Emeryville Historical Society co-founder Nancy Smith

Emeryville Historical Society Co-Founder Nancy Smith Remembered

3 mins read

Emeryville Historical Society founder Nancy Smith passed away suddenly on December 1. She was 86 years old.

Nancy along with Donald Hausler were the driving force behind the creation and preservation of Emeryville’s unique history as founding members of the Emeryville Historical Society.

Over the past 33 years, they produced over 120 journals chronicling historical events in Emeryville and North Oakland amassing a collection of hundreds of vintage photos and rare books. A collection that the active members of the Historical Society are slowly working to digitize and hopefully preserve for future generations.

Adopted by Graves Family in 1936

Nancy Smith
Nancy Graves as a child c. 1941.

Nancy was adopted as a baby in 1936 to Virginia and Charles Graves who lived in the South Bay Area. Most of Nancy’s upbringing was in Mountain View and neighboring Palo Alto, CA.

She graduated from High School in 1954 and was accepted to and began college at U.C. Berkeley in the fall of that year.

Nancy’s eldest daughter Valerie referred to her pursuit of education as a “MRS degree”. A term from that era for women “attending college for the intention of finding a potential spouse, rather than to pursue academic achievement for a future career.”

Nancy in fact met her future husband Leo Dabaghian there, a mechanical engineering major. They were married in 1956 and she became pregnant with their first child shortly after.

After Leo graduated, he took a job at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. They had four more children between 1957 and 1963.

Nancy and Leo separated shortly after the birth of their fifth child.

In 1965, Nancy bought her North Oakland home where her children continued their education. She wanted to live close to the U.C. Berkeley campus assuming some of her children would end up pursuing academics there (although none of them ended up attending college at Berkeley).

Nancy remarried in 1969 and had another daughter the following year.

Oakland Public Library Years

While raising 6 children, Nancy continued her education by attending classes at Hayward State.

In 1980 she landed a job as a library assistant with the Oakland Public Library system at their Temescal branch.

It is here where she met Don Hausler, a reference librarian in the History & Literature department. Don was transferred to the Temescal branch from the Oakland Main library in 1985.

Nancy & Don IFO Anna Yates Elementary School on 53rd St. c. 1990.

Don was transferred to the Rockridge branch the following year but their friendship persisted. “We’d ride our bikes and meet at the Mountain View Cemetery and have lunch together,” Don reflected.

Don & Nancy were both reunited as co-workers when they were both transferred to the Lakeview branch between 1987 and 1988.

Emeryville Historical Society Founded

In 1989 Theresa McCrea, an Emeryville resident at the time, approached Don about collecting vintage photos of Emeryville for a gallery at a local pub. The inception of the Emeryville Historical Society was born as detailed in this 2007 interview with Hausler.

Nancy quickly jumped in to lend her expertise and the organization was off and running.

Nancy brought an incredible array of skills to the fledgeling organization including a meticulous eye for detail and dogged research abilities. “She wouldn’t just look at a photo, she’d study the photo,” Don explained. “She’d find details that everyone else missed.”

Emeryville Historical Society co-founders Nancy Smith & Don Hausler.
Don & Nancy at the Oakland Lakeview Branch Library c. 1995.

Other founding members came and went, but Don and Nancy were the mainstays and driving force behind the Historical Society. “If it wasn’t for Nancy, it would have collapsed,” Don explained. “I couldn’t do it by myself.”

In 1996, when Emeryville celebrated its Centennial, Nancy worked diligently on the 290 page collection of essays and photographs along with other local historians including Vernon Sappers, Paul Herzoff, Richard Ambro, Phil Stahlman, Arrol Gellner, Ray Raineri, Tony Molatore and Sandra Sher.

In 2005, she worked on the Arcadia published Images of America historical book of Emeryville.

She and Don also created an annual exhibit together at the Oakland History Room of the OPL’s main branch.

Nancy and her second husband Varon Smith along with her three sons and two of her grandchildren.

Retirement and other passions

Nancy retired from the Oakland Public Library system in 2000. She stayed active throughout her retirement years as an accomplished musician (she played the recorder), watercolor painter, photographer and volunteer at the Tilden Regional Botanical Garden.

Nancy’s second husband Varon Smith died from a long illness earlier this year.

She is survived by her 6 children, 5 grandchildren, one great grandchild and her three dogs (Lizzie, Abbie & Sophie).

Nancy’s family is planning on a Spring ceremony at the Tilden Botanical Garden to celebrate her life and acknowledge her passing.

Nancy’s final Emeryville exhibit “The twilight of the rust belt” is up at the Oakland History Room through the end of the year.

The EHS is pursuing options for a permanent home for their vast collection. If you would like to support the Emeryville Historical Society’s work, subscribe or donate at emeryvillehistorical.org.

Nancy in 2018 with Historical Society alumni and new members.


Smith and the EHS was honored with a grant from Wells Fargo in 2019 for helping research a mural that adorns their 40th street branch interior.

Feature Image: Nancy at the Stanford-Camron House History Fair in September of this year. 

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Rob Arias

is a third generation Californian and East Bay native who lived in Emeryville from 2003 to 2021. Rob founded The E'ville Eye in 2011 after being robbed at gunpoint and lamenting the lack of local news coverage. Rob's "day job" is as a creative professional.

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