Jean Watt remembered as grassroots activist, councilwoman and friend
Few can imagine today’s Newport Beach without Jean Watt.
“We used to joke that Jean was our queen. Whatever she wanted you to do, you couldn’t say no to Jean,” said Susan Skinner, herself a community activist and the daughter of Nancy Skinner, who ran Watt’s 1988 campaign for the Newport Beach City Council and was one of Watt’s closest friends.
“If she asked you, ‘Would you be the captain for this neighborhood?’ The only answer was yes,” Susan Skinner recalled.
Watt died Sunday at her Newport Beach home at the age of 96.
In 1974, she was one of two founding members of Stop Polluting Our Newport, now known as Still Protecting Our Newport and by its original acronym. She was also a co-founder of the Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks and is credited with spearheading the 1985 settlement agreement between the county of Orange, the city of Newport Beach and the Airport Working Group, which, among other items, required John Wayne Airport to change its behaviors around noise and establish an annual passenger cap.
She was also the founder for the Friends of the Newport Beach Animal Shelter, a member of the City Council from 1988 to 1996 and, most recently, a founding member of the fledgling Newport Beach Housing Trust, which hopes to help facilitate affordable housing in the city in such a way that is a good fit for the community.
Watt was born and raised in Pasadena but spent her summers in and around Newport Beach. She and her husband, James, would later move full time to the city in 1953, where she’s been ever since. Her husband died in 1992.
Activist and SPON member Nancy Scarbrough said she’s learned more and more about Watt’s impact since her death as more articles have been published about her many contributions. She and Watt became acquainted about five or six years ago.
Scarbrough and both Skinners noted what they described as Watt’s unique ability to bring people together to work on the same cause, a skill that Scarbrough said people called “Watting.”
“You didn’t know you were going to be walking into a meeting and then coming out of it with signs and a new position, but you’d be happy about it,” Scarbrough said on Thursday. “She wasn’t forcing people to do things they didn’t want to … and she did it in a really gentle way. It wasn’t aggressive at all. It was just something in her demeanor that made it a very pleasant experience. She was just asking.”
One of Watt’s greatest skills, Scarbrough said, was her ability to sit down in a room full of people with opposing viewpoints on a topic and, after listening, manage to provide an organized, thoughtful and achievable plan that no one else in the room knew could exist.
Nancy Skinner said Watt had excellent organizational skills and knew what it was that she wanted to accomplish.
“I’ve known Jean for probably 60 years and she’s one of my best friends all these years,” Nancy said. “Honestly, she did her homework. She’d always research and study things, and she’d never come to anything unprepared.”
Councilman Erik Weigand said he met Watt when he was still serving on the Planning Commission. He grew up in Newport Beach, and had heard about Watt through her efforts with the Newport Beach Animal Shelter. He described her loss as one for the entire city. Weigand said he visited her a few months ago to talk about the Newport Beach Housing Trust and hear her ideas.
“She had some great ideas and the fact that ... we’re sitting at her dining room table and her, knowing that she’s in her 90s, is pretty neat. That’s a pretty cool thing to have somebody that you could talk to in those terms, and she was always just so nice and respectful, and even though you disagreed with her on certain things — and there were things I disagreed with her on — you could walk through it and you could approach her and there wasn’t animosity,” Weigand said.
He said Watt had a talent for grassroots activism, and he appreciated her ability to do the work but never seemed to want to take credit for any of it.
Scarbrough said Watt had a great love for the Girl Scouts of the USA, jigsaw puzzles and “Jeopardy!” When she last saw Watt on the Thursday before her death, the two had planned to have lunch together the following Wednesday. When Scarbrough suggested meeting up on Monday, she said Watt batted away the suggestion, saying that she had a bridge game to play.
“She never really slowed down,” Scarbrough said.
There are no immediate plans for a memorial service or celebration of life, but Weigand said that the next Newport Beach City Council meeting on April 25 will be adjourned in Watt’s memory.
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