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Betty Wilson; Santa Fe Springs Ex-Mayor


Betty Wilson, the first woman mayor of any city in Los Angeles County, key founder of Santa Fe Springs, where she served as a councilwoman for four decades, and a nationally influential civic leader, has died. She was 85.

Wilson, who was given the title councilwoman emeritus of her city of about 16,000 residents when she retired three years ago, died Tuesday in Santa Fe Springs.

"I always felt that if I lived in a community, I'd like to do what I could to better it," Wilson told The Times in 1992 after her 10th successful election. Brought up in Danville, Ill., Wilson and her late husband, Sterling, moved to Southern California in 1949 and soon settled in the area that, with her help, would become Santa Fe Springs in 1957.

She learned city politics in the area's biggest city--Los Angeles itself--serving as a key aide to former Los Angeles City Councilmen L.E. Timberlake and later to Donald D. Lorenzen. After she retired in 1976, Wilson ran for statewide office as Democratic candidate for state Senate in her 33rd District. But she was defeated by the widely known Republican Assemblyman William Campbell of Whittier, and never again sought office outside the city she helped establish.

"When I failed I thought, 'Well, I'm happy where I am,' " she said in 1992. "I thought I could do more good here in Santa Fe Springs than I could in a higher office anyway."

As the mother of two, Wilson in the 1950s had become active in the community through the Parent-Teachers Assn., Boy Scouts and other organizations. When local oil industries wanted to form a city to sidestep control by county planners, she organized residents to make of it a city where they wanted to live.

"We wanted to develop the city with enough industry to develop a tax base to give citizens what they need," she told The Times.

The plan was so successful that tax revenues provide free child care, sports facilities at schools, two public swimming pools and a gymnasium, as well as the more common amenities such as city parks, library and high-tech Fire Department. (Wilson's son, Robert, has served as fire chief for many years.)

When Santa Fe Springs was incorporated as a city, Wilson was elected to its first City Council and chosen its first mayor. Defeated for reelection in 1958, she was out of office only two years before establishing her nearly four-decade tenure on the council. She was named to the largely ceremonial position of mayor more than a dozen times.

A role model for other female politicians, Wilson had rough going as the county's first woman mayor nearly half a century ago. When she went to her first lunch with other county mayors, she recalled, "They started telling dirty jokes to make sure I didn't come again."

Although Wilson's pro-development policy provided myriad free services, she made enemies.

"I came out of one meeting," she recalled, describing her efforts to win approval for the Flood Ranch redevelopment project in 1964, "and there was a guy with a rifle pointed at me. He was just trying to scare me."

She dismissed critics who complained that industry created air pollution by saying: "Once in a while you get a whiff. But it's no worse here than anywhere else. Once you get in this basin there are no boundaries."

Wilson served on the county task force that helped establish the Los Angeles County Children's Services Department, was president of the Los Angeles County Division of the League of California Cities and served two decades on the executive committee of the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority. She also served on the county Emergency Medical Services Commission, which worked with paramedics, and on the Comprehensive Transportation Planning Committee of the Southern California Assn. of Governments.

Nationally, she served on the U.S. Conference of Mayors standing committee on health, education, employment and human services.

First tapped in the 1950s by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Wilson worked to establish the nation's Sister Cities program. She traveled to the former Soviet Union in an attempt to pair Russian cities with American ones and was a three-term president of Sister Cities International and a longtime member of its executive committee. Her work earned her the Dwight D. Eisenhower Award for furthering international understanding and the organization's Peace Dollar award.

A funeral service is scheduled Friday at 10 a.m. in the Florence Avenue Foursquare Church, 11457 E. Florence Ave., Santa Fe Springs, Calif.

Memorial donations can be made to the Betty Wilson Santa Fe Springs Sister City Youth Exchange Fund and sent to Santa Fe Springs City Hall, 11710 E. Telegraph Road, Santa Fe Springs, CA 90670.

In addition to her son, Wilson is survived by her daughter, Cheryl Wilson, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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