The Unofficial Mayor of San Martin
Remembering Sylvia Hamilton
1942 ~ 2013
by Connie Ludewig
Sylvia Hamilton was a true country girl, from her childhood in Texas to her adult life in San Martin, California. Whenever she spoke publicly, she would open by saying, “I'm just a l’il ole retired math teacher.” In reality she was a veteran educator and so much more. Everyone knew her as an intelligent and spunky woman, devoted mother, loyal friend and avid community leader.
She also knew tragedy. Her father served overseas in WWII and was captured and tortured, never to return home. She lost both her son Rich and daughter Julie to fatal auto accidents. After her son’s passing, she retired from a long teaching career at Martin Murphy School. With support from lifelong friends, she found her way through grief and depression by channeling her energy to help others.
To honor the memory of her children, Sylvia established a scholarship fund at Live Oak High School. Then she turned her attention to community organizing and advocacy for San Martin. Sylvia co-founded the San Martin Neighborhood Alliance (SMNA) in 2000 and also served as its President.
In 2003, the news broke about perchlorate contamination in residential wells. Sylvia took the lead to inform and calm a community facing health threats and loss of property values. She served as Chair of the Perchlorate Citizens Advisory Group and worked collaboratively with the Central Coast Regional Water Board, Morgan Hill and Gilroy city officials, Valley Water, and local residents.
Sylvia was acknowledged by former Morgan Hill Mayor Dennis Kennedy and others for her leadership in calling Olin Corporation to task to clean up decades of perchlorate contamination of the South Valley groundwater basin caused by its road flare manufacturing operation in Morgan Hill. Thanks in large measure to Sylvia’s advocacy, residents received alternative water supplies and cleanup of the perchlorate contamination proceeded.
“I met Sylvia as a volunteer with the Perchlorate Community Advisory Group. She made sure we had the information we needed to understand what happened to poison well water in South Morgan Hill and San Martin. Inspired by her boundless energy and dynamic personality, we soon had Olin Corporation confessing their responsibility. The rest is history. Her courage and concern for others is something I will never forget.” —Swanee Edwards, Political and Community Activist
Sylvia continued to serve her community on other issues, always focused on the cause, never on personal recognition. Impressed by her dedication and results, locals referred to her affectionately as San Martin’s unofficial Mayor.
In 2004, former Assemblyman (now State Senator) John Laird nominated her as Woman of the Year. In his words: "Sylvia Hamilton’s inspiring combination of hope and tenacity has earned her the admiration and respect of community members and leaders from San Martin to the state capital.”
Having been a San Martin resident for more than 30 years, Sylvia knew what it took for a small town to have a voice in big county issues. She brought awareness to the needs of our rural agricultural community and was a steady source of strength, whether it involved SMNA incorporation efforts, a widow who needed help moving, or an ailing neighbor with cancer who needed some companionship. In 2012, she was named Member of the Year by SMNA.
Sylvia’s energy and attention to detail made her “a force of nature” and an important contributor to years of successful fundraisers from the Spaghetti Socials at the Lions Club to the annual Happy Days Car Show at Ludewig Ranch. Funds went to support worthy local causes. She also knew how to have fun. A talented country western dancer, she won the Country Dance World Championship in 2003.
After being diagnosed with emphysema, Sylvia decided to slow down and turn over the reins to others. She still frequented the San Martin Café to meet with friends and offer guidance to a new generation of SMNA members, but she also took time to nurture her creative side. She made succulent planters and gave them to friends, and tended her garden, especially the Elephant Ear plant that had flourished since her son Rich planted it beneath her kitchen window years earlier.
As SMNA continues its mission to support positive controlled growth, promote neighborhood identity and vitality, and ensure an influential voice with local governing entities, Sylvia’s legacy lives on.
Sylvia rallied her neighbors to form a coalition that eventually became the San Martin Neighborhood Alliance. . .and gave us all courage to stand up for what we believed was right. She would never argue or lose her cool, but used logic, heart and fearlessness to work with those who stood against San Martin. It's my hope that Sylvia's spirit resides over San Martin and the fight will continue to remain rural and agricultural." --Donna Brodsky, Author, "San Martin: Then and Now"
When Sylvia passed away in 2013, friends and neighbors dedicated a family picnic area just inside the entrance to Harvey Bear County Park in her memory. The next time you visit the park, I hope you’ll take a moment to stop at the ground marker and pay your respects to Sylvia Hamilton.