Sylvia Hamilton, San Martin’s unofficial mayor, faced relentless tragedy throughout her life, but up until her final days she remained a stalwart force of inspiration for everyone around her – including the entire town of 7,000 who are likely better off today because of her influence and advocacy, according to those who knew her.
Hamilton passed away Feb. 16 at the age of 70. In recent years, she has suffered from complications due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to longtime friend and housemate Richard Kear.
Whether she was holding the Olin Corporation’s feet to the fire for contaminating San Martin’s drinking water with harmful perchlorate, helping to raise money for local organizations, or rallying her neighbors to support the family of a sick or recently deceased San Martinian, Hamilton always had the best interests of her community in mind, according to her friends. And on her free time, she competed at the national level – and won – in country and western dance events across the U.S.
Hamilton died in Kear’s arms at her home in San Martin, after spending her last days with beloved friends, Kear said.
Hamilton had returned home from lunch with her best friend Maryanne Wynne, who she knew for 50 years, and fainted after informing Kear that she suddenly wasn’t feeling well. She passed out and stopped breathing. Kear and another friend of Hamilton’s called for paramedics, who were unable to revive her.
“It was quite sudden, but she was actually happy,” Kear said. “Her best friend spent the last few days with her. She basically just fell asleep.”
Hamilton lived in San Martin for more than 30 years. She was a retired school teacher, ending her career in the late 1990s at Martin Murphy Middle School in the Morgan Hill Unified School District, according to San Martin resident Donna Brodsky, a dear friend of Hamilton’s who served alongside her on local advisory boards and nonprofit organizations.
Hamilton combined her “charming personality,” persistence for accountability and truth, and seemingly endless energy in becoming a staunch advocate for South County residents, Kear said.
“She was a very adorable person,” said Kear, 43, who first met Hamilton when she started taking Country Western dance lessons with him around 1998. “You’d take to her naturally. As you’d get to know her, you realize she is a very passionate person. She likes to do things properly. Considering the tragedies in her life, she is an inspirational person.”
Hamilton was born in Florida, and moved to Texas with her mother and grandmother when she was still a child. Her father and grandfather were overseas in combat at the time, during World War II, Brodsky said.
Tragedy started early for Hamilton, whose father was captured by Japanese forces during combat, Brodsky continued. He was tortured, and never returned home.
She earned her education degree from Texas Christian University, Brodsky said.
Hamilton moved to California in her 20s with Wynne, who she met as a fellow military wife (Hamilton was married and divorced three times), and began her teaching career in Fremont, Brodsky said. Sometime later, Hamilton adopted two children – a son and a daughter. Both the children – Julie and Richard Hayes – died in separate car accidents years later as adults.
Following her retirement, Hamilton’s devotion to the community started out with county land-use issues, Brodsky said. She was a longtime member of the San Martin Planning Advisory Committee until her death.
“I felt that she was one who studies the issues well and makes a good, conscious decision on issues that affect the community,” said Bob Cerruti, who served with Hamilton on the San Martin Planning Advisory Committee.
Cerruti also helped Hamilton on the Perchlorate Community Advisory Group, which was formed in 2003 in response to the discovery of a perchlorate plume that leached into hundreds of South County wells from Olin’s manufacturing site in Morgan Hill. The group, of which Hamilton was named chair as soon as it was formed, was instrumental in holding the company accountable and forcing Olin to clean up its mess.
Shortly after her death, the Santa Clara Valley Water District board of directors presented Cerruti with a plaque in Hamilton’s honor, recognizing her for her many efforts to support the community.
These efforts didn’t go unnoticed by the people in charge. In 2004, Hamilton was named the 27th state assembly district’s “Woman of the Year.”
Gilroy Mayor Don Gage, who knew Hamilton through his years of service as a South County elected official, said, “She was a charger. She stuck by her guns and did a lot for the community.”
Hamilton was also president of the nonprofit San Martin Neighborhood Alliance since it was formed. That group hosts an annual car show fundraiser in August, raising money for a variety of local organizations including the Friends of the San Martin Animal Shelter.
And it was through the SMNA that Hamilton would always make sure her neighbors were aware when a San Martin resident died or was sick, so they could get together to hold garage sales or otherwise help the families, Brodsky said.
Kear said Hamilton became “one of my favorite” Country Western dance students when she started taking lessons from him. The two competed together on the United Country Western Dance Circuit, and traveled to competitions all over California, as well as Canada and Nashville, Tenn. In Nashville, Hamilton won the 2003 Country Dance World Championship.
Hamilton is survived by her cousin Joe Wysong.
Brodsky said Hamilton deserves the title “grand champion” not just for her dancing endeavors but for her selfless and tireless devotion to her community and loved ones.
“We have big shoes to fill,” Brodsky said.