Doris Topsy-Elvord

1931 - 2021

Remembering Doris Topsy-Elvord: Trailblazer, Mentor, and Matriarch

Doris Topsy-Elvord is remembered as a trailblazer with an incredible lifetime of public service. Born in Mississippi in 1931, she moved to Long Beach in 1942, where she attended St. Anthony High School, and later earned degrees from California State University, Long Beach and Chapman College. Her career in service of her community began in 1956 as a California Youth Authority Counselor, and she would go on to serve 35 years as a probation officer for Los Angeles County.

After retiring from her work as a probation officer, Topsy-Elvord was appointed to the City of Long Beach Civil Service Commission in 1988, before running and winning a bid to represent the city’s 6th District on the Long Beach City Council in 1990. The city’s first Black councilwoman, Topsy-Elvord was twice elected vice mayor by her peers. She again made history as the first Black member of the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners. Appointed by then-Mayor Beverly O’Neill, she was also just the third woman to service on the commission in eight decades.

This is just a portion of the well-documented history of Doris Topsy-Elvord that so many have come to know. But Mother Doris, as she is affectionately called, was also a singularly compassionate and affecting force in her community. Friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, and so many others remember her as a lifechanging mentor, a force for good, and a profoundly positive influence on their lives.

It’s impossible to quantify the impact Topsy-Elvord had on the Long Beach community: how many lives she changed, how many people she shepherded through their careers, challenges, losses, and wins. It comforts Lori Ann Guzmán Farrell, a longtime friend of Topsy-Elvord, to think of Mother Doris as a tree whose roots run deep and long underneath the City of Long Beach, with the many lives she touched and mentored blossoming from those roots.

“Hopefully we’re all bearing fruit that she would be really proud of, that she would see as part of her legacy,” Guzmán Farrell said. “She has planted so many seeds in people, and we’ve been able to blossom in our own careers with that same commitment to giving back.”

Guzmán Farrell first met Topsy-Elvord when she moved to Long Beach in 1999. Now the City Manager for the City of Costa Mesa, Guzmán Farrell has had a long career in public service, with positions in the City of Long Beach ranging from city controller to harbor commissioner. She remembers Topsy-Elvord as someone who was an incredible role model who broke barriers and encouraged women in the workplace.

After a successful career in financial management at the State of New York, Topsy-Elvord supported Guzmán Farrell when she applied for the position of city controller for Long Beach. Despite her background, the interviewing process seemed to have endless hoops to jump through, and she expressed her frustration to her friend. “I was slightly offended by the whole thing. I’ll never forget – Doris said, ‘Look. This is bigger than you. You’d be the first woman of color who was city controller. If they ask you to come back, you come back. You put your best foot forward. Don’t make it about you and how frustrated you are . . . . It would be great to have greater representation at the city at this level,’” she recalled. “It changed the whole dynamic for me.”

Guzmán Farrell also remembers her mentor as someone who was deeply kind to all people. When Guzmán Farrell, who is adopted, found her biological mother, Topsy-Elvord wanted to meet her. “Doris was just so nonjudgmental and so warm and embracing of her that it really touched her,” she said. “That was the kind of person that Doris was. . . . She was going to be just as kind to the chairman and CEO of Yang Ming [shipping line], but she was also going to be that way with the woman who was a teen mom and gave birth to a baby girl when she was 17 and you know, ended up not being able to raise her. She would embrace that person too. She was just really loving in that way.”

For Sandra Holden, the owner of a successful videography and media company, Media 360, Topsy-Elvord became a key mentor. Hired by the Port of Long Beach in her twenties to create a cable television series, port leadership asked Holden to meet with Topsy-Elvord, who was on the harbor commission at the time, to learn about the workings of the port and then-Mayor Beverly O’Neill’s vision for it.

Holden, who is an immigrant from Mexico, said, “Like anybody else, she took me in and mentored me. I would go to her house and we would sit in her living room. She could go on and on telling you these great stories of people she had met and worked with all the way from D.C. to world leaders,” she recalled. “And while we were doing all this, her husband Ralph most always was in the kitchen. Then all of the sudden there would be homemade peach pie or chicken pot pie that would erupt out of the kitchen. And when it was time to leave he would like pack up all these bags for me to take home to the family, which was adorable,” she said with a laugh.

“Doris mentored so many of us women of color. I don’t know if she did it for other people, but she introduced me to a lot of very powerful women. I was only in my 20s, and I was from another country. She took me under her wing,” Holden said. “‘We’re here to humanize the world. That’s our job.’ That was her favorite thing to tell me.” She added, “She was a champion of people. And it didn’t matter what color you were. She wanted you to win.”

For Alex Norman, Topsy-Elvord played a key role – if not THE role, in his moving to and becoming a community advocate for Long Beach. Norman met Topsy-Elvord in 1990 in Liverpool, England, where he had asked Long Beach-based civil rights activist and professor Evelyn Knight to participate in an American delegation to a conference he had helped organize on the topic of African and Asian solidarity. Knight brought Topsy-Elvord with her. “That was my first time meeting Doris. The next time it was when she was running for city council, and Evelyn asked me to help her in the campaign, and I did,” he recalled.

“The third time was when Long Beach City was developing a proposal for an empowerment zone. I was asked by Doris to come down and help facilitate that proposal, and in the process fell in love with Long Beach,” Norman said. “So two years later, my wife and I moved to Long Beach. Doris again entered my life and she asked me to be on the board of the Atlantic Community Economic Development Corporation which she and Mayor Beverly O’Neill had created. And that began my activism in Long Beach for the next 21 years.”

Norman is a professor emeritus of social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School and is the founder of Rethinking Greater Long Beach, a community think tank that has published in-depth research about Long Beach’s diverse communities. “She was an inspiration for me because she was the one who connected the dots between my talents and the services that Long Beach needed,” Norman said. “She has mentored so many people and opened doors for so many people. We lost a treasure.”

Norman reflected that Topsy-Elvord was one of the most optimistic people he ever knew. “That was the most striking characteristic of Doris. A compassionate optimism.”

Compassion is at the forefront of Anitra Dempsey’s memories of Doris Topsy-Elvord. A longtime civil servant who served in various roles at the City of Long Beach, including as executive director of the Citizen Police Complaint Commission and as deputy city manager, Dempsey knew Topsy-Elvord from professional circles. So when her mother was put on in-home hospice and she heard that Topsy-Elvord wanted to come help and spend time with them, she was a little surprised. They didn’t know each other personally, after all. But that quickly changed.

“She came over and she and my mom were laughing about growing up down South and everything,” Dempsey remembered. “I have such fond memories of her in the living room where we had my mom’s bed, Doris laughing with her with their heads thrown back – and she was rubbing my mom’s feet.” This was when Dempsey first saw that “Mother Doris” was not just a casual term – it reflected the sincere compassion that Topsy-Elvord showed to those around her.

“She also mentored me when my positions gained more visibility within the city. She told me about landmines to avoid. It was really easy for her to be a mentor because all you had to do was watch,” Dempsey said. “She modeled for me that public service is really about what you give back, and hearing people and seeing their needs.”

LaVerne Duncan, Executive Director of the Andy Street Community Association, met Topsy-Elvord when she became a city officer dedicated to affordable housing – a shared passion. “She was one of the people who inspired me to create the first multi-family improvement district in the state of California,” Duncan said. “She was a person you could turn to if you needed advice, if there was a problem that need solving, or you needed to talk it out with someone.”

Duncan remembered Topsy-Elvord as humble – not one to share what she did for others. “But I can tell you, she was one of the people who inspired me to get the Andy Street Community Association started,” she said.

“One of the things she used to say is that promises are made but promises have to be kept. If you make a promise, you have to keep that promise,” Duncan reflected. “She would give you really good advice and then she would follow up with you to see if there was anything else that you needed. She was that kind of person.”

Cecile Harris Walters, former chief of staff for Topsy-Elvord, shared a similar sentiment. “Vice Mayor Doris Topsy-Elvord was an amazing, a remarkable, and a phenomenal woman who gave generously of her time and talent throughout her administration,” she said. “She was dedicated and gave unselfish service to the citizens of the Sixth District and the entire Long Beach community as a city councilmember and vice mayor on the Long Beach City Council.”

Those who worked with Topsy-Elvord remember her as a champion of her community, and one who was committed to uplifting women and minorities. Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cordero served with Topsy-Elvord on the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners. Both were appointed by then-Mayor Beverly O’Neill. “Hence began, in my opinion, a change on the harbor commission, not only with regard to a diverse portfolio of views, but also of ethnicity,” Cordero said. “With all the conversation today about diversity and equity, for the port that’s not a new conversation. Doris led that back then.” Case in point, Topsy-Elvord led the way for the port’s policy to award one-fourth of its contracts to businesses operated by minorities and women.

One of Cordero’s fondest memories of his former colleague was a trip they took as harbor commissioners to a conference in New Orleans. They ended up taking a side trip to Topsy-Elvord’s birthplace of Vicksburg, Mississippi, to visit the office of the Army Corps of Engineers. “I will always remember that she was so joyful about sharing where she had come from,” he said. “Doris never forgot where she came from, and not just Vicksburg. By that I mean, she never forgot about the needs of the community and particularly African Americans and ethnic minorities.”

Judy Seal, the former and longtime Executive Director of the Long Beach Education Foundation, met Topsy-Elvord when she was asked to lead the development of what would ultimately become the Long Beach College Promise. “Ms. Topsy-Elvord asked me to sit with her. I was honored. She told me that all of society’s ills and all inequities between and among ethnicities and socio-economic levels could be healed by education,” Seal recalled.

“She said, ‘One request, make sure all of your committees are as diverse as Long Beach is,’” Seal noted, adding that Topsy-Elvord also encouraged her to recommend diverse community members to nonprofit boards she was involved in. “We checked in a few times a year. I kept my promise to her and did call her for recommendations. To those I sponsored and asked to join organizations, it all began with the Honorable Doris Topsy-Elvord.”

James Hankla worked with Topsy-Elvord in a variety of roles over the years. When she served on the Long Beach City Council, Hankla was the city manager. “She was a no-nonsense city councilperson. Basically, if you wanted to change her mind, you better have your facts straight,” he said. They also served on the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners together – and prior to their work together in Long Beach, they both worked Los Angeles County. “There was a point in time when I was Chief Administrative Officer of the County and she was a senior probation officer, and highly regarded,” he said. “More or less, she worked for me – all the other times I worked for her!” he said with a laugh.

“She had a real passion for the city and she was tireless in her promotion of the city for positive reasons,” Hankla reflected.

There are myriad, and perhaps nearly countless, examples of Topsy-Elvord’s devotion to promoting her city. One of key memory to Steve Goodling, President & CEO of the Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau for the past 20 years, was her role in bringing the 2004 Olympic Swimming Trials to the city. “When I called Doris, who was then serving on the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners, to ask for her support in bringing the trials to Long Beach, she asked a rhetorical question: whether women would compete in the event. I laughed and said yes of course, and Doris swiftly rallied the support of her fellow commissioners knowing that women would be showcased as part of the great athletic competition. We were successful.”

Goodling continued, “The event brought world class athletes to the City of Long Beach, attracted visitors from all over the globe, and was ultimately instrumental in Long Beach’s inclusion as a site for the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. There are many ways Doris impacted our city and its residents, and this is just one example of how those impacts are lasting for generations.”

There is much to be said about Doris Topsy-Elvord – so much that you’d have to write an entire book, or maybe even a few, to get it all down. But one thing that Dempsey and others want to be sure the family of this matriarch of Long Beach knows, she said: “I want to acknowledge and thank the Topsy family and the Elvord family for sharing her all these years. It’s a lot to have your mom, your wife, your family in so many places. And sharing them is a big deal. They shared her with grace. They supported her supporting us.”

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14 responses to “Doris Topsy-Elvord”

  1. Jeff Kellogg says:

    I first knew Doris as simple, Gerald Topsy’s mom at Hughes Junior High School where her son and I attended and were involved with sports. You can tell a lot about a parent, especially a mom, by the way their children act. Decades later, our paths cross again when she was elected to the Long Beach City Council. One of my most fond memories was being with her late on election night at her “campaign headquarters”, also known as a particular bar/lounge on Santa Fe Avenue, waiting for the results of a very close race. Back then, results were usually counted and made final on election day or in the wee hours during the morning of the following day. The latest and assumingly, the final results had been made public on the local cable station with Doris now behind. The incumbent was claiming victory. I went into the small phone both and put some change into the pay phone to call down to City Hall to confirm the results. I talked directly to our City Clerk who was in charge of the election who gave me the FINAL numbers. I hung up and opened the door with Doris and my good friend and fellow Oregon Duck Maurice Anderson looking at me and asking the obvious question of “what did the City Clerk say”? To which I gave Doris a big hug, she’s now thinking she had really lost the election, and I said calmly, “the City Clerk told me there is a new Councilmember representing the 6th District and her name is Doris Topsy-Elvord!” Smiles all around. The announcement was made to friends and family that were still there. A special moment!

  2. Chiyeko Sherman Perry says:

    Rest in Heavenly Peace to the woman who Mothered, Mentored & Encouraged many of us. Her service & tireless drive to help us all thrive & contribute to our community is very much appreciated.

  3. Dominica Smith says:

    It was at the Port of Long Beach as the Officer of Government Affairs is where I was first introduced to Mother Doris. She took me under her wings and motivated and inspired me to always make a big impact in everything that I was charged to do. Speak up often and always hold your head high are words she would often share with me. She was the perfect example of success and full of wisdom and grace. To know her was to know that she loved people and cared deeply about her community. She was the best advocate in Washington DC as she spoke passionately about projects and programs of interest to policymakers and officials. She will be missed greatly, but I will always her close in heart. Rest well Mother Doris. Job well done!

  4. Charleen Thomas says:

    She was a Great pioneer who left a trail for other black women to follow in her footprints

  5. Shirley D. Bowman says:

    Rest in eternal peace Soror Topsy-Elvord. My sincerest condolences and prayers to the family, sorors, and friends of this amazing woman.

  6. Michael Beasley says:

    My heart goes out to all of you!

  7. Sharon Mclucas says:

    She will be missed through the City of Long Beach.

  8. Carolyn Christian Hines says:

    Have you ever had a person on your life that no matter what you asked for or thought of ..she said “yes , go for it ….you can do it ”
    As my Line Sister (Sands)in Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated…
    Spring,2000 Mother Doris was #2 out of 4….At 71 years young at the time, she kept us in shape …and on task….
    Prayers for Ralph and Stephen…
    Love 💘 you beyond words..Miss you already…Long Beach has a hole in our community.But the standard for excellence has been raised.

  9. Everett Glenn says:

    Thank you for your selfless service, for standing in the gap for the least and the left out, for not backing down from challenges, and for staying the course. Job well done, His good and faithful servant.

  10. Gloria Bradley says:

    R.I.H. thank you for your kindness.

  11. Anita Harris says:

    Praying for the family.

  12. Lydia A. Hollie, JD/MAED says:

    I shall remember your words of wisdom when we shared brief moments together. Thank you for the forging the way toward a brighter future for generations to come.

  13. I shall remember her words of wisdom when we shared brief moments together. Thank you, Mother Doris, for forging the way toward a brighter future for generations to come.

  14. Shenequle Hardy says:

    Thank you for accepting me.
    It was a pleasure be a part of you and Gerald’s life. Your graciousness will always be appreciated. 🌹

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