Joan Seiwald, last of the S.F. Gum Tree Girls, dies at 91

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The uncrowned queen of last summer’s Glen Park Gum Tree Girls Festival was Joan Seiwald, the last survivor of the three women credited with saving San Francisco’s wild and scenic Glen Canyon Park from being ravaged by one in the 1960s to be crossed the highway.

Seiwald, then 90 and frail, was escorted to the stage on the arm by San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson and treated like a living legend.

The festival was a once in a lifetime event and the final curtain call for the Gum Tree Girls. Seiwald died May 11 at home hospice, a block from the entrance to Glen Canyon Park. She suffered from dementia and heart failure, her daughter Lisa Seiwald said. She was 91.

“Joan loved Glen Park and was very open about issues that she felt threatened the community and the canyon, which is an amazing natural resource in central San Francisco,” said Evelyn Rose, founder of the Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project and the Organizer of the Gum Tree Girls Festival. “With her passing, a significant piece of Glen Park history is now behind us.”

Seiwald became a piece of history by accident.

Raising five children living in a two bedroom house, Seiwald attended the Glen Park playground most evenings where the children could burn off unused energy. However, that routine was jeopardized when another mom, Zoanne Nordstrom, mentioned that she had met a surveyor at the park who told her he was taking measurements for “the freeway.”

The 70-acre gorge was thought to be bisected by a proposed viaduct to connect the Southern Freeway (later Interstate 280) to the Golden Gate Bridge. That route would have gone right through the 10-acre playground where the moms had gathered.

Seiwald, Nordstrom, and Geri Arkush, all living less than 400 feet from each other, started a movement in 1965 to stop the Circumferential Expressway.

“Mom was a letter writer,” Lisa Seiwald said. “She could craft a scathing letter to the editor that would get the attention of the rest of the community.” She used The Chronicle, The Examiner, The Progress, and every other editor of letters to the editor to argue that government officials were taking advantage of Glen Park, which classified them as “a bucolic backlog,” as she liked to put it. At a community meeting, a frustrated city engineer dubbed the three women “the Gum Tree Girls,” in reference to the gum trees for which the Glen Park area was known. The nickname was meant to be an insult, but they adopted it as a brand. “I can imagine Mom writing ‘Gum Tree Girl’ after her name on her letters,” said Lisa Seiwald.

The Gum Tree Girls began to plead their case before the board of directors. To achieve the effect, they also brought the 13 Gum Tree Children to muster together. That pushed them higher and higher on the agenda, said Rose, who conducted an extensive oral history interview with Seiwald and Nordstrom in 2016.

Eventually, other neighborhoods that would be divided by the proposed freeway joined the protest, and both George Moscone and Willie Brown took up the cause. The Circumferential Expressway project was quietly withdrawn in 1970 before it even had a chance to earn a more succinct name. All that was left of it was the lore of the Gum Tree Girls.

“People still come up to me and thank me for them,” Lisa Seiwald said. “It really means a lot to the people who use Glen Canyon Park today.”

Joan Mary Walter was born and raised on August 16, 1931 in St. Louis, Missouri. She attended Catholic schools and St. Louis University. After graduating in Spanish in 1953, she began working as a secretary in the chemistry department. There she met Robert Seiwald, a graduate student. They married in 1956 and a year later moved to San Francisco, where Seiwald had been appointed to the University of San Francisco’s science department.

In 1960, the Seiwalds paid $18,500 for their two-story Mediterranean-style home in Glen Park, just south of Twin Peaks and east of Mount Davidson.

“Glen Park has been known for its activism over the years,” said Rose, who has researched the precinct’s history. “Throughout the 20th century, the moxie exhibited by Glen Park’s early suffragists was channeled through Joan and the Gum Tree Girls as they did their thing during the Freeway riot.”

In the early 1970’s, when her youngest child, Sally, was starting kindergarten, Seiwald enrolled at USF to earn her qualifications as a teacher and librarian. She got a break from classes because her husband was a professor of organic chemistry. After graduating, Seiwald worked as a librarian and stand-in in 1971, and taught social studies and Spanish for 30 years. She spent her longest time at Presidio Middle School in the Richmond District.

Along the way, the Seiwalds collected rental properties in Glen Park, Mission, Lower Haight, and Daly City.

She often developed cordial relationships with her tenants. After Nora Dowley moved into a semi-detached house in Glen Park owned by the Seiwalds in 1994, they became friends.

“Joan integrated me into the fabric of the neighborhood,” Dowley said. When COVID-19 locked down the neighborhood YMCA, Seiwald organized a training program at Glen Park. “Whenever she encountered an obstacle, she would find a way around it,” Dowley said.

Seiwald retired from the school district in 2002 at the age of 70 to pursue her two main passions – watching baseball on TV and drinking a pint while doing it. The Seiwalds also traveled the world and drank a glass of beer along the way.

When asked how to pronounce her last name, she demonstrated German pronunciation: “‘Sei’ rhymes with Budweiser.”

Sometimes Dowley would come to her landlord’s house to sit by the picture window that overlooked a retaining wall and stairway at the end of Burnside Avenue. A committee was formed between 2021 and 2022 to raise $40,000 and commission a mural for the retaining wall. Seiwald could sit by her window and watch the muralist depict the natural and human history of Glen Park with the Gum Tree Girls at the top of the wall.

“They are the sentinels who still watch over us and keep vigil,” said Renee Berger, project leader.

The mural was unveiled last September, a few months after the Gum Tree Girls Festival. Seiwald went to the mic for a quick thank you to everyone and her 97-year-old husband who stood by her. It was her last public appearance.

“She kept the neighborhood alive,” said Dowley, who was there. “Without Joan, Glen Park as we know it would not exist.”

Reach Sam Whiting: swhiting@sfchronicle.com

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