‘Eco-hooligan’ and beloved Nipomo activist Bill Denneen dies at 93

Bill Denneen, whose brand of environmental and social activism both polarized and inspired San Luis Obispo County for decades, died in his sleep on Monday, friends confirmed.

According to longtime pal David Georgi, Denneen stopped breathing in bed at his Nipomo home sometime around 1:30 a.m., marking the end of decades of “eco-hooliganism” and one of the Central Coast’s most ardent environmentalists.

“He lived a totally full, complete life,” Georgi said. “He knew the end was coming. He was very accepting of it.”

Denneen, a native of Massuchussets, served as a pharmacist’s mate with the Navy during World War II — he even treated troops wounded during D-Day, Georgi said.

2004 10-17 Bill Denneen.JPG
Bill Denneen, environmental activist David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

After leaving the military, Denneen used the GI Bill to study at Tufts University, and in 1960 moved to Nipomo to teach biology at Santa Maria High School. Soon after, he switched to Allan Hancock College, where he taught for 25 years before retiring.

During that time, Denneen made a name for himself as a passionate activist for environmental and social issues.

One friend remembered that Denneen was instrumental in keeping a nuclear power plant from being built in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes; another remembered that he would argue with protesters picketing Planned Parenthood about birth control and abortion. (Denneen even helped to start the first human sexuality class at Allan Hancock College in the 1960s, Georgi said.)

Rudy Stowell, who met Denneen in the late 1980s while Stowell was a building contractor, remembered that though the two clashed over most issues, Denneen was always reasonable and genuine in his beliefs.

“Bill was a treasure,” Stowell said. “He was polarizing — a lot of people did not agree with his points of view — but he was genuine and there’s not a single Nipomoan that won’t miss him.”

Tribune files show Denneen as a prolific writer of letters to the editor, but also as someone with a sharp sense of humor.

In a June 2001 article, Denneen dared supporters of off-roading on the Oceano Dunes — to which he was ardently opposed — to “put their bucks where their mouth is (and) DUNK DENEEN.” (He was part of a dunk tank booth for the Nipomo Community Park October Fest.)

Abe Perlstein met local environmentalist Bill Denneen on a Christmas Day hike when Denneen was in his 70s. Here, the longtime activist leads one of those hikes in 2005. Abe Perlstein

Abe Perlstein, who met Denneen in 2000 on a Christmas Day hike when the latter was 75, described him as “superhuman.”

“He never gave up,” Perlstein said. “He was dedicated to making life better for all life forms. He taught so many people, and left an impression on so many.”

Some of that impression Denneen had on the community could be seen at his 90th birthday party in 2015: That party, held at the Dana Cultural Center, had guest speakers ranging from friends and family to notable politicians like then-Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian and Congresswoman Lois Capps.

Capps at one point called Denneen a “national treasure ” — but that wasn’t even Denneen’s greatest honor at the party.

He was also given a Bill Denneen Environment Award, Georgi said, an award he founded several years prior to recognize exceptional work in environmental activism. The plaque still sits in Denneen’s living room, Georgi said.

“He loved that,” Georgi said. “He loved that award.”

And of course Denneen couldn’t leave that party without some activism: He ended the night leading attendees in a protest march against the proposed Phillips 66 oil train rail spur.

At his 90th birthday party in 2015, environmental activist Bill Denneen ended the event by leading attendees in a protest march against the proposed Phillips 66 oil train rail spur. Abe Perlstein

In the three years since that party, Denneen’s health steadily declined, Georgi said, but at his 93rd birthday celebration at the Nipomo Native Gardens this June, a little bit of that old hooligan was present again.

“At one point he starts singing, ‘I’m going to see my tree! I’m going to see my tree!’” Georgi said laughing. “Back when they started the Nipomo Native Gardens, he was on committee for it and discovered this giant old oak tree. He loved it. And Bill literally was a tree-hugger — he would go out and hug trees. So sure enough, he goes up and finds it and hugs it.”

Georgi remembered that Denneen then sat at the base of the tree, right under a plaque dedicating the oak to the smiling man at its feet.

“The plaque says, ‘This person made the Central Coast a better place,’” Georgi said. “That’s pretty much his life.”

Local news matters: We rely on readers like you more than ever before, and we currently offer free access to five stories a month. Support us further with a digital subscription to help ensure we can provide strong local journalism for many years to come. #ReadLocal

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie