Becky Luening remembers first getting to know fellow activist Sherry Conable in early 1990, when the two were planning an Earth Day celebration together.
They were going to be throwing a massive party at San Lorenzo Park, and it was stressing Luening out at the time. As the group ran through its daunting to-do list at Conable’s home, there was a quick moment Luening can’t forget, when Conable chuckled and winked.
“As serious as the issues were, she could retain a sense of humor,” says Luening, who now lives in Portland, but still visits Santa Cruz and saw Conable this past fall at an Armistice Day event.
Although most details of the 1990 meeting escape her now, the quick moment made a strong impression on Luening, who was still an inexperienced activist at the time.
“For me, taking on any sort of task always seemed like a big weight on my shoulders,” she recalls. “Sherry was a good communicator with real integrity. She wouldn’t take anything on unless she knew that she could follow through.”
Those who knew her tireless advocacy for veterans, the homeless and world peace are reflecting on Conable’s life after news broke that she was found dead last Monday.
Astrologer Rico Baker and his wife Claire Joy believe they may have been the last people to talk to Conable on Sunday evening, when they chatted with her over the phone.
“She was saying she felt she was in a really bad place,” says Baker. “We talked to her for as long as possible. We tried to leave on a positive note, which was that we loved her.”
Friends are remembering Conable as honest, empathetic and supportive—not to mention a clear, eloquent and honest communicator.
Conable’s body was found on the morning of Monday, Feb. 4 on Cowell Beach. Lt. Warren Barry says the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) hasn’t begun a criminal investigation, because it hasn’t seen any signs of foul play. Santa Cruz County’s coroner office is currently investigating the cause of Conable’s death. (Later in the week, on Friday morning, a body was found on Manresa Beach in Aptos. The cause of that death is also under investigation.)
Conable is survived by two sons, Matt and Nate, as well as Matt’s partner Charlie, Nate’s wife Melissa, and four grandkids, Tucker, Kat, Lily, and James. “She was a good mom,” says Matt, 49, a singer/songwriter who lives in Santa Cruz and runs a high-end manufacturer of men’s gifts and jewelry. “And she was kind, and she was caring. And she gave of herself to others without restraint.”
Over the last three decades, the ripples of Conable’s activism stretched far beyond Santa Cruz. In the 1980s, she travelled to Central America for one month as part of the Witness for Peace Delegation. She then began to work on veterans’ issues, which, in turn, led her to work as a homeless advocate, because she saw that many veterans were living on the streets. She worked on LGBTQ issues, police oversight efforts and anti-war protests. She sang with local protest group the Raging Grannies and served as a master of ceremonies for a candlelit vigil for Sean Arlt, who was shot by SCPD officers in 2016.
Conable is pictured on the cover of the book Endurance Activism: Carrying the Torch, Turning Up the Heat by Santa Cruz’s Paula Leroy. Last year, the local chapter of the ACLU bestowed Conable with a Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by her friend Abbi Samuels, who calls her, “an icon to Santa Cruz.”
Samuels has fond memories of Conable standing out on Ocean Street picketing for peace on the Fourth of July, with signs displaying peace symbols. Many times, Samuels joined her friend and borrowed one of Conable’s signs, usually Samuels’ favorite, which read, “Peace Begins with Us.” It featured a white peace symbol and red flowers on the sides.
Samuels grew close with Conable when the two worked together to help launch Santa Cruz Resistance Against Militarization (SCRAM) in 2015, with the aim of preventing Santa Cruz from acquiring a BearCat armored vehicle with a government grant. Although the City Council ultimately approved the vehicle’s acquisition, it also voted to place limitations on its use and prohibited it from appearing at nonviolent protests. Throughout that process, Samuels and Conable had several meetings with councilmembers. In conversation, Conable would always stay true to her beliefs without getting defensive, Samuels remembers.
Matt Conable remembers his mom as not just an activist, but also as a great dancer and a rugged outdoorswoman. As close as he was to his mother, he is still learning about what her passions meant to others.
“She was kind. She was compassionate. She was smart as a whip, and she very much felt the pulse of the planet in the ways that I never did and in away that I don’t know anyone else who could,” he says. “And that was a blessing and a curse. She felt cruelty and she felt suffering. That fueled her activism.”
A celebration of Sherry Conable will be held at Peace United Church of Christ, located at 900 High St. on Friday, March 8, in the late afternoon or evening.