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Santa Barbara’s Selma Rubin Dies of Cancer at 96, Leaving Lasting Legacy of Local Activism

City officials, fellow activists and others remember her for her distinctive fashion, her passion and her efforts on behalf of environmental protection

After decades of service in Santa Barbara’s environmental and social justice circles, local activist Selma Rubin died Thursday night from cancer, leaving behind a long-running legacy of involvement. She was 96.

Selma Rubin
Selma Rubin (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)

Donning a hat from her seemingly endless collection and her ever-present big, blue-rimmed glasses, Rubin was a distinctive — and perennial — presence at government gatherings.

“With her hats, I always thought fondly of her as Santa Barbara’s Bella Abzug,” said Mayor Helene Schneider, who had known Rubin for almost 20 years.

Schneider commended Rubin’s advocacy of social justice, economic equity, environmental protection and women’s rights, and said she will adjourn Tuesday’s City Council meeting in her honor.

“Selma Rubin will be sorely missed but never forgotten,” Schneider said.

When writer Steve Crandell profiled Rubin for Noozhawk in 2008, she had served on 42 nonprofit boards since arriving in Santa Barbara in 1964.

In the 1960s, Rubin was an advocate for farmworker rights and was involved with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Perhaps her greatest legacy will be that of environmental protection on the South Coast. She helped create the organization Get Oil Out after the 1969 oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel, and was involved in the founding of the first Earth Day in Santa Barbara.

Other community environmental stalwarts, such as the Community Environmental Council and the Environmental Defense Center, were also started with Rubin’s help.

The EDC issued a statement Friday remembering Rubin.

“Selma relished the many community victories over the years — saving El Capitan as well as many other special places, including Ellwood, the Carpinteria Bluffs and Douglas Family Preserve,” the statement said. “She reminded us to always have integrity and speak the truth. She taught us not to give up and to be guided by our principles. She was, and will continue to be, an inspiration to all of us.”

Noozhawk interviewed Rubin in 2009 for a story that drew parallels between the Great Depression and the current recession from Santa Barbara residents who had lived through both.

“We were conscious of living under careful, careful circumstances,” she recalled.

That conscientiousness was apparent in many areas of her life, especially environmental stewardship.

Born in 1915 to Russian-born immigrant parents, Rubin recalled her father giving her these words of wisdom: “Live your life so that when you die, people will remember you as having done something good.”

That legacy was certainly clear Friday on her Facebook page, where dozens of people thanked her for the life she lived.

Local attorney Emily Allen was one of those posters, and said she knew Rubin first because her father served on nonprofit boards with her. She said she got to know Rubin even better when she joined the SBCAN board.

“One of my favorite parts of board meetings was the drive from Santa Barbara to Solvang with Selma,” Allen said. “She had plenty of stories to tell and plenty of advice. I’ll miss her greatly.”

Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, issued a statement about Rubin’s passing, saying Santa Barbara had lost one of its true heroes.

“Selma was a shining example of a woman with the enthusiasm and passion to excel and the vision to turn her dreams into reality,” Capps said. “Her tireless efforts have made our community a better place to live, work and raise a family.”

She said Rubin’s lifetime of service, fighting offshore drilling, preserving the Gaviota coast and encouraging women to become involved in government, will live on for generations.

“I will deeply miss her friendship, her wisdom and her enthusiasm for life,” Capps said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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