Rue Clifford

Rue Clifford on a horse which she rode to collect petition names for a South San Francisco library grant. 

We live in an age when street names are changed, statues are torn down and murals covered, all because a once revered name can be tarnished in seconds. Curiosity got the better of me when I learned there was a Clifford Field in South San Francisco and a Clifford School in Redwood City.

I had to know if I was related to those Cliffords and if they had done anything that would alter their legacy in a negative way. The South City Clifford came up squeaky clean. In fact, I think there should be more honors for Rue Randall Clifford, a dedicated school teacher who joined the South San Francisco High School faculty in 1913 and became a fixture for 43 years, teaching English, music and glee club. Clifford even staged school plays and started the school’s first journalism classes. An avid sports fan, Clifford, known to her many admirers as “Cliffie,” covered tennis for a San Francisco newspaper during the summer.

The South San Francisco city website said Clifford, who died in 1964, never married, praising her for becoming devoted to the “community and students throughout her long life.” Her accomplishments attest to that. Besides teaching, she was secretary of the city library board for 37 years and helped gain a Carnegie grant to build the library. South San Francisco old-timers recalled how she rode a horse to canvass the area during the campaign to obtain petition signatures needed to gain the grant.

In 1988, Clifford was named to the San Mateo County Women’s Hall of Fame, and not just for her teaching career. Her other contributions included operating a hospitality house that was a home away from home for GIs in World War II. The hospitality house at Grand and Linden avenues in South San Francisco was recalled in the recent World War II exhibit at the San Mateo County History Museum on Courthouse Square in Redwood City.

Unfortunately, I found out I was not related to Rue Clifford, and the same goes for the bearer of the name of Clifford School in Redwood City. That would be Nathan Clifford, whose connection to Redwood City is tenuous at best. Clifford was born in Maine in 1803 and went on to become a member of Congress and eventually a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. He helped arrange the treaty that made California part of the United States, which I suspect is the local link that led to the name Clifford Avenue. Redwood City is in California — get it? Still, the Clifford name was strong enough to beat out others in a vote of school parents in 1951 when the Clifford Avenue School was brand new.

Just why the vote was needed is unknown. Perhaps the parents wanted something more original. The name issue was serious enough for 100 parents to respond with an emphatic “yes” when asked if they wanted to change the name, a subject that surfaced during a meeting called to form the Clifford Avenue School Parents Club. A committee was named, and the call went out for suggestions from “any interested resident of Redwood City,” according to a report in the Redwood City Tribune. Those that flowed in rapidly included the names of poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, Palomar as in the district, Nathan Clifford, and General Electric President Charles Wilson. Clifford won with 146 votes while Palomar came in second at 72 and Wilson third with 37 votes.

The defeated names included Cordilleras, Fremont and Jefferson. Some students wanted the school named for famous cowboy star Hopalong Cassidy or beloved TV puppet Howdy Doody. If the vote was taken today, another celebrity would undoubtedly be in the mix of contenders — Clifford the Big Red Dog.

The Rear View Mirror by history columnist Jim Clifford appears in the Daily Journal every other Monday. Objects in The Mirror are closer than they appear.

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