Benella Caminiti's life has been dedicated to keeping Seattle green

Benella Caminiti's front porch is veiled in grapevines. Right now the grapes are minuscule clusters of green dots, but come fall they will be large and ripe. "I make grape juice," Caminiti says proudly.

"I also planted those tree peonies," she continues, pointing to huge magenta blossoms in her front yard. She explains the difference between tree peonies and herbal peonies.

For years Caminiti was a dedicated environmental activist of local renown. When she moved to Seattle in 1964, it didn't take her long to become involved in the preservation of this area's parks, open spaces, shorelines and waterways.

Her "most favored" campaign was her victorious effort back in the early 1970s to prevent the Woodland Park Zoo from expanding east of Aurora Avenue.

"Many people don't know that the zoo is a moneymaker for the city," she says. "A plain old park is not. City parks are a casualty of our times."

Because of her efforts, the money earmarked to expand the zoo was used instead to improve the existing one.

Her most devastating failure was her loss in the case of Caminiti versus Boyle in 1987. (Brian Boyle was the Commissioner of Public Lands at that time.) Caminiti wanted the Public Trust Doctrine to allow public access to tidelands claimed to be privately owned.

The Public Trust Doctrine is a legal principle holding that state waters are a public resource owned by and available to all citizens equally for the purposes of navigation, commerce, fishing and recreation. Caminiti's loss means that the Trust does not allow the public to trespass over privately owned uplands to access the tidelands.

"The day I lost that case was the worst day of my life," Caminiti says in her deep, soft, ladylike voice. "Five of the nine Washington State Supreme Court justices who ruled on the case owned beachfront property. That conflict-of-interest was brought to light, to no avail. The issue is still moot."

Caminiti is well-versed in legalese. She has long supported the Center for Environmental Law and Policy and has served on the organization's board of trustees.

Thirteen boxes stacked neatly in her office, a former breakfast nook, contain years of correspondence, legal documents, newspaper clippings and photographs. Besides the two issues already mentioned, there are papers about the Navy homeport in Everett (Caminiti didn't want dredge material dumped into shellfish breeding grounds), ferry traffic in Rich Passage (it was too fast, she says, and destroying beaches on San Juan Island) along with countless more.

"These boxes represent my most meaningful life's work," she says.

She has not been involved in any environmental issues in recent years, for which she blames the onset of physical disabilities. Recently, however, her political instinct was aroused when she read about the redesign of the downtown waterfront. "I'd start again if I could," she says. She believes the proposed landfills in Elliott Bay would be a violation of the Public Trust Doctrine.

A stint in the military

Benella Gallup was born on Apr. 11, 1922, in Lamar, Colo., in the southeastern part of the state. She had one younger sister, Edith, now deceased.

Caminiti's parents divorced when she was so young that she does not remember her father or what he did. She knows that he served in World War I and that he named her after a small town in Australia.

Her mother, who was born in England, wanted to explore the American West. After the birth of Caminiti's sister (in Pueblo, Colo.) and her parents' divorce, mother and daughters lived in several towns throughout the West. "My mother had good taste in places," Caminiti recalls. When Caminiti was about 10 years old, the three settled in Berkeley, Calif.

"I remember playing on the green and parklike campus of the university," she says. "It wasn't built up then as it is now."

When she graduated from high school, her family moved to Santa Barbara. Caminiti attended the new University of California there, but she interrupted her studies during World War II to join the Royal Canadian Air Force, as did her sister Edith. (At that time Canada admitted younger people into the military than did the United States.) Edith was a wireless operator in Montreal, Quebec, and Benella was a radio-telegrapher in Barrie, Ontario. They both served more than two years.

Reentering civilian life, Caminiti resumed her studies at UC-Santa Barbara, earning a bachelor's degree in zoology in 1944. "It was a great help later," she says. She learned the unique environmental needs of different species, and it was easy for her to apply the same principles to human beings.

Caminiti then attended graduate school in zoology at UC-Berkeley, but she did not finish. She returned to Santa Barbara and, at a party, met John Paul Caminiti. A man of Sicilian descent, he was a graphic designer, painter and painting restorer. Eventually the two married, and in 1959 they had a son, John David.

Monkey business

By the early 1960s the family was living in Yonkers, N.Y. Using the knowledge of chemistry she had acquired in college, Caminiti worked analyzing scientific literature for various pharmaceutical companies.

Then her husband developed allergies "of such consequence" that the family had to move. The Caminitis thought the climate of the Northwest might be more suitable for him. Caminiti began to look for a job in this area. She saw an ad for a position at the University of Washington's Regional Primate Research Center, collecting literature on monkeys and apes. She applied for the position and got it, returning to the field of zoology.

The family moved to Seattle in 1964, into the house on Queen Anne in which she still lives. Eventually she and her husband divorced (he has since died). She worked at the UW until retiring in 1988. All the while, in her free time, she was embroiled in environmental controversies.

After hip replacement in January, Caminiti's single bed was moved downstairs to what used to be the dining room. She wakes up every morning looking at her backyard greenery: a dogwood in the foreground, large laurel trees behind. Green is her favorite color: "It is both soothing and strong," she says.

She loves the music of Mozart, and she used to enjoy reading. Recently she had surgery on her left eye, making reading difficult. When she does read, she uses a large magnifying glass.

When she read more, she was a devotée of the "Mr. Dooley" books written by humorist Finley Peter Dunne (1867-1936). Mr. Dooley was a Chicago bartender who satirized the nation and its most powerful people.

Caminiti bemoans the fact that, with age, "I have lost my inventiveness, and the past tends to vanish. Sometimes remembering is beyond doing." Now and then she shuts her eyes tightly, straining to remember. But her memory is vivid when she talks about her work.

Who was the greatest influence in her life? "You can always say your mother; that's a valid influence," she says distractedly, trying to think of a better answer. Finally she says: "Me. I influenced me."

Strong convictions and power over herself: two attributes that have given direction to her life, and admirable ones, too.

Teru Lundsten is a regular contributor to the Magnolia News and the Queen Anne News. She can be reached at[[In-content Ad]]