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Thousand Oaks’ 1st Lady of Politics

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It has been 28 years since a developer’s broken promise ignited her interest in city government, 19 since she became this city’s first woman mayor and more than a decade since she quietly bowed out of elective office.

But at 59, Frances K. Prince remains a behind-the-scenes force in the community she nurtured through its adolescence.

“When I left the City Council, I left cold turkey. But I did not drop out of the city,” said Prince, the first of a series of savvy, well-educated local women who married, raised families and usually did not work professionally until after they were elected to the City Council.

For a long period, 1969 to 1984, probably no one had more impact than Prince on the public life of Thousand Oaks. And since her departure, admirers say she has continued her good deeds.

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“The limelight passed, but she’s still very knitted into the fabric of our community,” said Lynn Engelbert, Prince’s colleague at Conejo Valley Senior Concerns, a nonprofit agency that cares for the frail elderly.

“She’s out there, but she’s not obtrusive,” City Manager Grant Brimhall said. “She really knows what’s going on in this community, and she doesn’t need to be in control to contribute. She’s one of the finest public policymakers I’ve ever seen. She’s about doing good.”

Prince was an understated force in the years-long campaign to construct the Civic Arts Plaza, finally approved in 1990 after a furious community debate.

And now as the $39,000-a-year executive director of Senior Concerns--having left a $100,000-a-year job with a large Los Angeles law firm in 1991--Prince guides a 20-employee agency that operates the county’s only day center for Alzheimer patients and directs programs that help about 2,400 senior citizens annually.

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Local officials credit her with playing a pivotal role in the 1992 construction of Senior Concerns’ Fitzgerald Center, a $750,000-building the agency received free from an apartment developer and the city.

She also is a director on boards that oversee the city library foundation, Cal Lutheran University, the local Chamber of Commerce and Los Robles Bank. And she is program chairwoman for the Westlake Village Rotary Club.

That Prince considers this a scaled-back schedule is a measure of her past activities.

“At this point, I think that’s enough,” she said.

Prince remembers precisely the day in 1969 that her career in public affairs began.

She and husband Harv, college sweethearts at San Diego State University, had moved from Riverside to Thousand Oaks with their three young children the year before. They had chosen the new Wildwood development, in part because of its parks, open space and sweeping vistas.

“They’d filmed ‘Spartacus’ right over there,” Harv said recently, the retired U.S. Gypsum international marketing director motioning toward a meadow beneath a striated sandstone ridge.

As Prince sat on a new brick wall she built herself, she recalled the scene nearly three decades ago, when she spotted pickets at her subdivision’s model homes. Buyers had been led to believe a 20-acre parcel would be a community park, she said, but the developer then decided to build hundreds of six-plex condominiums instead.

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The Princes helped found the Wildwood Homeowners Assn. on the spot, and the group subsequently filed a lawsuit bearing Frances Prince’s name against the William Lyon Co. A settlement left the acreage in soccer fields, tennis courts and playgrounds.

Elected president of the homeowners’ group, Prince was also appointed to a 100-member citizens’ committee that helped draft the city’s General Plan, which emphasized open space and was seen as visionary at the time. By 1972, she had been appointed to the city Planning Commission.

Struck by Prince’s environment-sensitive planning efforts, political activist Mike Hagopian recruited Prince to run for the City Council. In 1976 she was elected as the city’s first woman council member.

“She became one of the greats as far as city government is concerned,” said Hagopian, a documentary filmmaker who founded the local historical society. “And she stayed true to our original vision of the city.”

Indeed, Prince was the founding chairwoman of the local open space conservation agency in 1978, and she chaired the directors’ board of a regional state parks agency, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, from 1980 to 1984.

Meanwhile, as her son and two daughters grew up, Prince attended LaVerne University College of Law, graduating as valedictorian in 1980. She specialized for years in civil defense work, representing Los Angeles Unified School District, that city’s transit agency and the McDonald’s restaurant chain.

Prince has been followed onto the City Council by five other college-educated women who have covered similar paths from activism to public office--Madge Schaefer, Judy Lazar, Elois Zeanah, Jamie Zukowski and Linda Parks.

“We all had energy that was not consumed, and we all had an interest in local government,” Prince said. “With most of us, our children had reached a certain stage and we didn’t have full-time jobs and we had a lot of savvy about our community. This was the obvious outlet.”

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For Prince, educated to be a federal foreign service employee, local public office also fed a long-held desire to make a difference in the broader world.

“Most of us came along before the concept of having a career was as commonplace as it is today,” she said. “We wanted education, but we also wanted to be married and have children. As it was, I don’t think it could have worked out better if I had planned it.”


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