Virginia Handley: A TributePosted by Joyce Tischler, ALDF Founder and General Counsel on March 24, 2014
Saying goodbye to an old friend is never easy.
In 1978, I was starting my law career and soon after I moved to San Francisco, I began to volunteer at the Fund for Animals (Fund) office in my free time. A young woman named Virginia Handley ran the office and everybody who had anything to do with animals in the State of California knew Virginia. She was the hub.
The Fund office was a wonderful hodgepodge of literature about animals, whether from the Fund or other groups, photos of animals, and movie stars hugging animals, desks and tables for volunteers to work at, and over a dozen filing cabinets, each chock full of documents and information on every possible subject relevant to animals (remember, this was before computers or the Internet). It was a great place to hang out and everybody active in animal rights/protection showed up there at one time or another.
I liked volunteering at the Fund office, and Virginia became something of a mentor to me. Of course, she had such a lack of ego that if I told her that, she would have scoffed at the notion. She was a free spirit who was totally dedicated to her work, and she had a wonderful sense of humor. The Fund paid her a pittance, yet, Virginia never complained. She was a veritable storehouse of information on every conceivable animal related issue, and she shared it freely. Indeed, Virginia shared everything freely; ignoring the standard competitiveness of animal protection groups, she was selfless to a fault. You often hear animal activists say, “I do it all for the animals,” but Virginia honestly lived that ethic.
What Virginia loved most was lobbying for animal protection in Sacramento. And, she was damned good at it. Virginia started lobbying for animals in the 1970s, and she deserves the credit for many of the best animal protection laws that exist in the State of California. Virginia was also a founder of PawPac, the California political action committee for animals, one of the first of its kind. PawPac helps elect state level candidates who support animal friendly legislation, and publishes an annual voting chart to inform voters about how each California legislator voted on animal protection bills. Virginia was the backbone of PawPac, serving on its board until her death. Indeed she and Eric Mills had finished getting out a mailing just days before she died.
Virginia was also responsible for introducing so many of us to others interested in animal rights and protection; she had an innate talent for networking.
Sometime in late 1978 or early 1979, Virginia told me that she had recently met another attorney who was interested in animal rights, and asked if I wanted to meet him. Since I had never met another attorney who shared my interest, I jumped at the chance. That attorney’s name is Larry Kessenick and soon after we met, we advertised in the local legal newspaper, inviting other attorneys interested in animal rights to meet with us at the Fund office, the use of which Virginia happily offered – gratis. That was the start of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
Sometimes, people ask how animal activists can continue their work year after year, when they have to deal with so much ongoing pain and suffering. As Virginia knew, the answer is to live a life that’s balanced. She found her balance and a whole lot of fun from singing at karaoke bars (preferably Patsy Cline songs), acting in local plays, or comedy improv. She was a joy to watch!
I suppose it’s part of life that you don’t realize you’re living the good old days until they are gone. Virginia and I shared many campaigns, many adventures (ask me sometime about our trip to L.A. in the early ‘80s to visit slaughterhouses, or the comedy improv classes that she pulled me into), lots of hours of shared hopes, dreams, opinions, gossip, and a deep, long friendship. Virginia’s passing marks the end of an era for the movement, and a personal loss for me.
Goodbye, old friend. May the road rise up to meet you; may the wind be ever at your back.
For those of you who knew her, and for those of you who missed your chance, here’s a video interview of Virginia from 2009: