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California Girl

Remembering former Encinitas mayor, civic leader, and animal lover Maggie Houlihan


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“She would often smile and say, ‘Encinitas: Where reality meets magic.’”  

The scene at Encinitas city hall the evening of Sept. 26 could have been from a Frank Capra movie as the city council convened to discuss the vacancy left by Councilwoman Maggie Houlihan who succumbed to cancer on Sept. 16. 

Houlihan’s followers, environmentalists, and animal activists, staged a showdown with their nemeses, Jerome Stocks and Mayor Jim Bond.

Houlihan’s absence left supporters mourning the loss of the California girl who never ventured far from the idealistic values she cultivated as a child in Long Beach during the 1950s. A lifelong vegan and rescuer of animals, she was an excellent student and avid reader of animal books by Marguerite Henry.

In 1970, Houlihan fulfilled a dream by moving her young son, Chris, and pets to Encinitas where she spent weekends surfing at Beacons and Stone Steps. She worked multiple jobs as a teller, housekeeper, seamstress, jewelry maker, and country-western dance teacher. At times she’d collect welfare. After graduating from UCSD with high honors, she forged a distinguished career working for the library. She was named UCSD Employee of the Year 1993-94. 

In 1981, Houlihan met Ian Thompson, a surfboard glasser from England, through friends. It was a green-card wedding that took place on Sunset Cliffs on Oct. 8, 1983. Six months later they fell in love. 

Concern for animals led to co-founding the Spay Neuter Action Project (SNAP) and Wee Companions, a rescue group for hamsters and guinea pigs.

Supervisor Pam Slater-Price interviewed Houlihan when she applied to be on the Encinitas homeless taskforce.

“She came into the room ebullient, full of energy and full of smiles,” she recalled. “Maggie’s hair was bright, flamboyant red and she was so enthusiastic about the task at hand. She shared her personal story about how she came here with nothing at 22, with an 18-month-old son, and eventually figured out a way to make it work for her.”

Houlihan ran for city council in 2000 vowing to preserve the character of the city that had drawn her years earlier. She’d often smile and say, “Encinitas: Where reality meets magic.”

“When she ran she was such a magnet for people,” Slater-Price remembers. “It aroused a great deal of envy as proponents for big projects and large landowners felt threatened because they couldn’t count on her as a ‘yes’ vote. They had to prove the viability of a project.”

She added, “Maggie was politically independent, but she was fiscally conservative and she believed in compassion for all living things.”

Slater-Price reported that Houlihan also reached out to those who weren’t friends. 

“She wanted Encinitas to remain what the vision of the founders was: a community focused on the quality of life for residents,” she said.

In 2004, during a triathlon in Encinitas’ sister city, Hondo, Japan, she stopped to help a feral kitten in distress. She became a citywide hero over there. Back here, political opponents made it an election issue. 

Once, a resident erected a billboard facing I-5 reading, “Houlihan is a Whore.” She sued for libel and used the settlement to build an enclosure for rescued turtles. 

Houlihan reported ongoing harassment and threats against her life to the Encinitas Sheriff’s Department. She said only one particular officer would respond. 

Despite the attacks, her all-volunteer campaign brought in the most votes in the 2004 and 2008 elections. She also served as mayor those years. City councilmembers rotate as mayor.

In 2005, Houlihan was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. It returned in 2009. Within days of completing her chemotherapy, Houlihan found out that Thompson had prostate cancer. 

“Ian tried to do everything,” Houlihan explained. “He’d have chemo at 8 a.m. and drive to Orange County to work. I don’t know how he did it.”

Thompson recuperated and continued to care for his wife until her death. “It was a green-card marriage that lasted 28 years,” he said.

Today, he is committed to perpetuating her legacy.

“I attribute some of this cancer to the level of stress she had for years, and to the fact that she wouldn’t back down,” he said. “People over time recognized what she stood for. Her message resonated with people in the community.”

He added, “Maggie was one in a billion. I have never seen anyone who could inspire so many people to action in so many different ways while at the same time never missing an opportunity to behave compassionately to both humans and animals alike.”

Slater-Price says she’ll miss her friend.

 “There was nothing she liked better than to get up in the morning and go out and do as many things she could do in her role as mayor or councilmember,” she explained.
 “The fact that she would teach line dancing at the senior center—that was Maggie.”

She added, “People loved and welcomed that independent, truth-seeking spirit.”

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