John Sutter spent more than six decades working for environmental causes in Oakland and the East Bay. Credit: Courtesy East Bay Regional Parks District

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For the last 32 years, you pretty much knew where John Sutter would be every Thursday morning. Starting at 7 a.m., he gathered with friends at the Garden Center in Lakeside Park for a meeting of the convivial Lake Merritt Breakfast Club. Dedicated to ensuring the vibrancy and health of Oakland’s downtown aquatic wildlife refuge and the park that surrounds it, this was the perfect place for a man who devoted most of his life to advocating for environmental stewardship and public access to open space. Each breakfast club meeting began with a hearty chorus of “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” which is a great way to start the day in Oakland.

Sutter served on the Oakland City Council from 1971 to 1982, as Alameda County Superior Court Judge from 1982 to 1996, and on the East Bay Regional Park District board from 1998 to 2018. He was a graduate of Oakland High School, Harvard, and Stanford Law School. Following military service, Sutter served as an Alameda County deputy district attorney. But no matter where he worked, he was constantly advocating for the environment and outdoors. In 1961, he worked to save Oakland’s Snow Park and helped found the group today known as Greenbelt Alliance, which concerns itself with the loss of open space to urban sprawl. 

Sutter’s resume is long and impressive, but so are the friendships and the alliances he built over his life.

The honorable Judge John Sutter passed away the week of May 10 at the age of 92, just seven months after a 22-acre regional shoreline park was dedicated in his honor, and just a few weeks after the death of Ellie, his wife of 65 years. Last weekend, at the Judge John Sutter Regional Shoreline, a project he proposed in 1967 for public recreation and access, there were bicyclists, walkers, runners and dog walkers, a sight he would no doubt have enjoyed. From an observation deck supported by pilings that once held up the original eastern span of the Bay Bridge, visitors can watch sailboats, wildlife, people fishing, all with a spectacular panoramic view of the bay. 

In October, at the dedication of the park he’d envisioned and shepherded for over half a century, the ever-humble Sutter had something so important to say that he repeated it twice: “I’d like to thank the guys and gals in hard hats that helped make this happen,” he said, honoring not just the political bigwigs, but also the people who actually provided the project’s labor. 

As some of his close friends and colleagues remembered him, that was Sutter: “minimal spectacle, maximal effect.”

What follows are remembrances of longtime Oakland activists and residents who knew him well. Their words have been edited for length and clarity.

Naomi Schiff, Coalition of Advocates for Lake Merritt

“I liked something John said when the Sierra Club gave him the David Brower Award in 2019: He said that he had been fortunate to live a long time—you have to live a long time, because it takes so many years to get these projects done. Minimal spectacle, maximal effect. I remember when the regional parks district made a video of John as he was retiring from the board. We were at Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline Park, and John kept changing his position, against the wishes of the videographer, who was striving for the best lighting. John finally said he didn’t want the Alameda shoreline—private houses with boat slips—as his backdrop, insisting that the background show the parkland. Minimal spectacle, maximal effect.”

Dick Spees, member of the Oakland City Council from 1979 to 1982

“Then-Mayor Lionel Wilson concluded that the Oakland Zoo, rated ‘the worst zoo in America’ by Parade Magazine, had to go. When Lionel was out of town, John and I arranged to get additional funding for the attraction, and it was voted through. Lionel didn’t speak to either of us for about six weeks. John was a very strong progressive, but very conservative on finances. He was a great friend and colleague, and we have lost a very great leader.”

Jerry Brown, former governor and mayor of Oakland from 1999 to 2007

“John was a good man and a tireless advocate for Oakland. After years of serving on the bench, he took up an activist’s life and fought for years to preserve the character and beauty of Oakland. He tangled with the powers that be—even me—but he stuck to his guns and the city and the whole East Bay is the better for it.”

John Sutter at a meeting of the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club wearing one of the group’s badges. Credit: Courtesy of Billy Wilkes

Michael Colbruno, port commissioner who served with Sutter on the Chabot Space and Science Center Board

“I can’t think of anyone in the history of Oakland who served in so many capacities. When John found out where I lived, he asked if I heard cars on the nearby I-580 freeway; I answered yes, but that it wasn’t that bad. ‘You sleep better at night without trucks, and that’s because of me,’ he delighted in saying, pointing out that he chaired the committee that prevented large trucks from operating on I-580 through the Oakland hills. I credit a lot of my advocacy for a cleaner, greener port to him. In his own quiet way, he stood so firmly and spoke with such moral authority—not from ego, but from experience.”

Marge Gibson Haskell, member of the Oakland City Council from 1979-1992

“When I was on the council there was a crazy issue—people wanted to run the intersection of highways 24 and 13 through Temescal Park—which would have killed the park. John, East Bay Regional Parks District board member Harlan Kessel  and I vowed that it would only happen over our dead bodies. We prevailed—big time—and we still have the park. Oh, and John was also the only person who could nit-pick the city budget better than me.”

Wilson Riles, Jr., member of the Oakland City Council from 1979-1992 

“John was one of the reasons I was able to be on the council—he even shared his campaign office with me; a great gift. At that time, there had been a real shift because of Black Panther Party Chairman Bobby Seale’s 1973 campaign for mayor. A lot more people of color registered to vote as liberal democrats, like John was. It wasn’t about personality with John. He was a policy wonk who stuck to what was right, and was kind of a mentor to me in a lot of ways. Back then, we used to say that there was a red phone on the desk of Mayor Lionel Wilson that went right through to William Knowland at the Tribune. Local politics was very much controlled by the business community, who saw John as an irritant rather than a threat, because at that time he was often the only vote against them.”  

Rena Rickles, founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus 

“John had a hard-on for anything green; anything green was sacred. About ten years ago, a dog park was proposed at Astro Park in the Grand Lake district—I was representing the pro-dog park group and John was against it. Passions were high and the City Council meeting to decide the issue was packed. After I spoke, he said, ‘Brilliant! I don’t agree with one word, but it was brilliant.’ That was John—he wasn’t going to ruin a friendship because we differed on an issue, but he was not going to back off because you were a friend. John was truly a renaissance man, and a very excellent attorney.”

C.J. Hirschfield

C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry, where she produced two regular series and ran San Francisco’s public access channel. She penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, wrote regularly for Oakland Local, and has contributed to KQED’s Perspectives series. She now writes for EatDrinkFilms and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.