Jean Berensmeier Headshot_DKellyPhotography
Jean Berensmeier

Jean Berensmeier was born during the Depression in 1932. She was sent to live with her Croatian-speaking grandparents in Ruth, Nevada, at the age of four. To this day, Jean still sings her Grandma’s songs of “old-country.” Her Grandmother had a schedule for everything. Jean played in the desert where two key experiences shaped her life. The first was watching ants. Ant hills in the area came up to her waist, the ants were huge. She learned ants are patient, nothing stops them, and they never give up! The second experience was when a large, orange rock appeared. This was a moment she’s never forgotten because when walking toward it, Jean merged with that rock. Her connection and love of the environment goes back to those experiences.  

Jean developed a wide range of perspectives by drawing on lessons from ants “never give up”, rocks “one with the land”, her Serbian-Croatian ancestry “don’t mess with me”, fencing “timing, technique, tactic”, her Father Dide’s mind, listening “they might be right”, fairness “never cheat!”, standing up to bullies, and Indigenous Peoples “considering the next seven generations”. Jean’s primary focus is to preserve and protect the unique San Geronimo Valley and its many wildlife inhabitants including the coho salmon. 

Jean’s Father, Dide (Grandpa in Serbian), had a heart of gold. He could do anything and neighbors often came to him with their problems. Jean would hear him say, “Let’s think outside the box.” He was a self-taught electrician with a fourth-grade education, but he was more experienced than guys with fancy degrees. Dide always solved the problem When asked “What do we do now?” This solutions-oriented mindset greatly influenced Jean and still today, when a problem arises, Jean says, “It’s Dide mind time.”

Jean earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Physical Education with an Art minor at San Francisco State University. She became a professor of Physical Education and taught for 36 years at the College of San Mateo. Jean was active in the sport of fencing. Her fencing tutor, George Pilar, was a three-time Hungarian world champion who didn’t speak much English. Jean’s fencing tutor enforced a mindset that she still holds onto, “Everything must be right to be successful . . . timing, technique and tactic . . . the three T’s.”  Aided by a strong athletic background, along with the three T’s, Jean never feels defeated in life. If things don’t work out, she’ll say, “Well, the timing wasn’t right.”  Then she will wait until the right “T” lines up, and try again. Like her teacher the ants, Jean never gives up.

In 1968, Jean went to a school board meeting at the Community Center, and someone said, “We’re going to tear down this building and make a parking lot.” Jean heard a loud voice say, “I will lie down in front of the bulldozer first!” She realized it was herself!  Afterward, she asked some board members, “Mind if my dad looks at it?” Dide said, “Look, these beams are redwood! This building’s worth preserving.” Jean presented the board with the information.  Noting the District had no Arts program, she offered to lease the building for a year for after school activities including: macrame, tie dye, guitar, clay and leather work.  Most of the student body signed up.  At the end of the year parents wanted Jean to continue leasing for an Art program.  Instead, Jean asked a lawyer parent to help incorporate the Community Center—and the parents loved it! Today, the Community Center serves children, parents, and an array of programs for the larger community.  

Jean would never have guessed that taking out the garbage and asking nearby Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) workers a question would change her life. The question, “What are you doing?” led to Jean learning about plans to build houses across the ridges. From there, she read the book “Can the Last Place Last” and founded the San Geronimo Valley Planning Group. The Planning Group successfully halted construction of the 1961 Master Plan which would have built 5,000 homes, 20,000 people, a heliport, a shopping center, and freeway through the San Geronimo Valley. Through this process, Jean developed lifetime friendships with Diet Stroh, then MMWD Manager, Werner von Gundel, MMWD, Head Planner, and Gary Giacomini, Board of Supervisors candidate. 

Jean, with her son Paul, volunteered 158 teaching hours in 2000. They brought children outdoors, where they learned about Indigenous People, birds, animals, fish, and how to be stewards of the land. The children and parents loved it, and this started the Wilderness Way, which received its nonprofit 501 (C) 3 status in 2001.

Jean draws on other life lessons from people, places, and things that have influenced her. She has a strong connection with native philosophy. Their view of respecting and intimately care-taking the land and all its inhabitants for, as the elders say, the next seven generations, really resonates with Jean. She leans on both her head and heart for decision-making and says, First I think with my head; do I understand the problem, what needs to be done? Then with my heart; how do I feel about it? I put the two together and the answer appears.” She is a strong believer in acting fairly and believes if someone cheats, they should pay for their transgressions. Other advice Jean has never forgotten is from her Father who taught her to listen to others even if you think they are wrong, for they might be right. She also remembers the lessons taught by her Uncle Nick, who taught her to stand up to bullies and bringing her to defend her little brother when faced with a bully at one point in time.

Jean has received many accolades including induction in to the Marin Women’s Hall of Fame Class of 2023, the Space and Cultural Commission Resolution of Commendation for 20 years of service in 1997, the Edie Robinson Award in 2000, the MCL Marin Green Award for Environmental Leadership in 2002, the Sierra Club Resource Conservation Award in 2005, Marin County Parks, the Open the Peter Behr Steward of Land Award in 2019, and the Marin Conservation League (MCL)’s Peter Behr Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2014 for her years of energetic leadership and dedication to preserving and protecting open space and biological diversity in Marin County and for introducing generations of children to the wonders of the natural world.