When the 1969 Santa Barbara Channel oil spill struck, how did it happen that the president of the S.B. Audubon Society — prowling the shoreline, staring through binoculars, advising local, state, and national news media and public agency types on the hazard to pelagic birds and marine life — was a fortyish, transplanted Shropshire lass, once more inclined toward inland British plants and flowers than seacoasts or birds?
How did it happen, in a time before social media, desktops, and Internet, that a new arrival from greater L.A. received welcome, then training, from Miss Pearl Chase on proper, old-school civic and community service — tools later employed, working rotary-dial phones and manual typewriters, on behalf of birds, nature, science, and evolving public policy?
How did it happen that federal functionaries were so impressed with her acumen that they invited her to “offer a few brief personal comments,” as Washington crafted the National Environmental Policy Act, but received a 10-page hand-typed memo with 37 specific suggestions? Or that when the White House invited her to attend the swearing in of America’s first EPA director, she replied, “Well this is quite an honor. But I am a wife and mother, and the trip is long and expensive,” and did not go, though she later encountered H.R.“Bob” Haldeman and asked how it had turned out?
Joyce “Joy” Nicholls, from Shropshire, England, child of the Roaring Twenties (“Oh, that seemed like such a faraway thing to us, even while it was going on”), young woman in the Great Depression (“We knew things were ‘difficult’ in the world, but since we were, most of us, all in the same boat, it didn’t fully register”), met and married dashing GI Ed Parkinson during WWII, moving to America with him, first Michigan, then L.A., before reaching Santa Barbara in the early ‘60s.
“When people talk about the ‘postwar baby boom,’ they’re describing Goleta when we arrived. Still mostly farming, a few stores and churches, abandoned bases. Suddenly it was UCSB, Isla Vista, new aerospace plants all over. Block after block of new housing, including ours. In the 1960s, Goleta was one of the fastest growing places in this country.”
Joy got in on the ground floor (one of “Pearl’s Girls”) as cofounding member of the new Audubon chapter, along with Janet “The Condor Lady” Hamber, her close friend from L.A. days. She met Dick Smith, Tom Dibblee, and Bob Easton in their salad days, got a hello from Tom Storke, a cooking tip from Julia Child, and an encouraging note from William Clark. Besides raising a great son, Dave, she also helped raise an Audubon chapter and a delightful backyard garden.
Joy helped protect Lake Los Carneros from builders, persuading the county to preserve it as a park (“Families north of the freeway needed parks, too, not just visitors going to the beach”); helped expand Stow Park; and helped serve as a local bridge among Bill Wallace, Jack O’Connell, and the California Coastal Conservancy, when they acquired and created the Goleta Community Center, back when state government still worked.
As head of the Coastal Resource Center, she chartered numerous trips to the Channel Islands years before Island Packers or the Condor, traded handwritten notes with Carey Stanton, and encouraged Peter Howorth and Fred Benko, often taking pen to paper in support of Bob Lagomarsino’s long, but successful, drive to protect the islands as a national park: “He was persistent. He had to be.”
In the 1990s, she reemerged from “retirement” to help convene the South Coast Environmental Alliance and keep the green spirit (“Oh, I’m not sure I favor that term”) alive.
Being a Local Hero was much more for Joy than saving the world in 10,000 meetings, letters, and phone calls.
She was so proud of her son, Dave, and “my daughter, Laura,” (Dave’s wife). She ministered to Ed during his last illness. Only later did she reveal that, early in their marriage, Ed Parkinson faced two serious rivals (“at least, in my imagination”): British movie heartthrobs Robert Donat and Ronald Colman. “It just killed me that he — Colman — lived here on the South Coast, and I never got to meet him.”
Joy loved music (“All kinds, but it must have a rhythm or melody”); cooking (“I experimented. Sometimes wondered why I never had time to try science or chemistry. Of course, in Britain in my day, it was not encouraged”); sci-fi (“Mulder and Scully — now that’s a couple I wish I had time to meet. Do you think if someone asked Chris Carter, he could arrange it?”); Archie Leach (“BOTH of them — ooh, I used to enjoy Cary Grant, but John Cleese, playing Archie in A Fish Called Wanda, just made me roar”; and golf (“Tiger is very good, but if you ask me, Justin Leonard and Davis Love III are easier to root for”).
Joy Parkinson lived long enough to see Goleta incorporate; to visit Alaska, the West, Antarctica; to become “the longest-lived member of my family, either side”; be feted as a Santa Barbara Independent Local Hero; and despite failing health, to attend Audubon’s 50th birthday picnic, where she reconnected with old friends, sharing stories and posing for group pictures, one last time.
Lung cancer took her a few weeks later. “Even when I was little, we all knew smoking was bad for you. But if you were young, and in the country, and there was a war on, my goodness, it did make you feel the epitome of sophistication.”
She faced her last illness with Stoic courage, aided by fine doctors, Visiting Nurses, heroic support from Dave and Laura, and her friend Florence’s readiness to chauffeur her wherever she needed.
Funny, practical, well organized, persevering, Parkinson lived the full, diverse life of community service Pearl Chase favored. I can’t count the times Joy’s advice or help pulled my fat out of the fire the last 30 years.
Wherever all heroes must go, this Thanksgiving, Joy was among them.