Claremont centenarian embarks on another year of civic engagement

Marilee Scaff is 100 years old, a feat celebrated at a well-attended birthday party held this past Saturday at the Claremont United Church of Christ.

After decades of civic activism, the centenarian has earned the right to put up her feet. Instead, she remains very much in touch with the world, attending city council meetings and working for causes she has long held dear.

The COURIER recently visited Ms. Scaff in her home at Pilgrim Place. It is tastefully appointed with original artwork, including a stunning piece by renowned local watercolorist Milford Zornes, which she won long ago at a Democratic Club auction. She also collects crafts, including fiber work.

“We think that women in the past didn’t do art. I think that they did it with the things that needed to be made,” she said. “They did it through quilting, garments and embroidery. I admire that.”

Ms. Scaff surveyed the letters, bills and advertisements on her coffee table. “We go in for art,” she said. “We don’t go in for mail, but we get it whether or not we want it.”

There’s one daily delivery she relishes, the Los Angeles Times. “It’s lying on the table, interrupting my work. I read it before it can be thrown away at lunch.” Ms. Scaff also welcomes her Friday copy of the COURIER, and can expound with authority on its contents.

You don’t have to ask twice for Ms. Scaff to talk about water.

In 2005, she made the motion for the League of Women Voters to conduct a water task force to create a water study. The vote was unanimous and she became chair of the LWV Water Task Force. The undertaking was one of the driving forces behind the city’s current bid to attain its water system.

Ms. Scaff knows there’s a rocky road ahead. “I learned very early on that it takes a lot of hard work to get something accomplished,” she said. “If you expect it to be easy, you’ll be disappointed.” Still, she is convinced local water control is essential.

“We should never have let the water get out of our hands, but at the time when we started, the little southern California water company headquartered in San Dimas seemed like just a friendly neighbor,” she told the COURIER in 2013.

Ms. Scaff is pleased by the city council’s unanimous support of gaining control of the water system, which she notes has never been more timely.

“The state has passed a $700 million bond issue, primarily for the purpose of capturing storm water. The states are working to make every community as independent of imported water as possible,” she said. “We get half our water from northern California. Golden State Water has been pumping water for Claremont. It has permission to do it, but not if we buy the water system. That’s scheduled for court on March 7.”

Dates and numbers come easily for Ms. Scaff. Let’s establish a few numbers with regards to her life. She was born in 1915 in San Antonio, Texas. While pursuing a bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, she fell in love with fellow student Alvin Scaff. It was a natural match. Alvin was president of the Young Man’s Christian Association. Ms. Scaff was heavily involved in the Young Women’s Christian Association. 

Upon graduation, the couple headed east to pursue graduate work at the University of Chicago. They were married in 1938 after they received their degrees, Ms. Scaff’s in theology and social ethics.

The Scaffs soon set out to work as teachers under the mission board of the congregational church, schooling children in a remote mountain village in the Philippines, where they began their family. It was during these years that the war began. In 1945, the Scaffs were captured by the Japanese in a mountain raid and placed in an internment camp.

“We thought it looked pretty good compared to some of the places we had been,” Ms. Scaff told the COURIER in 2013. “It was crowded, very crowded, but actually living out in the mountains was more dismal.”

After being rescued by the 101st Airborne Division, the Scaffs returned to the United States and settled in Claremont in 1947. Alvin took a job as a sociology professor at Pomona College. Marilee busied herself raising their three children, Lawrence, Charles and Marilyn. She also taught nursery school and served as director of Christian education at the Claremont Church, now the Claremont United Church of Christ. She became involved in the local chapter of the League of Women Voters at that time and has remained an active member ever since.

Over the years, they moved across the country, teaching at the University of Iowa, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and back in the Philippines. They always returned to Claremont, however, and always managed to make an impression on the town.

Ms. Scaff was a teacher and then a counselor at El Roble Intermediate School, served on the Claremont Unified School District’s Board of Education and earned a PhD in educational psychology from the Claremont Graduate University. She has been a volunteer for the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden for three decades. Ms. Scaff characterizes the last hundred years as “a time of continuous change.”

She’s changed with the times, herself, and even has a Facebook account. Readers eager to “friend” her beware, however. Such requests are likely to go ignored.

“Now there’s all this social media to tell you stuff,” she said. “I don’t really care if your dog has run away. Alright, if you’re my dear friend, I’m very sorry.”

Ms. Scaff will share, face-to-face, the way she prefers a few political opinions. “I think Obama is doing an okay job under the circumstances,” she said. “Anyone who thinks they can do a better job, stand forward.”

Her vote for our next president, if you were waiting for her endorsement, goes to Hillary Clinton. “I think not only has she served her time—she’s very experienced, but she’s had a tough time,” she insited. “She shows up when the days are tough.”

Ms. Scaff uses a walker to get around, but she’s doing remarkably well. She is proud of what she’s accomplished, but she doesn’t pretend to be perfect.

“Everyone has vices. Nobody’s perfect,” she said. “People say it doesn’t apply to me, but maybe I’m compulsively hardworking. That’s a vice.”

And thanks to what she guesses is a combination of a sensible diet, an extraordinarily active life and good genes, she’s around to enjoy her 30th year at Pilgrim Place. As she posed for a celebratory photograph, Ms. Scaff, who was well-acquainted with late COURIER publisher Martin Weinberger, took a moment to rib her old friend. “I used to tease Martin and say he took the whole roll and used the worst,” she said.

Asked what her greatest accomplishment is, Ms. Scaff says it’s learning to cooperate.

“I’ve lived all over the world and worked with all kinds of groups,” she said. “One can find ways to get along with others, however strange they seem, as long as you have sympathy or empathy for their style of life.”

—Sarah Torribio


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