Kate Woods plays violin with Cindy Reifler-Flores

Frances Katherine Woods

June 18, 1957 – May 25, 2017          

FRANCES KATHERINE WOODS died Thursday, May 25, in a single-car automobile accident along New Idria Road in southern San Benito County. She was 60 years old. According to the California Highway Patrol, Woods’ SUV was found to have left the roadway, gone down an embankment, partially overturned and collided with a tree. Woods is survived by her brother, Kemp Minor Woods and her sister, Mel and Mel’s husband, of Atascadero. She will also be missed by countless friends and her beloved cats and dogs whom she cared for deeply.

Woods, known as “Kate” by friends and family, was a longtime resident of San Benito County and had great affection for the natural beauty and wildlife here. Born and raised in San Jose, she moved to the Panoche Valley to escape what she called the “rat race” of San Jose. Woods was a renowned and respected mariachi player, and a pioneer as one of the first female mariachi players to perform in the San Francisco Bay Area. (Scroll down to watch video of her describing her career.) Mariachi is acoustical folkloric music originating from Jalisco, Mexico and was traditionally dominated by men.  She is listed as a mariachi pioneer on the mariachi website, mujeresenelmariachi.com:

“Woods started playing violin when she was 10 years old. In 1974, when she was 15, her family moved to downtown San Jose. Soon thereafter, she met two Anglo residents of the area, Jon Clark (guitarrón) and John Rialson (trumpet), who approached her to join in their endeavors to study Mariachi music. She was recruited into the half-Anglo/half-Mexican mariachi called Mariachi Atzlán. Kate performed with the San Jose State University Symphony, but she was increasingly becoming “hooked” into the fascinating world of Mexican folkloric music. On vacation in 1977 to Puerto Vallarta, Woods discovered a 12-piece first-rate mariachi called Los Pepitas. What intrigued her were the group’s faithful renditions of the arrangements of Mariachi Nuevo Tecatitlán of Guadalajara. She introduced herself, showed them her Atzlán business card from San José and convinced the skeptical musicians to give her a try-out. She got the job and performed with the group for the rest of the summer. The experience and skills the group imparted to her were invaluable. Back in San José she worked with Mariachi Atzlán (later called Nuevo Atzlán) and became the lead musician for all regional dance genres performed by the legendary Los Lupeños Ballet Folklórico. Woods was responsible for leading the musical sections of Norteño (polka), Huasteca, Sinaloa, Veracruzano, Jalisco, and a special historic section called “Los Moros.” From 1977 through 1979, she toured with Mariachi Atzlán and Los Lupeños to the exhilarating Carnaval (Mardi Gras) in Veracruz, Mexico, to an awestruck audience upon seeing an Anglo-American mariachi female violinist for the first time. For the next 11 years, Kate went on to perform with many different mariachi groups throughout the greater San Francisco Bay area, including Mariachi Azteca, Mariachi Los Caltecas and Mariachi Los Monarcos. She became known as the first Anglo female mariachi to earn a steady living by playing six days a week, not just at various “plantas” (regular restaurant and supper club gigs), “chambas” (contracted special events), but also, she was particularly renown for weathering the weekday and weekend “al talón” circuit in many popular Mexican nightclubs. In October of 1991, Kate’s mariachi career came to an abrupt end due to a near-fatal accident that rendered her left arm useless. She rebounded within a few years and ventured on a new journey, falling back on her college studies as a writer. She became the senior staff writer/reporter as well as a political satire columnist at the Pinnacle newspaper based in Hollister, Calif. She has won seven awards from the California Newspaper Publishing Association – the “Academy Awards” of the journalism world — in the categories of Public Service, Environmental Reporting, Investigative Reporting, and Best Commentary.”

Although Woods stopped playing the violin after her arm injury, she went on to excel in her writing and artistic endeavors. She became an award-winning journalist, author, painter and vocal advocate for the environment, animals, and human rights. She was known for her intelligence, razor-sharp wit, sense of humor, and random acts of kindness to strangers.

“This lady saved our lives about six years ago on a cold stormy winter night. She let strangers in her home made us coffee let us use her phone and made sure we stayed warm until help came and got us. Very sweet lady you’ll be missed RIP Kate Woods,” Naro Gonzalez wrote on Woods’ Facebook page Thursday.

As a reporter and columnist with The Pinnacle newspaper from the late 1990s  until it was sold in 2005, she covered local politics, the environment and wrote a popular weekly column titled “Report From the Badlands” a satirical look at San Benito County politics through the eyes of the “Mayor of New Idria” also known as Orange the Cat, named after the orange water contaminated by an abandoned mercury mine in New Idria. Orange was her real cat and muse, with whom she shared many experiences. Many San Benito County residents eagerly awaited her weekly column, which became the topic of conversation in coffee shops and hair salons all over town. 

Woods was no fan of government – always advocating for less of it – and criticized the “mainstream media” long before it became trendy. During the 1998 California State Assembly race, she was so determined to make a difference that she ran as a Libertarian for the 28th District seat against incumbent Peter Frusetta. An avid reader, she was constantly fact-checking and cross-examining her sources for news articles, leaving her sharp satire for the weekly Badlands column.

“There will never be another Kate Woods. I have never known someone as brilliant, hilarious, artistic and compassionate. She pushed people to be their best selves, because if you weren’t she would let you know, “ said Tracie Cone, former publisher of The Pinnacle. “The news of Kate’s passing ripped a hole in my heart that will be slow to heal. The life force she takes with her is immense. The wonderful community of San Benito County, and the lives of all who love her, will be lessened without her,” Cone added.

After The Pinnacle was sold, she turned her attention to her family’s ranch in Panoche and community activism around environmental issues. The ranch hosted recreational activities and provided an income from their Whimsy Mining Company, owned by her brother, Kemp Minor Woods. The company mines and sells the official California state gemstone: benitoite.

She and her brother were longtime critics of the Environmental Protection Agency and vocal advocates for the cleanup of mining waste that left the water in New Idria with dangerous levels of mercury. Through her persistent writing of news articles and a lawsuit, she was instrumental in getting local, state and federal officials to clean up the pollution of the abandoned mine in New Idria that had leaked dangerous levels of mercury into the Panoche Creek and beyond for decades. BenitoLink Executive Director and journalist Leslie David credited Woods’ tenacious writing with getting the EPA to clean up the site. 

When I wrote a story on the EPA’s first steps toward cleaning up New Idria, I realized that Kate Woods had a large role in bringing the issues there to light. Her columns were unrelenting and humorous at the same time. I think eventually, the county and the EPA were motivated by embarrassment and resolved to take the first steps toward reducing the impacts of the New Idria mining operation,” David said. To read a full account of the New Idria mine, click here. And here is a short video of Woods being interviewed about her move to New Idria.

She was quoted in a 2011 article in the San Diego Tribune for their tenacious fight with the EPA and eventual success in convincing the agency to clean it up.

“Kate Woods, 53, and her brother, Kemp, own a 241-acre ranch just downstream from the mine. She has fought for decades to get EPA or the state to divert the mine water from the creek, arguing that it was not only polluting her property but waterways further downstream. She had given up hope after years of frustration,” the article read. “It’s a new administration now, so that gives me hope,” Woods said of the news that New Idria might finally be cleaned up. “That they’re actually, finally going to take this huge water pollution problem seriously is refreshing. And to see in writing how EPA admits the mercury pollution is traveling down to the Delta. We couldn’t believe it.”

During the contentious 2014 Measure J campaign in San Benito County, Woods worked with the “Yes on J” committee to prevent oil and gas companies from using a controversial extraction method, known as “fracking.” She acted as the campaign’s public relations manager, writing press releases and speaking at rallies.

“She wasn’t afraid of anything, she was a really good person to egg others on for the fight. She used always compare the oil industry to the folks who did the mercury pollution in her area,” said Andy Hsia-Coron of the Measure J Committee. “You could depend on her to take on these folks. We met her down at the Panoche bar and she was, in a lot of ways, a big presence.”

Mary Hsia-Coron agreed, saying, “She was a very passionate and bold person. Her energy was very helpful.  She saw how government agencies don’t always do their job and help the people they’re supposed to help.”

Woods was quoted in a 2014 Los Angeles Times article after Measure J won.

“This little, tiny county managed to give big oil a black eye,” said Kate Woods, a local landowner who supported the ban, which takes effect Jan. 1. “This is going to be something that spreads.”

Hollister native Rick Rivas, the brother of San Benito County Supervisor Robert Rivas,  posted a sad farewell to Woods on his Facebook feed Thursday as well:

“(Kate was) one of the most intelligent, kind, generous, and passionate people I’ve ever known was killed in a car accident. Kate Woods was a fierce protector of San Benito County,” said Rick Rivas. “I sure am going to miss her. Thanks Kate, for everything you taught me. You were a good friend and I’ll treasure our many great conversations we’ve had and the campaigns we worked on together. We will carry on your legacy and continue the fight to protect San Benito,” Rivas said.

Woods’ most recent project was writing for her website, The Galactic Sandbox: Space News and Commentary, where she focused on science and current evens related to space exploration. Her bio on the site, described her career as follows:

Kate Woods is a NASA brat who became an Associate Editor for the pioneering Space Fax Daily (Cupertino, CA) from 1989 to 1992, writing alongside future Galactic Sandbox Managing Editor Agnett Bonwit. In 1994 she served for two years as the P.R. rep for Space Age Publishing Company’s Lunar Video Orbiter mission (Palo Alto, CA). She became senior writer for the Pinnacle weekly based in Hollister CA from 1997 to 2006, specializing in award-winning articles on politics, the environment, science, scandals, and additionally wrote a popular political satire column (these columns were later compiled and published in Kate’s landmark 2012 memoir, Quicksilver Chronicles). Woods now lives and works at her long-time home in the remote ghost town of New Idria, CA, where she now paints sparkly pet portraits and rails against the imbecilic mainstream news media.

To learn more about Woods’ book, Quicksilver Chronicles, click here.

“Quicksilver Chronicles” is one woman’s surreal and satirical memoirs spanning about a decade, from the beginning of this new century, depicting what life throws at her family of gem-mining misfits struggling to live with a lethally polluted watershed in a forgotten western ghost town, called New Idria.

Subscribers of The Galactic Sandbox received a weekly newsletter from Woods with commentary about the latest space news and national politics. In her final post, on May 22, 2017, Woods praised NASA for its thrift and advances in the nation’s space program – high praise from someone skeptical of government agencies.

“We haven’t done so bad by NASA this last century. In fact, they have managed to transform what could have been the world’s worst sink-hole of tax money and loop-fed bureaucracy into an eye-popping pillar of managed resources and genius, the one federal agency that amazes us weekly with unimaginable discoveries – and with only one 100th percent (.01) of the national budget. I, for one, want to give NASA a chance on this one before I start screeching. I know… .that’s weird.  Hey, in the meantime, if you want to impeach that idiot-child  tweeting through the halls of the White House, sign this. You didn’t think I’d top it off without some kind of outrage, did you??”   – Kate Woods, Writer-At-Large

Editor’s Note: Friends of Kate Woods are planning a memorial in her honor Friday, May 26 on the corner of San Benito and Fourth Street. For details, on her memorial service, go to:  https://www.facebook.com/events/1247642898678342/