Joan Linn Bekins

In January 1964, the San Francisco Chronicle named Joan Linn as one of thirty-five business people chosen as “Bay Area Leaders Who Made Their Mark in 1963.” After a long professional public relations, sales promotion and advertising career representing agricultural industries, Joan married Don Bekins in 1964 at age 34. With their infant in a backpack and leading their toddler by the hand, Joan started walking with Elizabeth Terwilliger in 1967.

For many, Joan Linn Bekins’ name is synonymous with that of Elizabeth Terwilliger. Joan was the energetic volunteer who was the ‘woman behind the woman.’ She publicized and nominated Mrs. T for numerous awards (including President Reagan’s volunteer award) to direct public attention to Mrs. T’s important work with children. In 1970, she launched the Terwilliger Nature Guides to help Mrs. T lead school field trips, the non-profit Elizabeth Terwilliger Nature Education Foundation in 1975, and theTerwilliger Guild in 1984.

While education chairwoman for Marin Audubon Society’s Board of Directors in 1972, Joan obtained corporate funding to produce and distribute three habitat films featuring Mrs. T showcasing her renowned teaching methods. Joan produced two more award-winning films in 1976 and 1978. She now distributes free DVDs nationally through the non-profit Terwilliger Nature Education Legacy, founded in 2004 by Mrs. T’s children. This effort represents Joan’s thirty-eight year volunteer dedication to this film project. To date, 70 million children have met Mrs. T via film in classrooms throughout the United States!

In 1979, Joan was successful in obtaining Buck Trust funding for the fledging ETNEF organization. This enabled the volunteers to have an office in Tiburon and hire staff, but the effort was still volunteer-driven with expanded recruitment and training programs for new Terwilliger Nature Guides. NatureVans, filled with taxidermied birds and mammals, traveled to schools in eleven Bay Area counties.

Joan edited and published books, naturalists’ site guides and records for children and adults to reach new audiences. Talented as a volunteer publicist, photographer, grant writer and fundraiser, she also collaborated closely with the Marin County Superintendent of Schools, environmental and conservation groups.

Joan emphasizes, “I could not have achieved this without the support and talents of other women, many with young children, who also contributed their time and enthusiasm to enrich childrenʼs lives with an understanding and appreciation of Nature. I am, today, blessed with friendship of both Terwilliger Nature Guides and the women of the Terwilliger Guild. We shared a very special camaraderie. We had a passion and Mrs. T was our inspiration.”

Joan inspired volunteers, and for some was a role-model; she was recognized in 1980 as Marin’s “Volunteer Activist of the Year.” She offered women opportunities to explore video production, event planning, library research, archives, newsletter writing, production, graphic art, schoolyard ecology, early education, and senior and special needs programs that provided hands-on experience. For some, these became their career choices. By 1995, the Guides had led tens-of-thousands of children on school field trips and the Guild had raised over $100,000.

When the Terwilliger office was in her home from 1975 through 1979, Joan provided women reentering the job force an opportunity to gain real world business experience through a CITA-funded program. The women did clerical work, helped with direct mail campaigns and filled mail orders for an assortment of educational Terwilliger materials Joan produced, “Sights & Sounds of the Seasons,” “Mrs. Tʼs Coloring Book,” a record album from the sound track of the films, a song book, and “A Naturalistʼs Guide to Richardson Bay Sanctuary.

Joan inspired other women to join her to help Mrs. T lead school field trips, and was the first volunteer president of the Terwilliger Nature Guides after spearheading the group’s formation in 1970. Joan actively recruited docents each year and developed a well respected training course for them to learn about plants, marine life, birds, insects, etc. that empowered women to feel comfortable about teaching groups of children, their teachers and accompanying parents on walks. Many women, like Joan, had careers before having a family and brought their expertise to the programs. Joan encouraged volunteers to spread their wings and schoolyard ecology, early education, senior and special needs programs evolved.

When it was apparent that some schools could not fund chartered buses for field trips, Joan and other Nature Guides launched the first Terwilliger Nature Van in 1981. Habitat scenes were painted on the outside and children learned food chain concepts by placing magnetic creatures in the habitats. Inside were taxidermied creatures for multi-sensory, interactive experiences. This effort helped the non-profit to expand the numbers of children served annually from 6,000 to 65,000, when two additional vans were put on the road to cover eleven Bay Area counties.

Joan found that there were many women who believed in educating children about nature, although they were not interested in becoming Guides. To leverage their talents, Joan formed an auxiliary in 1984, the Terwilliger Guild, that staged “Fandango” fundraising events to help support school programs and again offered opportunities for women to develop new skills and friendships.

Her dedicated commitment to nature education has had a positive effect on the lives of children throughout Marin, and the nation as well. An advocate for open space, she chaired an ad hoc committee in 1999 to fund and reinstate the Marin County Open Space district naturalist-interpreter position.

The films are still in high demand. Joan mails VHS and DVDs free to school librarians throughout the United States on behalf of the non-profit Terwilliger Nature Education Legacy. This significant program for young children is nationally applauded for awakening a curiosity and appreciation of nature and the natural world. It is also part of the curriculum in some universities to demonstrate effective teaching methods.

She is an award-winning nature photographer, and since 2000, when she turned seventy years old, she has had numerous Bay Area solo exhibitions of her work that benefit non-profits. She also writes a newspaper column, “Wildflower Watch,” illustrated by her photographs.

Other recognition includes: Chevron Texaco “Conservation Award” 2002; CINE Golden Eagle Award, Washington, D.C. 1973; John Muir Award National Education Film Festival, 1974; elected Fellow in the Explorer’s Club, 1986; represented the U.S. in the International Wildlife Symposium, member of the Consultative Committee, 1984-1988.

Joan says her special moments are “sharing what I learned from Mrs. T with my two children, and now with my grandchildren.”