Claremont centenarian will serve as Grand Marshall

At this year’s Fourth of July celebration, there will be a new leader of the pack. Marilee Scaff, who turned 100 in November, has been named Claremont’s Grand Marshall.

She’s earned her place at the front of the parade through decades of community service and her firm commitment to making her town, and the world, a better place.

“I’ve always been interested in public affairs, because that’s how we have to be,” she said.

Ms. Scaff, who has been a member of the local League of Women Voters since the late 1940s, considers water hugely important. A longtime regular at city council gatherings, she’s turned her focus in the last decade to pushing for a more sustainable water supply.

“We can’t have a town without a good, reliable water company,” she said.

She’s glad the current city leaders agree, holding strong in their resolution to acquire Claremont’s water system from Golden State Water. “I’m proud of that city council—a 5-0 vote and holding strong,” she said.

She’s also proud of the fact that when crafting its new General Plan in 2006, the city introduced dozens of ways to support sustainability. One of these was the creation of a group of environmentally concerned residents. Ms. Scaff has been a member of Sustainable Claremont ever since.

People often joke about memory slips, calling them “senior moments.” Ms. Scaff’s memory is in fine shape, thank you very much. She spends a lot of time retrieving the numbers, statistics and details stored in her capacious brain.

“When they redid the General Plan, they listed 63 points on sustainability and they’ve done two-thirds of them,” she noted with typical mental alacrity.

Ms. Scaff has a practical approach to life, but she also enjoys the occasional decorative touch. She wears an oversized silver necklace, with a walnut backing carved by her late husband. The metal pendant, which she crafted in a long-ago jewelry-making course, features a tree whose branches are denoted by simple lines.

It looks more than a little like the city of Claremont’s logo, which features an oak tree with outstretched boughs. The accessory is a fitting way to underscore Ms. Scaff’s love of nature, green living and her city.

“I love oaks. They are very long-lived, and they do not need much water once they are established,” she said. “When the other trees begin to die, they will live. It’s a trait to admire: long-term sustainability.”

Ms. Scaff’s own long life has been filled with important work and momentous happenings.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology and economics from the University of Texas and a graduate degree from the University of Chicago in theology and social ethics. She married Alvin Scaff, who she met while pursuing her undergraduate degree, in 1938.

Soon after, the couple left for the Philippines, where they served under the mission board of the Congregational Church. They were stationed in a remote mountain village, dividing their time between raising their young family and teaching local children.

In 1941, the United States declared war on Japan. In 1945, Japanese soldiers captured the Scaffs and placed them in an internment camp.

In a 2013 COURIER interview, Ms. Scaff related the incident with a characteristic lack of fanfare. “We thought it looked pretty good compared to some of the places we had been,” she said. “It was crowded, very crowded, but actually living in the mountains was more dismal.”

They were rescued by the 101st Airborne Division and returned home, with their oldest son Lawrence celebrating his third birthday at sea.

In 1947, Mr. Scaff took a job teaching sociology at Pomona College, beginning Ms. Scaff’s love affair with the City of Trees. When she wasn’t caring for her three children, she taught part-time at the nursery school of the Claremont United Church of Christ, then called simply the Claremont Church. She also served as the church’s director of Christian education.

She later taught at El Roble and then served as counselor at the intermediate school. Her involvement with education continued to grow with a spot on the Claremont Unified School District’s Board of Education.

After earning a PhD in educational psychology from the Claremont Graduate University, she taught at the universities of Iowa and North Carolina at Greensboro. She and her husband also continued to undertake missionary work, returning to the Philippines and volunteering in places as far-flung as Botswana.

All in all, they spent eight years in the Philippines and nearly two years in east Africa, where Mr. Scaff worked for the United Nations in Ethiopia and Uganda. But the Scaffs always returned to Claremont over the years.

Membership in the local chapter of the League of Women Voters has been a touchstone during Ms. Scaff’s peripatetic life, as well as a pleasure.

“It was so nice to sit around with a group of women who talked about ideas instead of recipes and children,” she told the COURIER in 2013.

Her career, volunteer work and adventures make for an interesting life story, but Ms. Scaff refuses to take herself too seriously.

“I’m supposed to look like the Fourth of July—like a firecracker,” she joked when posing for the COURIER on the patio of her home at Pilgrim Place.

Ms. Scaff calls being Grand Marshal “a hoot.”

“I think the Claremont parade is the quintessential small-town event. It’s folksy, although it’s not quite as folksy as it used to be when we had the Lawnmower Brigade and the Twiddlers,” she said.

Ms. Staff may miss the parade’s erstwhile marching thumb-spinners, but she is not one to get lost in nostalgia. While the annual Village Venture crafts fair now draws more visitors than residents, she points out that the city has always been a cultural destination.

“Claremont has been a center for art, more in the past than even now,” she said. “The Village Venture is a giant art fair that is the current inheritor of that legacy.”

Ms. Scaff hasn’t gone untouched by time. She now uses a walker to get about. Still, she gets about more than the average person half her age. Wherever she goes, she brings to bear the lessons she has learned.

“We can hardly not be patriotic to a country that is ours. We chose it, or inherited it, and its welfare is important. But it should not stand in the way of recognizing that the planet is populated by many people, all of whom love their countries, or most of whom do. Patriotism is sometimes too narrowly depicted. It’s working for the common good.”

Ms. Staff’s good works have not gone unnoticed. 

“She is an incredible lady,” fellow Pilgrim Place resident Ken Frank said. “She knows about Claremont’s history and about its issues and politics. We usually turn to her for insight.”

Ms. Scaff’s Independence Day holiday will be a bit more exciting than usual. All or most of her four grandchildren and at least two great-grandchildren are expected to be in Claremont to see Marilee in a sweet ride with a big smile.

While she may not cherish any grand notions about her starring role in a small-town parade, she is looking forward to it. “It’s a way to build community,” she said. “The city gathers together for a fun and happy day.”

—Sarah Torribio


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