Joseph H. Engbeck Jr.
Oct 3, 1932 - March 23, 2020
Environmental activist, historian, and writer Joseph H. Engbeck Jr. died on March 23 at his home in Berkeley, having coped for many years with the effects of Parkinson's disease. He was 87 years old. In presenting Joe with its "Honorary Ranger for 2017" award, the California State Park Rangers Association cited Joe's influence on "preserving our natural and cultural heritage . . . and of connecting people" with those resources. Such imperatives guided his lifetime of work.
Joe grew up in San Leandro, California, and graduated from San Leandro High School in 1950. His subsequent studies at U.C. Berkeley were interrupted by two years of service with the U.S. Army Security Agency, most of that time spent in Germany. On his return, he completed his degree in English at the university, and in 1956 he married Martha Randolph. Joe and Martha were to become the parents of two sons, Eric and John.
For several years Joe owned and operated Harbeck Metals, a Berkeley-based scrap metal dealership and industrial demolition contracting firm. Also in the 1960s he became active in local conservation organizations and public policy matters. He organized People for Open Space (later The Greenbelt Alliance), dedicated to developing a reliable greenbelt for the Bay Area at a time when many were concerned about the encroachment of suburban development on farmland in the region. He was also a founding member of the Claremont-Elmwood Neighborhood Association, formed to influence land use and transportation planning in southeast Berkeley. CENA soon supported a traffic management system that would protect neighborhood streets from heedless commuter travel. One result, the installation of traffic diverters, provoked anti-diverter forces to put "the barricades" to a vote in two elections. They were defeated both times, and the diverters have remained in place, many of them now permanently landscaped.
Joe's interest in city traffic patterns led to his participation in various City of Berkeley boards and commissions related to transportation issues. At the same time, he joined the Citizens' Task Force for the East Bay Regional Park District's Twenty-year Expansion Plan and contributed a comprehensive master plan to the effort. As co-founder of Friends of Claremont Canyon (precursor to the current Claremont Canyon Conservancy), he led the campaign to preserve 500 acres of open space in Claremont Canyon, land that later became a regional preserve.
Along the way, Joe was also a trustee of the California Historical Society, member of the board of the Save San Francisco Bay Association, and on the board of Friends of the Frederick Law Olmsted Papers. He also became a Councilor (later with Honorary status) for Save the Redwoods League, an organization with which he enjoyed a long association.
In 1969 Joe became a research writer for the California Department of of Parks and Recreation. He wrote prodigiously during his tenure with State Parks, beginning with the informational brochures park visitors received at park entrance points (Joe estimated he provided the text for over 200 of them). He moved on to write books large and small about California parks.
His book about giant sequoia, "Enduring Giants: The epic story of giant sequoia and the Big Trees of Calaveras," has been called, in its first three editions, a classic of its kind. Besides its close attention to the natural history of Sequoiadendron giganteum, the book tells about the many campaigns devoted to saving the trees, acre by acre and grove by grove, until park status was achieved. Such stories inspired Joe wherever they took place, and his accounts of them were themselves compelling.
Joe also compiled a history, "State Parks of California," which appeared in 1980 and traced the development of the parks system from its origins in 1864. Generously illustrated with archival photos and the photography of Philip Hyde, the book was praised for showing how the vision and practical accomplishments of committed preservationists over the years had created one million acres of land under State Park management for the benefit of the people.
Other publications for the parks department include "La Purisima Mission, An Illustrated History," a small book about the restoration and reconstruction of the mission during the 1930s and its eventual development as a state historic park. "Gloria Dei, The Story of California Mission Music" describes the music of the period and the role it played in the Franciscan missions of Spanish and Mexican California.
Joe retired from State parks in 1994 as manager of the department's publications program. He made life-long friends in the parks field, many of them now mourning the passing of a respected mentor and colleague.
Joe's interests continued to find expression after his retirement. "By the People, For the People: The Work of the Civilian Conservation Corps in California State Parks, 1937–1941" appeared in 2002. Its text and illustrations verify the importance of the CCC both to the more than two million young men whose lives were changed by their experience and to the parks themselves, where the enrollees constructed buildings, trails, bridges, and culverts that still survive.
Joe's last book was also his most ambitious. In 2015 he completed "Saving the Redwoods: The Movement to Rescue a Wonder of the Natural World. " Sponsored by the Save the Redwoods League, this lengthy volume is the result of several years of careful research. The scope is broad, details generously supplied. It tells an epic story involving powerful adversaries and many heroes, some well known (John Muir, John D. Rockefeller Jr, Judi Bari, and Julia "Butterfly" Hill, for example) but most largely forgotten or never famous. The book also draws clear links between the efforts to rescue the redwoods and the parks movement in general. Those who succeeded in saving redwood forests from the sawmill, the author's prologue concludes, "had no idea . . . how profoundly the fight to save the redwoods would affect the movement to preserve other parts of the natural landscape in other parts of California, in the nation, and around the world." Though many organizations and individuals played important roles in the redwoods preservation story, the Save the Redwoods League claims Joe as its official historian, grateful that his book has given voice to the organization's proud history.
Joe continued his involvements with public land advocacy groups in recent years. For as long as his health would allow, he remained an active member and officer of the Regional Parks Association. He served also on the executive committee for the Claremont Canyon Conservancy, leading a sizeable project that involved planting thousands of redwood seedlings in the canyon, with the help of many volunteers. Now that enough redwoods have survived and begun to make their growing presence known, the value of the tree-planting project to the Conservancy's ambitious fire-abatement goals becomes increasingly clear.
We cannot here ignore Joe's love of golf. All of his former partners admired his "sweet swing." One of them recalls his joy on the golf course. Another remarks that in Joe's company you felt that you were golfing with someone with the keys to golf's greatest secrets, which he would quietly share with you at the right moment.
It must also be said that there was no better companion than Joe on a hike or a backpacking trip. He knew the plants, the trees, the birds, the rocks, and the weather. He also loved Lake Tahoe and fast boats.
In addition to his loving spouse, Sondra Reid, Joe is survived by his son Eric Engbeck, Eric's wife, Debbie, and their daughter, Erin, and son-in-law, Laurent; and by his son John Engbeck and John's children, Niccolo and Marriah. Joe will also be missed by two stepchildren and their families (David Reid and wife Anne, and Jennifer Cord and husband Matthew), including five step-grandchildren.
The family thanks a loyal team of caregivers, led by Dennis Vergara, whose devoted attentions made it possible for Joe to remain at his home until the end.
Memorial donations may be sent to Save the Redwoods League, 111 Sutter Street, 11th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94104 (www.savetheredwoods.org
), or to an environmental organization of your choice. A time for a gathering in Joe's honor will be announced at a later date.
Published by San Francisco Chronicle from Apr. 7 to Apr. 12, 2020.