at the CEC that Hal was a take-charge leader. Recycling was one of his earliest interests, and he quickly rose to a position of prominence at the state level with an organization he helped found — the California Resource Recovery Association, which exists to this day. He worked with the late businessman and civic leader Robert Klausner to create one of California’s first recycling centers located at the corner of Garden and Ortega that is now home to the Solstice organization. He helped start a recycling program at Vandenberg Air Force Base, a feat that required remarkable patience and ingenuity since it required many levels of approval from the Pentagon.

One of Hal’s earliest civic accomplishments was his role in protecting the Santa Barbara waterfront from a massive proposed development by Southern Pacific Railroad and the Hyatt Corporation. To accomplish the daunting task, Hal and I worked together under the auspices of the Committee for Santa Barbara and in close collaboration with the legendary Selma Rubin, Robert Easton, and James Gildea. Hal was instrumental in organizing meetings and press conferences and setting forth strategies that ultimately tamed the development and gave us an expanded Chase Palm Park along Cabrillo Boulevard.

Pivotal to waterfront protection and enhancement efforts was Hal’s singular leadership in preserving Stearns Wharf. The wharf was destined to be demolished after a devastating fire. Hal’s work kept that from happening. Working with the California Coastal Conservancy and other organizations, he secured funding to rebuild the wharf into the important public and commercial resource it is today. A plaque was placed on the wharf honoring Hal and his extraordinary achievement.

SAVED: The continued existence of Stearns Wharf after a disastrous fire was in doubt until Hal Conklin stepped in to save it. | Credit: Damian Gadal

Prior to serving on the City Council, Hal came before that body as an advocate for recycling and other programs. His ideas drew strong opposition from several councilmembers who were deeply conservative and looked upon Hal’s interests in the environment with disdain. I remember one member in particular who berated him in public, but Hal endured that abuse, maintained his composure, and even smiled. In time, Hal’s views would come to prevail as the body politic shifted to make Santa Barbara one of the more progressive cities in California.

Hal’s City Council tenure and stint as mayor focused on trying to balance housing and commercial development as the city struggled to right-size itself through revisions in residential and commercial zoning. His vision of the city extended to cultivating the arts and culture. Hal used the phrase, “Santa Barbara’s downtown should invoke a sense of place, a sense of history, and a sense of celebration.” He considered encouragement of the arts and culture as integral to the city’s economic vitality. His commitment to the arts was demonstrated by his work in restoring The Granada Theatre and enhancing the Arlington Theatre by raising the money for its magnificent organ. He saw these restorations as critical to the emergence of an “Arts District” that included Santa Barbara’s beautiful library, its Museum of Art, and its historic County Courthouse.

‘SENSE OF PLACE’: Hal Conklin loved the arts and theater, and how they enhanced life in Santa Barbara, pushing hard for the renovation of The Granada Theatre. He also advocated for years that the city create a more vibrant downtown with a “sense of place.” | Credit: Justin Kase Conder

When Hal sought the mayorship and won, many of us assumed that this was the beginning of a long run in that office. Instead, his election was challenged as a violation of term limits and the court concurred. Instead of serving at least four years, he served but one. With that ruling, Santa Barbara lost Hal’s visionary leadership.

His talents and his well-established connections with government officials throughout the state made him a desirable hire for Southern California Edison. During his tenure at Edison, Hal pushed and promoted Edison’s efforts to increase solar and wind energy under an initiative he called Green Cities. He proved to be a loyal and able advocate for Edison. At one point, he argued before the CEC’s Board of Directors that their initiative to promote renewable energy by urging counties and cities to become utility-autonomous wasn’t feasible. He later acknowledged that he’d been wrong about that and that what became known as “community aggregation” was indeed viable.

Following his retirement from Edison, Hal re-engaged in the political and cultural life of the city pursuing his wide-ranging environmental interests, foremost of which was U.S.A. Green Communities, which he developed with his lifelong colleague and friend, Gary Petersen.

Credit: Courtesy

In 2017, Hal ran again for mayor. Initially, a number of us thought he was a shoo-in. But the years had gone by, times had changed, and his name and achievements were no longer so well known. Though he lost, he took that loss in stride and moved solidly forward.

As concerns over city leadership came to the fore over the past several years, he was recruited by community business leaders to form the Santa Barbara Leadership Team to guide an effort to reenvision the greatly distressed core of the downtown. Only his health crisis came between him and his abiding sense of civic purpose. In one of our talks during his illness, as health-compromised as he was, it was as if he saw no barrier to continuing his work. I don’t think this was denial. It was just the nature of his DNA to stay the course and to pursue his sense of purpose.

Few people are as blessed and deserving as Hal was, and remains, to be loved and admired by so many. With his devoted wife, Haley; their large family; and faith community by his side, Hal had what most of us humans can only hope to have. And in usual Hal style, he handled his looming end with his characteristic calm and good cheer.

What better way for me to honor Hal’s work and to keep his contributions alive than to take a walk in Chase Palm Park and by the Granada and Arlington theatres, out onto Stearn’s Wharf, and to stroll the downtown that he loved and sought to revitalize. Santa Barbara was lucky to have Hal’s commitment for as long as it did, and I was fortunate to call him my friend.

A community service to remember Hal Conklin will be held on the steps of the Mission on Wednesday, July 21, at 7 p.m. In lieu of flowers, gifts can be made to the Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara “Hal Conklin Memorial.”


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