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Anne Halsted, tireless San Francisco volunteer and committee employee, dies at 78

Anne Halsted’s 50 years in San Francisco began in a spectacularly inconspicuous way: They organized an action to rededicate a sewage treatment plant in their neighborhood. It worked.

After that success, she went for a higher goal by creating the Telegraph Hill Historic District to preserve the 19th century housing stock. It wasn’t long before every conservation and citizenship commission in San Francisco, the Bay Area, and all of California was calling.

Her awards included being named first woman on the San Francisco Port Commission and vice chair of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission in planning and running the 2013 America’s Cup, the largest event ever held in the Bay.

“You won’t find many people more dedicated to public service than Anne Halsted,” said US Senator Dianne Feinstein. “She’s served on so many nonprofit boards, planning groups, and fundraisers that it’s hard to know where she found the time and energy.”

Halsted continued even after lymphomas and incessant chemotherapy treatments had depleted her tremendous energy. At her home near Coit Tower, so many agendas, reports, and legal documents for government and nonprofit meetings were arriving in packages that she had to add a second mailbox. She planned to attend a Metropolitan Transportation Commission committee meeting despite learning that chemotherapy had stopped working and an experimental drug study had failed. Halsted died on March 13 at her weekend home in Glen Ellen. She was 78 years old.

Everything she did was unpaid and often unnoticed, including her work for and the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), which she served continuously since 1982, including two terms as president. The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency Commission, People for Open Space, the San Francisco Open Space Advisory Board, the Greenbelt Alliance, Friends of the Urban Forest – the list goes on for 20 organizations, many of which they looked after during their full-time jobs at a leasing agency.

“Anne is an example to all of us of how to live a life dedicated to improving your community and the lives of those around you,” Feinstein said via email.

Anne Watson Halsted was born on November 21, 1942 in Charleston, West Virginia. Her father was in the coal equipment business. She graduated from Duke University in 1964 with a degree in political science and came to San Francisco in 1969, where she accepted a position in the human resources department at United States Leasing International.

Living alone in an apartment in Nob Hill for the first time, Halsted had a revelation that prompted her to separate her legacy from coal mining and dedicate her life to public service for women, minorities, and the environment in San Francisco and the wider Bay Area.

“Anne was wealthy and had the opportunity to pursue any lifestyle she wanted,” said longtime friend Ken Maley.

In 1978 Halsted bought a simple 1870s Italian house on Montgomery Street, just down the hill from old Speedy’s Market on Union Street. Her home office overlooked Coit Tower and Alta Street, one of the original apartment blocks in San Francisco. After witnessing the destruction of several of these charming little Victorians in the name of development, Halsted decided to do whatever he could to prevent it from happening.

“As she moved on, her interest in historical preservation expanded from just Telegraph Hill to the entire city,” said Maley, who lives around the corner. “Anne could be hard love, but love prevailed.”

After 10 years of single life, Halsted Wells met Whitney, a scientist with Raychem Corp. and a trustee of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. He moved into their house where they always stayed.

In 1990 Halsted retired after 20 years with US Leasing to fill her schedule with additional boards and committees. Her home office afterwards was full of reports and agendas being dragged up the hill on foot by Ed, the neighborhood postman.

“I would ask Wells, where is Anne?” Maley said and he said, “She’s on her appointments.” To get there, she took public transit and took the tiny 39-Coit bus to connect to the 30 Stockton or 45 Union overhead lines. If her appointment was in the East Bay, where the MTC is headquartered, she would take BART.

When she wasn’t on dates, she was on the court as a member of the San Francisco Tennis Club South of Market. She would take the bus there too. If she had no other exercise to burn off energy, she would walk up the hill to Pioneer Park, the plaza that surrounds Coit Tower.

On one of her walks she noticed that the stairs to the park on the west side were never completed when the tower was built in the early 1930s. So Halsted formed Friends of Pioneer Park to quit the job. It was completed in 2003 and now the Friends are funding tree maintenance and other improvements for visitors.

After many years of non-stop meetings and meetings, Halsted and Whitney bought modest weekend property in Glen Ellen so she could grow vegetables and roses. She did the hard work herself.

“She would be out there pulling weeds,” said Maley. “She grew cherry tomatoes, pumpkin, zucchini and beets. She hated wasting things so everyone who visited went home with a bag of products. “

In the summer of 2018, Halsted was visited by the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley to tell the story of her volunteer life for the Bancroft Oral History Project. It took her 13 hours to go through it all. The recording will be made available to the public shortly.

“Anne Halsted was a force to be reckoned with,” said Shanna Farrell, who interviewed Halsted in 2019 while undergoing treatment. “To boot, she was especially nice and always made me feel welcome.”

In addition to her husband, a niece, Katy Lonergan from San Francisco, and a nephew, Jeff Lonergan from Seattle, Halsted survive. Services are suspended due to the pandemic.

Donations can be made to Friends of Pioneer Park, San Francisco Parks Alliance, 1074 Folsom St., San Francisco, CA 94103.

Sam Whiting is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: swhiting@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @samwhitingsf

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