The Woman Honored in Both Muir Woods and Mill Valley: An Interview From the Archives With Environmentalist Elizabeth Terwilliger

Elizabeth Terwilliger, a.k.a. “Mrs. T, ” was sweet, softspoken, and the inspiration for both the Terwilliger Grove in Muir Woods and the restored Elizabeth Terwilliger Marsh in Mill Valley. She left behind a legacy that inspired national campaigns and regional efforts to protect our ecosystems and make the outdoors more accessible via playgrounds and bike paths all around the county. Luckily, we got the chance to speak with her before she passed away in November 2006.

Terwilliger and her late husband, Calvin, settled in Strawberry in the 1950s, eventually ending up on Oakdale Avenue across Highway 101, where they raised their two children, John and Lynn Ellen. By the mid-’70s, Tiburon residents Joan and Don Bekins connected with her, founded the Elizabeth Terwilliger Nature Education Foundation, and produced the educational film series Tripping with Terwilliger, which is shown in schools nationwide. Eventually, the foundation merged with the California Center for Wildlife and became WildCare, which continues to educate children about nature as well as rehabilitating wild creatures. “Elizabeth Terwilliger is a visible, living symbol of the environmental movement in Marin County,” says Joan Bekins, who remains a close friend.

Whether she’s speaking to adults or to children, Mrs. T’s enthusiasm is contagious, as in the time President Ronald Reagan stood next to her in a photo for the Washington Post, making a pro-wildlife “V for vulture” sign with his arms. Or the thousands of times she has gotten down on her knees to examine a wildfl ower with an entranced child. She has inspired so many people in our community and beyond to do right by Mother Nature. Thanks, Mrs. T!

You could live anywhere. Why Marin?

Calvin and I chose Marin because we loved the climate; anything can grow here. I also love living in natural surroundings while still having access to San Francisco’s cultural activities.

What makes you happy in Marin?

The weather. It’s usually sunny, but on a stormy, wet day, the children and I blow the rain away!

What bothers you here?

Litterbugs, especially when people toss cigarette butts into the street. And increasing population pressure — continuous urban development, which threatens existing natural habitats. Nature education for children is even more important as adults lose sight of open space and an awareness of the creatures that live in them.

What do you value every day?

Being outdoors—sharing the joy of discovering natural wonders with others. It is all “something special!”

What is your personal idea of luxury?

I loved spending time in our large yard in Mill Valley with its own natural habitat of a redwood grove and stream.

What person has influenced you the most?

My mother, Florence Cooper, who took my brothers and me on nature trips when we were growing up on a sugar plantation in Hawaii.

What has been the most fulfilling moment in your work?

Being personally recognized by President Ronald Reagan at the Outstanding Volunteer Award ceremony in Washington, D.C.

What’s your desert-island favorite book or album?

Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter. I loved the way her main character personalized his animal friends. I found it inspirational in my teaching. I also memorized the poem Little Orphan Annie by J.W. Riley.

Where’s your favorite place to unwind?

Muir Beach.

Do you have a favorite Marin view?

Besides looking at Mount Tamalpais, I enjoy the views from the overlooks at the top of the mountain.

What do you like about yourself?

From my window at the Redwoods [in Mill Valley], I can see so many people enjoying the bike path in Mill Valley, and I’m happy that I was part of the team that made this happen.

How do you want to be remembered?

As someone who tried to leave the world more beautiful than she found it, and inspired others to do the same.

Mimi Towle

Mimi Towle has been the editor of Marin Magazine for over a decade. She lived with her family in Sycamore Park and Strawberry and thoroughly enjoyed raising two daughters in the mayhem of Marin’s youth sports; soccer, swim, volleyball, ballet, hip hop, gymnastics and many many hours spent at Miwok Stables. Her community involvements include volunteering at her daughter’s schools, coaching soccer and volleyball (glorified snack mom), being on the board of both Richardson Bay Audubon Center. Currently residing on a floating home in Sausalito, she enjoys all water activity, including learning how to steer a 6-person canoe for the Tamalpais Outrigger Canoe Club. Born and raised in Hawaii, her fondness for the islands has on occasion made its way into the pages of the magazine.