Alameda in History: Assemblyman Robert W. Crown
Alameda in History: Assemblyman Robert W. Crown
The late Assemblyman Robert W. Crown. Photo courtesy of the California State Assembly.
Alameda’s Robert W. Crown Memorial State Beach was renamed in 1973 for the state Assemblyman who championed its state public park status and use – preservation for all Alamedans to enjoy year-round. Crown died at the age of 51 after being struck by a car while jogging. But his memory and accomplishments for our city are kept alive here.
Robert W. Crown was born January 23, 1922 in San Francisco, but later moved with his family to Alameda. He grew up loving local politics and the military.
According to the Alameda Times-Star, Crown volunteered one summer at the Alameda County District Attorney’s office while still a student at Alameda High School, where he served as student body president his senior year, and he also performed errands around the mayor’s office.
Young Crown also was a devotee of physical fitness and jogging. The Park Street resident was an avid beach runner and was known to jog at all hours of the day.
Crown served with honor in the Army during World War II, and was an infantry rifle platoon combat leader in France until D-Day. Upon returning home, he helped his family out by taking a paying transcription job when he returned and taking odd jobs like mowing neighbors’ lawns. Crown, who attended law school in San Francisco and practiced in Alameda and Oakland, eventually worked toward serving his city in a different way: politics.
He got his first state Assembly job in 1951, as a reading clerk, which saw him reading bills into the record. By 1960 he was a Democratic National Convention delegate who worked with constituents for a few days before helping to nominate John F. Kennedy as the Democrats’ presidential candidate.
Crown ran for the Assembly himself in 1954; he lost by just 54 votes. But it would be the last time that happened. Two years later he won his second bid for the state’s 14th district Assembly seat, representing Alameda, Oakland and San Leandro.
Crown would go on to win nine elections in a row, continuing through his very last victory on November 7, 1972. He was still serving as Alameda’s state Assemblyman when he died the following year (Bill Lockyer, Crown’s assistant and a San Leandro school board member, ran successfully for his seat in a special election).
Crown, a progressive Democrat, was one of the most powerful men in state politics. He served for seven years as Assembly speaker Jess Unruh’s right-hand man as chairman of the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee, where he crafted a 1961 effort to redraw the state’s political boundaries and reportedly cut millions in state spending.
In addition to securing the $851,000 needed to acquire and build what became known as Alameda Memorial State Beach Park, he wrote the bill that financed the Webster Tube, steered legislation that conveyed wetlands to be developed into the San Leandro Marina and worked to defeat efforts to build a southern crossing from Alameda to San Francisco. Crown also drafted legislation creating a state tourism office, to aid its economy.
When he died, Crown was head of the Assembly’s seven-person Criminal Justice Committee, which was set to begin hearings on use of the death penalty in California. He was part of a four-person bloc of legislators who opposed the death penalty, and would have been a swing vote to prevent it from being employed in the state.
Crown died in the early morning hours of May 21, 1973, after being struck by a car while jogging across Otis Drive at Fountain Street. The driver, Charles Shuler, hit Crown after going around a car that had stopped to let him pass. Crown died hours later at Alameda Hospital after suffering head injuries, a fractured pelvis and massive internal bleeding.
An eyewitness who knew Crown told the Times-Star that Crown "often jogged by himself for fitness at all hours of the day” and that he was wearing bright white track clothes when he was hit. Many neighbors, including the city’s soon-to-be-mayor, Chuck Corica, reportedly ran out when they heard the crash.
Crown was mourned by local politicians and the press, with whom he had maintained close relationships (the Times-Star’s editor recounted his frequent meals at Ole’s with the legislator). His stunned Assembly colleagues reportedly draped his swivel chair with a black shroud. A bachelor, he was survived only by a pair of aunts.
Days after his death a memorial service was held for him on the beach he had preserved, which would soon bear his name.
After Crown died, his supporters sought to rename Alameda Memorial State Beach Park in Crown’s honor. The East Bay Regional Park District, which manages the property for the state, originally turned down the proposal to rename the beach for Crown. But after “a great deal of outcry” from Alamedans and state lawmakers, its board reconsidered, and a renaming ceremony was held in 1974.
A who’s who of state legislators turned out for the dedication ceremony, calling Crown a “model legislator” who knew how to protect and share the gifts of nature.
"Bob was my best friend in the legislature and if he were alive, he'd say 'no' because he didn't believe in giving names of people to parks,” Assemblyman John Miller said. “It's not a pleasure to be here because we'd like him back, but it's an honor to take part in this worthy dedication to my friend."
Robert W. Crown Memorial State Beach is currently operated and overseen by the park district through a cooperative agreement with the state, which owns the beach, and the city. It encompasses 2.6 square miles and its attractions include the Crab Cove Visitor’s Center, which opened in 2004 and has life exhibits of marine animals and environmental protection and an interactive saltwater aquarium full of local organisms.
The park also features barbecue pits, tables and picnic areas plus biking and walking trails, bathhouse changing rooms near the primary parking lot along Westline Drive and Eighth Street and outdoor showers. Crab Cove contains grassy open areas for playing football, baseball and volleyball.
Crab Cove hosts a popular summer concert series every year, and organizations like the Lady KiteSurfers hold regular events on the beach year-round. The beach also plays host to the city’s annual sand castle and sand sculpture contest. Further east, it hosts visitors of the avian variety, in its Elsie Roemer Bird Sanctuary.
Two years ago, the park district pumped $6 million into an erosion control project that added nearly 83,000 cubic yards of sand to restore the thinning beach, which doubles as a sand break separating Shore Line Drive from the bay.
More information on Crown Beach is available by visiting the park district’s website or by calling 888-EBPARKS.
Michele Ellson contributed reporting to this story.