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December 05, 2003

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Publication Date: Friday, December 05, 2003

Woman of the Year Woman of the Year (December 05, 2003)

Pleasanton Weekly choice for 2003 is Charlotte Severin for her support of the arts

Dolores Fox Ciardelli

Charlotte Severin, then Charlotte Wood, was only 12 when she began to use oil paints inherited from her grandfather, and even then she recognized the power of painting.

"The greatest gift you get when you begin to paint is your eyes fly wide open and you really begin to observe," said Severin, chosen 2003 Woman of the Year by the Pleasanton Weekly for her continued support of the arts. "I remember feeling it as a 12-year-old. I had a distinct feeling that I had been blind and now I could see. If for no other reason than that, it is worth painting."

As a teen in El Cerrito, Charlotte studied with two European artists, as well as at the California College of Arts and Crafts. But when it came time for college, she chose Stanford University, where she majored in a five-year nursing program. Her degree in school health and public health led to 26 years in the Pleasanton school district as a part-time school nurse and consultant.

"My parents didn't think I could earn a living painting," she explained. "But I always had a love of people, and I've always been grateful for my education in nursing. It helped me be a good mother, and when I had breast cancer in 1976."

While at Stanford, she met her husband, Jerry Severin, who was studying medicine. They both graduated in 1959, on June 14, which was their one-year anniversary. "Herbert Hoover was the speaker," she recalled. "At our graduation party, we ate the wedding cake we had frozen a year before."

After Jerry's internship in Minnesota, they spent a summer in Lodi filling in for a vacationing doctor. "We saved every penny and took an eight-month trip around the world," she said. They traveled to Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma and India, where they visited Mother Teresa's Refuge for the Destitute and Dying in Calcutta. They went on to Turkey and then all over Europe.

They were two weeks back in the United States when the Army sent Jerry Severin back to Germany, near Wurzburg. Charlotte continued her art studies there, and their son Jack was born in Germany in 1962.

After his military service, Dr. Severin set up his dermatology practice in Livermore, where they lived before moving to Pleasanton in 1966. Daughter Kim was born in 1964, and Julie in 1973.

"I became involved in the arts in Pleasanton immediately," said Charlotte. In 1969 the Pleasanton Art League was incorporated and she was instrumental in joining it with the Livermore Art League so they could share a monthly meeting, cutting the costs of visiting speakers in half while giving them twice the audience. She served as founding president of the Pleasanton Community Arts Council when it was incorporated in 1974.

Severin was also responsible for the Pleasanton Community Band. "I started it as part of the bicentennial celebration in 1975," said Severin. "We had 11 different projects from the festival committee and one was doing a renovation of the bandstand. We said, if we're going to have a bandstand, what about a band?" Amador Adult Education agreed to co-sponsor the fledgling band.

Severin also was a co-founder of Community Television CTV and headed its board for 20 years. Plus she headed up the 10-year renovation project of the Amador Theater.

Severin is credited with starting PCAC's Arts in the Schools. "Fremont hired me to teach classical watercolor and I thought, 'I ought to be doing this in Pleasanton,'" she recalled. "We wrote a grant to bring in drama, music and the visual arts. I came in and did hands-on Chinese brush painting and regular watercolor, sometimes teaching 70 children at one time in the multipurpose room."

"In middle and high schools, arts are only an elective," she explained. "They will take it if they like it and are good, but how can they find out they're good?"

"Arts are not a frill," she added vehemently. "They are essential. Art offers the balance necessary for everyone."

Severin also began a class called Teaching Teachers to Teach, although some were skeptical that teachers would take the time to attend after school hours. "Not only did the teachers come, but every school was represented," she said.

Then parents asked about art for themselves, which led to her Art Made Easy watercolor classes she gives at the Senior Center through the city's Parks and Community Services Department. In the beginning classes, Severin teaches the basics; in intermediate, students go on location for "plein air" painting.

"I had the whole class out there painting the Firehouse," she said. "I love these people. This is why I keep doing it." She is only teaching two classes starting January because, she said, "I don't have time to finish my own." The instruction is available on a series of videotapes, also called Art Made Easy.

After her breast cancer, which first occurred in 1976, Severin began teaching the importance of self-examinations. She still goes quarterly to the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin to instruct the women.

"I talk to 1,000 inmates in three sessions," she said. "The warden is very interested in their health." She also talks about colorectal cancer and about the dangers of smoking. "I try to empower them, tell them they have choices. I tell them to say, 'The only person who can choose is me. I am responsible.' I hope their choices are good."

"It's very touching," she added. "One said to me, 'I thank God for sparing you so you could come and talk to us.' I look at them and think, 'There but for the grace of God....'"

Severin also leads painting tours abroad for artists. Last year they went to China. In January she's headed to Copper Canyon in Mexico, and will be painting in France in June. She will have an art show in August at the Art Center in Mendocino, one of her favorite locations to paint. Her works hang in galleries throughout the world, as well as locally.

In addition to her community involvement, including co-chair of fundraising for the Old Firehouse Theater & Gallery, she baby sits two of her six grandchildren twice a week while daughter Kim works as a psychiatric crisis nurse. During the winter, the Severins head for the mountains when possible to enjoy skiing the expert slopes. Year round, they exercise at the Dolores Bengtson Aquatic Center.

Severin believes the arts are a gift that makes life exciting and vibrant, and greatly enhance a community. She was chosen as Woman of the Year for acting on this belief.


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