Under the graceful lines of the courthouse she helped to preserve, public servant Naomi Schwartz was remembered by the Santa Barbara community Saturday as hundreds gathered for a public farewell.
Schwartz, who served in numerous capacities at the county and state levels, died June 4 at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital after complications from surgery. She was 78, and her sudden death shocked many in the community.
That grief was still near to those who spoke Saturday, including her daughter, Deborah, one of Schwartz’s four children.
“Paying tribute to Naomi would not be complete if it was only tears and sadness,” she told the crowd. “My mother loved life and lived it fully.”
The younger Schwartz recalled a woman who was a loving parent as well as a dedicated public servant. Schwartz served as chairwoman of the California Coastal Commission, and was a founding member of local organizations such as the Courthouse Legacy Foundation.
Schwartz also served for a decade as chief of staff for state Sen. Gary Hart, D-Santa Barbara, from 1982 to 1992, and then was elected to the First District seat on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. She was first elected in 1992, served three four-year terms, and retired from county government in 2005.
“Her office was right there up in that corner,” said Deborah Schwartz, pointing to the County Administration building sitting just across Anapamu Street from where family, friends and supporters had gathered at the Courthouse Sunken Garden.
It was from that office that Schwartz fought tirelessly to preserve Santa Barbara’s coastline as well as the quality of life for people who lived here, she said.
Hart, Schwartz’s mentor for 20 years, also spoke Saturday of a woman with a wry sense of humor and an infectious laugh.
“She had an amazing ability to listen ... to close the door to her office and give you her undivided attention,” Hart recalled.
Numerous interns who moved in and out of Hart’s office were mentored by Schwartz, and went on to pursue careers in public service at her urging. A number of them were in the audience Saturday.
Linda Krop, chief counsel of the Environmental Defense Center, also spoke of Schwartz’s dedication to preservation as well as public participation.
“Her dream was to get public participation out of the closet and back on the frontburner, and to remind Californians up and down the coast that the power really lies with them,” she said.
Seth Strongin, a graduate of UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Management, where Schwartz sat on the Dean’s Council, also spoke about her formative presence in his life.
Now a sustainability consultant in Los Angeles, Strongin described being at a crossroads in 2008, when he needed an internship, and contacted Schwartz.
He wasn’t expecting a reply to the email he sent to her office.
“She wrote back the next day,” he said.
They met, talked for well over an hour about what was important to Strongin, and she encouraged him to pursue public policy.
“Her advice to me was very clear: ‘Do not ever abandon the ideals and principles that have brought you to where you are today,’” he said.
Strongin accepted two part-time unpaid internships with local policy makers, and soon learned that he had been given the Bren School’s Naomi Schwartz Fellowship to help pay for classes.
One of the most moving moments of the event came as First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal struggled to contain his emotions as he recounted being hired by Schwartz after her first election to the Board of Supervisors, even though he had little experience at the time.
“Naomi took a chance on hiring a 26-year-old, very green young man, without the standard portfolio or typical credentials,” he said. “She did this many times and for so many individuals.”
Carbajal went on to become Schwartz’s chief of staff and worked with her for the entire 12 years she served on the board. He then won the seat himself after she retired.
He recalled telling Schwartz about growing up as a child in Mexico, and how his late mother would place fruit and a small gift by his shoes on Christmas Eve.
“While it was a simple and small thing, I shared with Naomi that it created such a happy memory for me,” he said through tears. “Every Christmas thereafter I would receive a box of fruit and a gift from Naomi.”
Carbajal also dwelt on Schwartz’s political legacy, noting that she worked diligently to diffuse the longstanding political divide between the South Coast and the North County — so much so that North County Supervisor Joe Centeno would lead the charge to name a downtown county building after Schwartz.
“I love and miss you, Boss,” Carbajal said in closing.