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William E. Colby (1875-1964)

Certainly the Club was widely recognized and also had many enthusiastic supporters among its rank and file, of whom perhaps none was more boundless in his energy than the young William Colby, who replaced Robert Price as recording secretary on May 5, 1900." writes Holway R. Jones in John Muir and the Sierra Club: The Battle for Yosemite (1965).

"Colby's devoted service to the Sierra Club was unique and extended over more than sixty years. His father, Gilbert Colby, arrived in San Francisco on September 1, 1849, and his mother, Caroline (Smith) came to California a few years later. They were married in December 1866, and William, one of five children, was born on May 28, 1875 in Benicia. The death of both his mother and father left him an orphan at the age of six. A legal-minded aunt saw to his education, and Colby, who had once expressed a wish to be a naturalist like Muir, took an early interest in the law.

He eventually entered the University of California where, after two years of study, financial problems forced him to drop out of school to teach in an Berkeley preparatory school. The ambitious Colby was not to be denied his goal, however; he made two round-trips daily across the Bay, one to attend an early-morning class at Hastings Law School, and then another Bay crossing in the afternoon to attend more classes at Hastings.

Under this strict routine, Colby managed to graduate with the class of '98. Fatigued with the grueling efforts of acquiring his law degree, Colby was more than ready for a change of scenery when the Sierra Club offered him the post of Club representative in Yosemite Valley the summer following his graduation.

"Undoubtedly Colby's enthusiasm for the mountains and the many Club friends he had made on this first trip into the Sierra won this appointment for him. Four years previously, between his freshman and sophomore years at the University of California, Colby has been introduced to Muir's 'Range of Light' accompanied by two fellow students whom he had met while working on the staff of the Occident, then a weekly student literary publication.

Will Colby joined the Sierra Club 1898, and served as its secretary from 1900 to 1946 (except for two years). In 1901, Colby initiated the annual High Trips that began the Club's popular outing program and led the trips until 1929.

Colby became a key Club leader after John Muir's death in 1914, serving as a director for 49 years. He contributed substantially to the saving of redwoods, to enlarging Sequoia National Park, establishing Kings Canyon and Olympic national parks. Colby was also the first chairman of the California State Park Commission in 1927.

In 1961, Will Colby became the first recipient of the Sierra Club's John Muir Award, its highest recognition for achievement in conservation.

Colby achieved notable eminence as an attorney who specialized in mining and water law, which served him well in his conservation work. He was also interested in gardening and Chinese art.

William Colby died at his home in Big Sur, California, on November 9, 1964.

Ansel Adams wrote of him:

"You knew who he was without inquiry--he comes with him a deep humanity, and the mood of rivers and forests and clean white stone."

Photo courtesy Sierra Club Archives/Colby Library. All rights reserved.


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