By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
Carolyn Wood, described by Laguna Beach environmentalists as the “brain trust” of the Laguna Canyon Conservancy, died Nov. 1 at 90 years old.
A petite, soft-spoken woman, Wood lived a colorful life as a florist, TV news broadcaster, researcher, and activist. But it was her impeccable memory and vast archive of documents chronicling Laguna Beach and Orange County history that often gave public officials pause.
“Carolyn Wood was able to hold politicians to their word and kept track of their words. You could say she was a politician’s nightmare because she had such detailed records,” said Harry Huggins, president of the Laguna Canyon Conservancy.
Wood was born Jan. 5, 1929. She grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from Manual Arts High School. She then attended Whittier College, where she met her husband Andrew Wood, Jr. while registering for classes. They married on June 3, 1950.
Both worked as teachers for several years but decided to start their own flower business, Carands Flowers, on Whittier Boulevard. During this time their children, Steve, Becky, and Robert, were born. They sold the flower shop in 1968 and two years later moved to their Temple Hills Drive home in Laguna Beach, according to the Saddleback Valley News.
In 1970, Wood started her 22-year-career with Channel 6 at Leisure World, which became known as Laguna Woods Village, which had the world’s largest closed circuit television station of its time. She started as a researcher and board of directors liaison and worked her way up to become a station coordinator.
Wood co-founded the Laguna Canyon Conservancy to fight against the widening of lower Laguna Canyon Road and successfully convinced the California Coastal Commission to deny a Caltrans project that would have removed the oceanside hill at Big Bend.
In addition to her years as president of the Conservancy, Wood served on the city’s Parking, Traffic, and Circulation Committee, Laguna Canyon Foundation, Top of the World Association, and Friends of Harbors Beaches & Park.
Wood was the chief organizer of the 1989 Walk in the Canyon that rallied 7,500 protesters to the proposed site of a sprawling Irvine Co. housing development at Sycamore Flats, said Gene Felder, treasurer of the Laguna Beach Canyon Conservancy. Former mayor Lida Lenney, Village Laguna, the Laguna Greenbelt and the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce cast their support for the Walk.
“She brought the Irvine Co. to their negotiating knees,” Felder said.
As a result of public outcry marshaled by Wood, the Irvine Co. abandoned the 3,200-house development plan and agreed to sell their property rights for what is now called the Jim Dilley Preserve to Laguna Beach.
Newport Beach environmentalist Jean Watt wrote in an email that Wood was one of the major leaders in Orange County’s “strong little army of environmentalists” for at least 60 years. Both women were among the 10 volunteers who co-founded Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks in the wake of the county’s bankruptcy and reorganization.
“Even though we were all busy in our own cities, it had to be done,” Watt wrote. “Carolyn was an original founder and secretary all the while continuing to lead the Laguna Canyon Conservancy. She will be sorely missed but leaves a strong legacy for all of us to follow.”
Wood also worked to stop development extending Alta Laguna Boulevard down to Canyon Acres and instead establish the area as city-owned open space. In appreciation of that effort, the knoll on the property—the highest point in the city—now bears her name.
Councilmember Toni Iseman said it’s one of only two exceptions to city policy against naming landmarks after someone who is alive. The other exception is Ken Frank Park.
The entryway, living room, and dining room of Wood’s home was packed with file cabinets full of documents on civic matters, Iseman said. She even recorded city meetings on VHS tape, a precursor to Laguna Beach’s current live stream system.
“She had absolute total recall,” Iseman said. “No one could pull anything on her.”
During her mayoral term in 2003, Iseman proclaimed June 6 as Carolyn Wood Day after Wood was named Woman of the Year by the Laguna Beach Woman’s Club.
The Laguna Canyon Conservancy is conveying Wood’s archives to UC Irvine, where they will be scanned and made available to the public on its website, Huggins said.
Iseman said it’s hard to imagine what Laguna Beach would be like without Wood’s persistence and doggedness in conserving the area’s natural beauty over more than three decades.
“She didn’t get angry,” Iseman said. “She just let people know what is what.”
Andrew Wood, known by friends as both “Andy” and “Jack,” died on July 6, 2018, according to the Orange County Register.
Wood is survived by her sister Alma Roberts and children Steve, Becky and Robert; grandchildren, Crystal, April and Andrew; and great-grandchildren, Reid and Mae.
“Our family is grateful for the opportunities Carolyn has had to work with the community of Laguna Beach to improve life for its residents and to protect the environment of the area,” said her sister, Alma. “Her relationships with those whom she worked with were cherished by her. Saving the Canyon and maintaining the Village atmosphere of Laguna Beach was the focus for her life these past three decades. We are grateful that she could join her friends one last time at the birthday party planned for her 90th, last January. Plans for a celebration of her life are pending.”