In taking her turn at the helm this year, Susan Johnson, the former longtime teacher at Tam Valley and Edna Maguire elementary schools, sure seems to have a knack for great timing.
The OAC, founded in 1902 by 35 women, many of whom were members of the families that built the foundation of Mill Valley, enters its 115th year this month. On Oct. 6, the organization is set to receive the Bank of Marin’s Spirit of Marin Award as nominated by the Mill Valley Chamber, a recognition of the club’s vast impact on the town in lasting, ever-evolving ways.
Johnson, who joined the OAC in 2009 and is widely known locally as a third and fourth grade teacher, is clearly enjoying the moment.
“This is a gift – I had no idea when i joined how much I would value this club,” Johnson says. “The women in this organization are just amazing. They are intelligent, dynamic, caring and they have been leaders in the community, have had important careers and to be able to work with people with their abilities and sensibilities and kindness has just been so rewarding for me. I am so pleased and honored to be a part of it.”
The OAC’s founding mission was to “preserve the natural scenery of Mill Valley and the surrounding country, to beautify the grounds around the public buildings, to work against wanton destruction of birds and game, to encourage the development of outdoor art and to engage in other civic, literary, and charitable work.”
If that sound like a broad mission, consider that “in 1902 Mill Valley was a new town, a tourist destination and a place still without a vision of what it could and should be. The area’s unpaved roads were littered with trash left behind by patrons of ‘The Crookedest Railroad in the World.’ Due to logging, there were few trees, and no library, parks or public health services for its citizens. From the beginning, the OAC’s founding members chose to take an active role in the future development of their town. They formed a women’s club not just as a place to socialize, but also as a vehicle for civic engagement,” according to the OAC’s history records.
The OAC’s basement is filled with boxes of board minutes and scrapbooks showing “that there did not seem to be many local issues in which these women did not assume a responsible voice. Even without the vote (women garnered the right to vote in California in 1911), they were seen as civic and cultural leaders, ones frequently looked to for advice and support.”
Those issues included naming streets, planting trees, creating school gardens, sponsoring cleanup days, clearing weeds from the streets and assisting in the development of both Boyle and Old Mill Parks. The OAC clubhouse at 1 West Blithedale Avenue downtown was the home of Mill Valley’s first library, was a staging center during local disasters and a cultural center for the pursuit of art, music, literature and California history. The group was among the pioneers of Marin’s rich history of environmental activism.
With that in mind, Johnson has made “community continuity” and “change” her themes for the OAC this year, seemingly disparate goals but ones that strike at the heart of what the organization has always been about: preserving the beauty of Mill Valley but always striving to push forward. “We will continue to do the work set out in our founder’s purpose statement while moving positively forward,” Johnson wrote to members this month.
The 400-member group has an event calendar that is chock full of lectures, outings and community service projects over the next year. Those include events featuring “Wrong Dog: An Unlikely Tale of Unconditional Love” author David Eliot Cohen (Sept. 21), Save the Bay’s Katy Zaaremba (Nov. 2), “Sometimes Brilliant: The Impossible Adventure of a Spiritual Seeker and visionary Physician Who Helped Conquer the Worst Disease in History” author Larry Brilliant, Book Passage’s Elaine Petrocelli (Dec. 7), poet Jane Hirshfield (Feb. 1) and “Gardenista: The definitive Guide to Stylish Outdoor Spaces Open to the Public” author Michelle Slatalla (Feb. 15)
OAC also hosts a ‘State of the City’ event from Mayor Jessica Sloan and City Manager Jim McCann, and operates Literary, Cultural Arts, Civics & Conservation and Garden Programs as well as myriad events, including a Fall Fashion Show, a Village Crafts Market, a Holiday Dinner Dance, a Village Edibles Market, a New Year’s Day Open House, the Crab Fest, Rummage Sale, Teddy Bear Tea and ‘Stepping Out to Museums’ events.
Johnson’s year as present comes on the heels of the OAC’s biennial Garden Tour, which was last held in April. The Tour is the Club’s major fundraiser, with proceeds going to both preserve the organization's historic Bernard Maybeck clubhouse and benefit an array of Marin County nonprofits, with more than $350,000 going to Marin organizations over the past 19 years.
And true to its roots, the OAC continues to support local beautification and infrastructure upgrades, including the renovation of the Replica Gravity Car on the Depot Plaza, and the repair of the Downtown Clock Tower in collaboration with the Mill Valley Chamber and its Enjoy MIll Valley Fund.
“It’s remarkable that after all these years, these women have generated the funds and maintained the building and gone ahead and done all of the outreach things we do and have fun events and parties,” Johnson says. “This is a really vital organization that remains as relevant today as it when it was founded.”
The 411: The Outdoor Art Club is set to receive the Spirit of Marin Award for Mill Valley, via the Mill Valley Chamber, at the 24th Spirit of Marin Awards on Friday, October 6 (11:30am-1:30pm) at St. Vincent’s School for Boys in San Rafael. Marin Independent Journal President and Publisher Rob Devincenzi is the keynote speaker. One of the largest business events in the county and Bank of Marin’s signature community event, the awards recognize the philanthropic leadership, volunteerism and success of Marin’s businesses, business leaders and volunteers. Tix are $60. MORE INFO & TIX. Here are this year's winners:
- Corte Madera Chamber - Tori Puliz, Nothing Bundt Cakes
- Fairfax Chamber - Bradley Real Estate
- Hispanic Chamber - Rosie De Alvarez , National Latino Peace Officers Association
- Larkspur Chamber - Helen Russell, Equator Coffees and Teas
- Mill Valley Chamber - The Outdoor Art Club
- Novato Chamber, Small Business - Valley Oak Wealth Management
- Novato Chamber, Large Business - Ultragenyx Pharmaceutical Inc.
- San Anselmo Chamber - San Francisco Theological Seminary
- San Rafael Chamber, Small Business - Sun First Solar
- San Rafael Chamber, Large Business - EO Products
- Sausalito Chamber - Shelby Van Meter, Sausalito Beautiful
- Tiburon Peninsula Chamber - Steve Sears, Sam's Anchor Cafe
- West Marin Chamber - Joyce Goldfield