Ernie Smith, 100, recalled as beloved Santa Rosa Junior College teacher, environmental champion

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Ernestine “Ernie” Smith trekked the globe playing top-level field hockey as a young woman, then came to Sonoma County and scored powerful, lasting impacts in two arenas: women’s athletics at Santa Rosa Junior College and protection of the environment and wildlife from perils such as dredging, dams, offshore oil exploration, nuclear power plants and hilltop development.

Twinkle-eyed yet indefatigable, Smith would have turned 101 years old on Sept. 22. Longtime friend, former student and fellow coach Caren Franci of Sebastopol was with her hours before she died Aug. 12 at a care home alongside Santa Rosa Creek.

Franci recalled, “I told her it was time to move on to other environments, that they needed her stewardship.”

Smith was for decades a key activist with the Madrone Audubon Society, Sonoma County Conservation Council, Sonoma County Tomorrow and Citizens Organized to Acquire Access to State Tidelands (COAAST). She volunteered as a docent and trained docents at Sonoma Valley’s Bouverie Preserve.

She successfully fought alongside other early environmentalists to halt PG&E’s plan to construct a nuclear power plant on Bodega Head, to protect Jenner’s Penney Island from inundation by proposed dredging at the mouth of the Russian River, and to persuade the state Highway Commission it would be devastating and foolish to proceed with plans to build a four-lane Russian River bridge at Bridgehaven, just inland from Jenner.

Smith was a great friend and ally of the late Martha Bentley, co-founder of the Bird Rescue Center of Santa Rosa and a fellow Madrone Audubon Society charter member.

“They were sort of the indomitable duo that would go off to (Sonoma County) supervisors’ meeting and stand up for the environment all over the county,” said friend and fellow conservationist Diane Hichwa of The Sea Ranch.

Smith and Bentley became two-thirds of a formidable trio when they turned up to advocate a position with the late Iva Warner, a powerhouse whose objections over the proposed Warm Springs Dam helped force a less objectionable redesign.

“We used to refer to them as the Three Amigas,” said Linda Curry of Santa Rosa, who became fast friends with Smith after enrolling in one of her badminton classes at SRJC. She said each of the women brought a unique element of persuasion, reason and passion to any environmental argument.

Smith, she said, could be a tiger.

“She would go toe-to-toe with people lots bigger than she was. She was very tenacious and she just wouldn’t let go.”

Remarked Franci, the former SRJC student and coach, “You didn’t get rid of a bug that she was defending.”

The Sonoma County Conservation Council declared the “Three Amigas” 1980’s Sonoma County Environmentalists of the Year.

Ernestine Isobel Smith was born to Charles E. Smith and Minerva Ernest Smith, already graced with several sons, on Sept. 22, 1914, on a ranch in Paso Robles.

Family documents show her father wrote in his diary, “Me and the boys went to visit Minnie and the kid. At last, we have our little girl.”

As a child, Ernie Smith relished the outdoor life. She studied biology at what was then San Jose State College and discovered a love and champion-level aptitude for field hockey, traveling with the U.S. team to meets in Australia and Africa.

She began her career as a teacher in the Humboldt County village of Ferndale. She recalled in a 2008 interview that she was traveling on a train when she met Floyd P. Bailey, the president of Santa Rosa Junior College. They spoke and he invited her to come teach either science or physical education.

She chose the latter and taught her first JC class in 1948. In the early 1960s, Caren Franci trained with her in both basketball and field hockey. She said the coaching and inspiration she received from Smith sent her on her way to becoming a 32-year women’s basketball coach and P.E. teacher at the junior college.

Franci said of her mentor and friend, “I think she had a tremendous impact on our county, and it didn’t really matter what passion was at the moment.”

In the early 1960s, Smith joined the fight against a nuclear power plant at Bodega Head. When it was won, she poured her nearly legendary energy into one conservation battle after another.

Smith, who never married, retired from SRJC in 1973.

The school inducted her into its Athletic Hall of Fame in 1998. Each year, the SRJC Foundation awards the Ernestine I. Smith Scholarship.

In addition to Iva Warner and Martha Bentley, Smith was an environmental warrior in the league and company of the late Bill Kortum, hailed posthumously as “one of the grand old men of the environmental movement in California;” Marty Griffin, creator of the Marin Coast’s Audubon Canyon Ranch; and friend and eventual life aide Betty Burridge, a champion of the Madrone Audubon Society and a recipient of the Sonoma County Conservation Council’s Ernestine I. Smith Lifetime Environmental Commitment Award.

Lucy Kortum of Petaluma said she and her late husband were struck by Smith’s “tremendous knowledge of nature” and her eagerness at the emergence of an issue that concerned her to confront elected and appointed officials with armloads of petitions and reams of compelling, well-researched documentation.

Beyond all that, Kortum said, “She was a great huckleberry picker, and Bill loved huckleberries.”

At present, no plans have been set for a memorial service.

Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith @pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @CJSPD.

Editor’s note: Caren Franci was with Ernestine Smith earlier the day of her death. An error in an earlier version of the story has been corrected.

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