Focus on Women: Marilee Scaff’s fountain of life

There is hardly an area of community service Marilee Scaff has left untouched in her nearly 70 years living in Claremont. There’s her role with the Community Friends of International Students and her devotion to Rancho Santa Botanic Garden for example. Ms. Scaff is entering her 30th year as a volunteer at the local botanic garden, where she spurs on her never-ending curiosity with native wildflowers, a passion developed as a young child. She has also made a name for herself with the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, serving at both the local and county level.

Asking her to reflect on her other areas of involvement over the years draws up a long list from the Community Friends of International students and the United Nations Association, and she mentions each name with a devote level of interest.

Perhaps Ms. Scaff found the fountain of life in her healthy dose of involvement because this 97-year-old is sharp as a whip with walker in hand at city council meetings, Sustainable Claremont and League of Women Voters gatherings. She continues to be Claremont’s resident expert in water rights, though she would humbly dispute the title.

“I am not an expert on anything,” she says. “I just know a lot of things.”

Ms. Scaff may have retired long ago, but the lifelong career woman never stopped.

“When I retired, I began another whole career,” she joked, adding with a laugh, “I ought to have quit.”

On a warm Tuesday afternoon, a stack of books piled neatly in her front room, some perceived light reading, displays her varied interests: Doing Environmental Ethics by Robert Traer, Botswana: The Insider’s Guide by Ian Michler, Both Feet on the Land by Narayan to name a few. An inquisitive spirit has always fed the ever-inquiring mind of Ms. Scaff, fervently interested in just about everything she came across as a child. That spirit continues today.

Ms. Scaff was born in November 1915 in San Antonio, Texas. One of 4 daughters, Ms. Scaff enjoyed the outdoors as a young girl, hiking, fishing and hunting with her father.

“Because there were no sons in the family, I did with my dad all things a male child would have done,” Ms. Scaff said. “One of our great joys in the summer was backpacking in the Sierras.”

The family did a fair amount of traveling as Ms. Scaff recalls her father’s love for drives. His work with the Southern Pacific Railroad also kept the family traversing back and forth from Arizona to southern California, where Ms. Scaff did most of her growing. Out of these travels and childhood adventures was also born a great sense of curiosity.

 “I loved getting around and seeing the country,” Ms. Scaff said. “I was very interested in the Indian cultures of Arizona and in the native wildflowers. I can remember as an elementary school child going out to the desert and digging out desert bulbs and my mother saying, Honey, I don’t think you can make them grow in the soil we have at home.’ I tried and they didn’t grow.”

Higher education allowed her to continue adding to her ever-expanding knowledge base. She returned to her home state for a bachelor’s degree in sociology and economics from the University of Texas. It was during her undergraduate studies that she met someone with a thirst for knowledge that rivaled her own. Alvin Scaff was a classmate and the president of the Young Men’s Christian Association as Ms. Scaff was heavily involved in the Young Women’s Christian Association.

“We did all kinds of things together in those days,” she reflected.

Mr. and Ms. Scaff continued to feed their desire for knowledge together, both going on to graduate work at University of Chicago. Though Ms. Scaff acknowledged that, at that time, many women were purposefully kept from admission into graduate programs, she admits she never experienced any problems in her schooling. It was later, when she was trying to make it into the professional world, that she faced discrimination because of her gender. As her husband took a job as the graduate dean of the University of Iowa in the late 1960s, Ms. Scaff was selected for a position within the school of education. She was the first and only woman on the faculty of 35 men.  

“The chair of the department told me he didn’t want a woman on his faculty,” Ms. Scaff said, adding, “You now run into what they speak of as sexual harassment. Then, it was all just humor at my expense. I learned to laugh.”

After receiving their diplomas, Ms. Scaff earning a master’s degree in theology and social ethics, the couple married in 1938: “In those days you didn’t get married until you finish your graduate work,” Ms. Scaff laughed.

In addition to many other things, both shared a keen interest in cultures, particularly those left untouched by civilization. That interest mingled with their love for students, the Scaffs set 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 [the camp] looked pretty good compared to some of the places we had been,” Ms. Scaff noted. “It was crowded, very crowded, but actually living out in the mountains was more dismal.”

The Scaffs were later rescued by the 101st Airborne Division: “We were told not to go outside and look, but everyone looked anyway,” she recalled. “It was very exciting.” She recalls her oldest son Lawrence celebrated his third birthday on the boat ride home.

Upon their return stateside, Ms. Scaff and her husband settled down in Claremont in 1947 where Mr. Scaff took a job as a sociology professor at Pomona College. As she raised her children Lawrence, Charles and Marilyn, Ms. Scaff took part-time work teaching nursery school and as director of Christian education at the Claremont Church, now the Claremont United Church of Christ. With a love for teaching, especially mentoring pre-adolescent children, Ms. Scaff later began work as a teacher at El Roble School and then as a counselor. She served on the Claremont Unified School District’s Board of Education and earned her Ph.D. in educational psychology from the Claremont Graduate University.

Though work took them all over the country—teaching at the University of Iowa, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and back in the Philippines—and travels to different parts of the world, Botswana a particular favorite, they always returned back to Claremont. And All the while, Ms. Scaff had become an active part of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters (LWV).

“It was so nice to sit around with a group of women who talked about ideas instead of recipes and children,” she said, adding her enjoyment in participating in the league’s many studies and committees. “The league is very good at trying to promote the informed participation of citizens in government.”

She worked through the LWV to further her interests in policy dealing with the children she advocated for at local schools. In 1991, she conducted a study called “Child and Adolescent Welfare in Pomona Valley.” Through her leadership, the league also formed the LWV Environmental Action Committee for southern California and hosted a “What’s Next for Our Hillsides” conference in 1989, which in turn began her journey into the study of water issues surrounding Claremont. However, her interest in the subject of water began long before.

“I am enough of a westerner to be very concerned about where the water comes from,” Ms. Scaff explained. “With the dry, desert-like land and increased population, you can have a terrible problem with water, and we [at the LWV] became concerned about how to save water.”

Through the league, Ms. Scaff became well acquainted with the state’s water plan over the years. She remembers well the fateful meeting in 2005 where she made the motion to conduct a water task force to create a water study.

“The vote was unanimous,” she remembered. “I should have been smart enough to know they would make me the chair.”

The work of the LWV Water Task Force continues to be talked about, an integral study as the city of Claremont once again explores water acquisition. Pinpointing the main thing she took away from the study, Ms. Scaff’s answer is clear.

“Local control is exceedingly important, to the city, to the residents, to the people who need water here,” she said. “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. It has turned into a big national company listed on the New York stock exchange much more concerned about their benefits to stockholders.”

Her involvement in water is just one of many layers that have added richness and color to Ms. Scaff’s full and varied life of service. She looks on all her accomplishments with a special fondness. Though she says she has slowed down in recent years, it might just be her humble streak kicking in. She continues to be as pertinent and instrumental today as ever before with her present treasure in aiding Claremont’s move toward a more sustainable future. She hopes her work, past and present, will inspire a future generation of women and engaged citizens eager to work hard for what they believe in.

“I am very encouraged by the city council pushing for this acquisition of the water company. I think at the present the movement of the community in establishing itself as forward-looking for the future is very, very important and exciting to be a part of,” Ms. Scaff said. “Being able to be a part of that kind of a community is something we all ought to treasure and participate in, however we can, so I do what I can. I can’t do everything, but I wish I could.

—Beth Hartnett


Submit a Comment

Share This