“If we abandon one person, we abandon ourselves. If one piece of the fabric tears, the rest of us feel the effect,” Judy Bysshe said recently over a hearty lunch in Ojai. “We are a community that cares about one another, and we take care of one another.”
Bysshe is the embodiment of the politics of inclusion. A thin, blue-eyed beauty in her mid-60s, she has boundless energy. Whether she’s working on one of her philanthropy projects or hiking several times a week with a girlfriend, she is a full participant in life. She wants to take care of everyone she meets—and everyone she has yet to meet.
In a way, Judy Bysshe has protected and cared for Ventura County for nearly four decades. She is a natural teacher, lecturer, administrator, fundraiser, outdoors person, environmentalist, feminist, carnivore, baker extraordinaire, musician, world traveler, intrepid adventurer, gardener, and politico. She lives the saying “think globally, act locally.” And Ventura County is her locality.
Kate McLean, a consultant on nonprofit management and the past president of the Ventura County Community Foundation, has known Bysshe since 1973. “Ventura County probably does not realize how much Judy has done for our community,” she said, “and how many projects and organizations are strong because of her ability to get people to come together.”
Raised in Bakersfield, Bysshe came to Ventura County as a young adult. She learned about the wilderness from her father, an outdoorsman, and was encouraged by her mother to play musical instruments including accordion and harp. Not your typical upbringing. But the “Future Farmers Queen” of Bakersfield High still had not learned much about the world outside of Kern County.
In 1959, Bysshe went to college and her life was forever changed. She went to UC Berkeley during the heady days of the first flashes of rebellion and the recognition of what would become a full-on charge for equal rights. “Berkeley was perhaps the most exciting place in the world to be at that time,” she said. “I was exposed to a broad and general belief that we could really do something. I came away absolutely knowing I could make a difference in the world.”
After graduation, she returned to Southern California and gradually immersed herself in the new movement of environmentalism. During her time as president of the Environmental Coalition, the group tackled some giants of industry. The coalition stopped Shell Chemical Company’s nighttime dumping of illegal chemicals in the Ventura River by proving it was a navigable waterway, which placed it under federal protection. “We got the first water pollution fines in the State of California on that project,” she said proudly.
Other quests soon followed. Eight electric plants were planned for Ormond Beach in Oxnard. They would have delivered electricity to Los Angeles, but brought only pollution to Ventura County. The coalition limited the construction to the one plant already built. They also stopped channelization on the Santa Paula Creek, and took the EPA to court when their Environmental Impact Report was clearly one they had taken off the shelf from another project. And they helped preserve the Santa Monica Mountains—one of Ventura County’s most beautiful and environmentally sensitive wilderness areas—through the development of the Santa Monica Mountains State Park.
And there were more challenges. “We stopped U.S. Gypsum from strip mining in the Los Padres National Forest,” Bysshe said, “and stopped the building of a sulphuric acid plant in the backcountry that would have drained the aquifer and potentially fouled the wild Sespe Creek.”
By the time she had thrown herself into the environmental causes, Bysshe was also a young mother with two children. During the battle for Sespe Creek, Bysshe brought her children with her to many rallies and fundraisers. Her daughter, Kelly Lynch, still has vivid memories of those days. “U.S. Gypsum would have required that seventy trucks use Highway 33 on a daily basis,” Lynch said. “We used to leave the rallies early because [mom] drove an old Dodge Dart that belched smoke when it was started.”
Over the years, Bysshe and her younger sister, Joan Fulton, collaborated on many visits to areas in Mexico and Central America that had been ruled by the Maya. Eventually, the middle-aged sisters began to explore the jungles in earnest. “We are talking slogging through belly deep mud on horseback to go to sites rarely visited,” Fulton said. “We barely avoided an eight-foot venomous chulpate snake whose grip is so powerful that the fangs can only be removed by cutting the head off … pointless since you’d be dead anyway.”
Then Bysshe decided what she wanted for her sixty-fifth birthday: to go to Machu Picchu in Peru. And to get there the hard way—a four-day trek down through the jungles and up into the oxygen-challenged stratosphere at fourteen thousand feet. The sisters survived the adventure and felt it was worthwhile. However, Bysshe said that as they were heading to other parts of Peru, she told her sister, “Next time I call you with some hair-brained scheme that includes hiking steep and long distances at high altitude, please remind me of how I am feeling right now.”
Somewhere along the line (maybe it was the exposure to exotic locales), Bysshe developed a preference for unusual pets. When she worked in her husband Fred’s law office, she’d bring along her constant companion, a ferret named Elizabeth Ferret Browning. “Judy adored her ferret and took her everywhere,” her sister said. “Elizabeth even had her own drawer at the office.”
At home in Ojai are two llamas, Fernando and Boliviano, gently living out their geriatric years. They were a fiftieth birthday present from Fred, intended to be helpful as Judy recovered from neck surgery. They carried her belongings, but soon became more than mere pack animals. As pets, they even accompanied Fred on his runs. “Until both the llamas and Fred had to give up running,” Bysshe said.
Outspoken as always, Judy Bysshe is not oblivious to the political turmoil of the past several years. “I do believe that in this time of crisis and seeming defeat, when much of what we have worked for has been dismantled by an administration that exists only to serve corporate interests, we cannot allow ourselves to become defeatist,” she said. “The threats to liberty in this country were never more insidious; we must consistently confront the threat with the truth.”