This old beach town is a little more vulnerable today because Laurel Roennau, its smartest, fiercest and most eloquent defender. died early Thursday morning.
She had not been well for some time, and so she had not been able to appear at City Council meetings to protest the latest mindless diminution of the town she loved so ardently.
Every time, including the last time, I called her to see how she was faring, she was far more interested in hearing how the town was doing.
She was not opposed to change. Her life was an ode to change. Sh was opposed to stupidity.
Her last crusade was devoted to persuading City officials to adopt a new, more comprhensive traffic methodology that would have allowed us to control traffic rather than its controlling us. The City’s rebuff was inexplicable, costly, and stupid.
Several years ago, my colleague Clara Sturak wrote a profile of this extraordinary woman and exemplary citizen. t. Herewith, an excerpt.
“…Laurel Roennau — tall, strong, and a little imposing, despite her two recent hip replacements…
“ Roennau lives in Ocean Park, has for many years, and is a member of the Ocean Park Community Organization (OPCO). Since she retired in the late eighties, she has been a community activist of the best kind – smart, thoughtful, informed and opinionated. A quick internet search under her name pulls up not only “Notable 20th Century Scientists,” but about a half-dozen appearances in the minutes of Santa Monica City Council meetings.
But let me back up. Laurel Roennau began life in the San Francisco Bay Area, went to a prestigious prep school, and studied to be an artist (she also dabbled as a model and showgirl during this period). During World War II, she decided that she wanted to be a pilot and with , it seems now, no hesitation whatsoever, went to Nevada to train in the Women’s Air Force Service program. She hit a slight bump in the road when the program was cancelled before she earned her wings. Since women were still not flying professionally at that time, Roennau “decided” to become an aeronautical engineer. The decision is important, because, again, there is no hesitation at all in her voice, even though we’re talking about a (former show)girl in the 1940’s choosing to be an aeronautical engineer.
“ What a gal, you say. But wait! We haven’t even mentioned the fact that she did a stint in Nevada as a deputy sheriff, worked as a shill in a Reno casino to earn money to pay for flying lessons, and worked the night shift at a rail yard ‘rom midnight to 8 am, seven days a week for three years’ while earning her degree in Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley.
In the early 50s, Roennau took a job with McDonnell Douglas, beginning her half-century connection with the city of Santa Monica.
“Assigned to the Nike Missile program, she spent some time in White Sands firing missiles.
“ Not interested in limits, Roennau then became interested in the space program and applied for and won a grant from the National Research Foundation’s aerodynamics program. On government money, she studied in Sweden, then traveled around Europe by bicycle evaluating graduate schools of engineering, always sending her good black suit ahead by air, so that she’d look professional when she got where she was going.
“ Returning to the U.S., she worked on unmanned drones, then became the head of Bioastronomics Research and Engineering Department at the Space Technology Laboratory when manned space flight was still in its infancy. Subsequently, Roennau headed a program called Mouse in Able (MIA) — the first time the U.S. sent animals into space. ‘We sent the mice up in a nose cone cover of the Able missile to study the effects of space travel on living things.” The program was successful, and the mice came back alive, “but the Navy couldn’t find them. We were assured that the lack of oxygen would put them into a state of euphoria…they died happy,’ she says with a smile.
“In the late 60s, Roennau returned to Santa Monica to work at the RAND Corporation. ‘RAND was shifting its focus from the military to the domestic. I worked on transportation projects for seven years, even designing a new transportation system for the State of California.’ But RAND switched its focus again, and the project was dropped.
” ‘So, I was out of a job,’ Roennau remembers. ‘By this time I was a divorced mother of two — I applied for every job I could find.’ She found, and was offered what she considered ‘the perfect job,’ developing a transportation system for Nigeria. She packed up her two young sons and headed for Africa. ‘All my luggage was lost.’ That was just the beginning. “It was 1974. There had been a coup. The government that had hired me was no longer in power.’ Long story short, she, her sister and her children escaped Nigeria under cover of night, ‘nine of us, seventeen pieces of luggage, and two chameleons in a tiny car.’
“When she returned to Santa Monica, she did time with the Community Redevelopment Agency, and the Los Angeles Airport Commission, where she was the first women airport commissioner in the country. ‘Mayor (Sam) Yorty wanted to appoint women to commissions. One of his assistants offered me a position on the library commission. I turned him down. He offered me a few more — I turned him down. Finally, he asked me if I would be interested in any post. I thought it was a long shot, but I asked for the airport commission. He said, ‘ok.'”
“ But, soon, she was ready for a change and found it through Julie Dad, ‘Julie was working for SCAG (the Southern California Association of Governments). We decided (there it is again) to switch jobs. I spent twelve years at SCAG, working on transportation and air quality projects. It was the first time I’d heard of an E.I.R. (Environmental Impact Report).’
“Today, E.I.R.s cover the working surfaces in Laurel Roennau’s office/livingroom. Although she retired in 1987, she has obviously never stopped working. She’s always been a community activist, and joined OPCO in 1981. Her primary concern, of course, has been transportation and traffic issues. And it’s clear that she takes them very seriously. ‘I’m currently looking at the RAND project. Now, I belong to the RAND alumni association, but the project is just too big.’ She’s also concerned by RAND’s lack of interest in the community. ‘No RAND representative has come to the community meetings. The Target (department store that plans to build on the corner of 5th St. and Santa Monica Blvd.) people did. Others have. I think they feel like they already have approval. They’re RAND, and in their minds they have a special place in Santa Monica.’
“But they may be in for a surprise. ‘The planning Commission turned down a project at their last meeting! I thought that was a good sign.’
“Because of her obvious expertise and experience, Roennau’s name usually comes up when there’s a vacancy on the Planning Commission, but she has never been chosen.
“‘I guess I’m too confrontational. A Council member once called me a liar, because he didn’t like what I was presenting. But I’m only confrontational about those things that I can prove. When I do an analysis I do it very thoroughly, so I can stand behind what I say.
“’The people who live in Santa Monica are proud of the city, and are willing to work for the good of the city. 94,000 people live here. 184,000 come here every day to work, and three times that many come on the weekends. They’re the ones who don’t give a damn.’
“ Roennau is not anti-tourism. She believes ‘Santa Monica as a destination is a good thing. Tourists stay in hotels, go to restaurants, buy souvenirs. The promenade and pier are ‘regional outlets,’ aimed at day-trippers. That’s not good.’
“ She believes in free public transportation, thinks the transit mall is ‘not really about transit,’ and believes that the City usually ends up footing the bill when big developers don’t follow through on changes and improvements they’ve agreed to make.
Having played many roles and done virtually everything a woman can do — from showgirl to scientist to wife and mother, Roennau now epitomizes the citizen activist — passionately concerned and fully informed. It remains to be seen what this beautiful, bright, confident rocket scientist will do next.”