Joan Baumhoff, a selfless mother, eccentric artist and local peace activist who helped establish an underground railroad for conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War, died on July 31, at the age of 84.
Sanguine to the very end, Joan inspired many with her courage in battling Parkinson’s disease and her ability to find joy less in things and more in people, art and the beauty of her surroundings.
“She was so thankful for where she lived,” said Anne Scott, her daughter. “Every single voicemail she would leave me she would describe the lupine and the ocean and the birds she saw, and whether the elk were out or if she had gone out to Drakes Beach to eat French fries.”
Joan Arnold was born on January 12, 1927 in Oakland to Morton and Placie Howard Arnold. Morton was the vice president of Albers Brothers’ Milling Company, and Placie was a retired schoolteacher. The family lived in a modest, two-story home on Alvarado Street, in Berkeley, behind the Claremont Hotel.
Joan was a precocious and artistic child, who found little interest in social formalities—a trait she did not share with her mother. “I was more like her mother than she was,” Anne said. “I liked the formal, fancy shaping of the butter before you served it—the ceremony of it all. My mother was more the loose, artistic type.”
When Joan and her sister, Joyce, were still young, Morton and Placie began taking them on long vacations to Inverness, where an uncle and aunt owned a cabin. “We just loved this place and would often fantasize about living in this house or that one,” said Joyce, who lives in Point Reyes Station. “It was a magical place for us. We could walk or swim forever.”
Joan attended Berkeley High School, which she completed a year early, before pursuing an interest in interior design through a job as a flower arranger at the Claremont and a summer session at Parson’s School of Design, in Manhattan. After earning a degree in philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley she took a job at the San Francisco luxury home furnishings store Gump’s.
A few years later Joan married her college sweetheart, Robert Wunderlich. The two moved to Hawaii, where Robert was stationed during the Korean War, but eventually settled in Iowa after Robert got a job teaching music at Iowa State University.
Joan stayed home to care for Anne and her son, Mark. She played the piano and sang to the children, and infused the family’s Midwestern home with a California style. “She probably had the most Berkeley-like décor of anyone in Iowa,” Anne said.
The family occasionally traveled to Berkeley to visit relatives and satisfy their hankerings for sourdough and wine.
Robert eventually took a position at Concordia College, in Oakland, and they returned to the house on Alvarado Street. Joan began working part-time for the Oakland Recreational Department, making elaborate hand puppets and putting on shows at local parks.
“My mother was one of those that had original copies of the first vegetarian cookbooks, everything healthy,” Anne said. “She wasn’t a vegetarian, but we didn’t live lavishly. She made her own yogurt and sprouts. We had our own herb garden and composted everything. Before the word ‘footprint’ ever became associated with our society, our footprint was small.”
Joan was fervently opposed to the Vietnam War and with help from friends and local churchgoers, she began gathering people at her home to disseminate information on how to avoid the draft. In time, the effort, which she called the East Oakland Switchboard, evolved into a poverty alleviation organization that continues to this day.
Joan was motivated in part by her Christian beliefs, which broadened over time. As Mark struggled in school, he always found comfort in Joan’s impartial embrace. “My mother was always there for me whether I made the right choices or not,” he said. “That’s one of the things I loved about her: no matter who you were, you were a good person.”
Joan and Robert divorced after Anne left for college. Joan moved to Napa, where she took a job teaching art at a mental health institution and later at an assisted living facility. There, she met a pastor named Kenneth Baumhoff. The two were married, but Ken died five years later. “My mother and Ken had a very loving relationship,” Anne said. When he died, it was really hard on her.”
Several years after Ken’s passing, Joan was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She stayed in Napa until September of 2001, when she heard about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, in New York.
“She moved to Point Reyes the morning after that happened,” Anne said. “She just showed up on her sister’s doorstep with basically nothing.”
Joan loved her life in West Marin. She rented a room on the Mesa and eventually moved into Walnut Place. She was a member of Mainstreet Moms, went to the library constantly and bought everything at the thrift store.
“I found Joan to be just an amazing and courageous woman,” said her friend and neighbor at Walnut Place, Gail Greenley. “She was such a model for the rest of us. Here she is dealing with pain and a back that’s bent over from Parkinson’s and diminished ability and all of that and yet she rarely complained. She was always looking for some other, more positive topic to talk about.”
In 2006, Joan fell in love with Arthur Dinsmore, an Inverness resident whom she had encountered around town. Arthur cared for Joan as her disease progressed, cooking for her and driving her to doctor’s appointments and to visit Anne and her grandchildren.
“She was intelligent and insightful and very open,” Arthur said. “Just an easy person to talk to. And she had such an artistic view of the world. She could see things, patterns and colors, that would bring them out in new ways.”
Joan continued to paint, focusing on fluid, abstract landscapes, which she created entirely from memory.
“She always wanted to get back to her art, in some way,” Gail said. “We have a little garden in the back here, and I still remember when Joan got a plot she put her plants in in a way that looked just like one of her paintings, with large swaths of color moving through it.”
Joan is survived by her sister, Joyce Howe; her daughter, Anne Scott; her son, Mark Wunderlich; her three grandchildren, Kelly Scott and Alan and Eric Scott; and her boyfriend, Arthur Dinsmore. A gathering of remembrance will be held on Sunday, September 11 at 2:30 p.m. at St. Columba’s Church, in Inverness. A potluck reception will follow.