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Marilee K. Scaff: Claremont activist, teacher, author, missionary

Marilee K. Scaff, teacher and educator, former missionary, and longtime community activist and environmentalist in Claremont, died March 8 at the age of 103. A woman of prodigious intellect and energy, hers was a life well and fully lived.

Born November 27, 1915 in San Marcos, Texas, Ms. Scaff was the second of four daughters of Samuel Guy Kone and Marilee Fisher Kone. When she was very young the family moved to Yuma, Arizona, where her father served as stationmaster for the Southern Pacific Railroad, a position that saw the family traveling back and forth between Texas, Arizona and Southern California.

She credited her sense of adventure and enjoyment of nature, camping, hiking and the outdoors to this upbringing, which included summers spent in Flagstaff, where she learned to play the piano while her mother earned a bachelor’s degree at what is now Northern Arizona University. She recalled later her fascination with northern Arizona and love of its cultural heritage. 

Returning to Austin, Texas for her high school years, young Marilee switched from Camp Fire Girls to Girl Scouts, earning 35 merit badges and the prized Golden Eaglet Award. Until her death, she was the oldest living Girl Scout in the United States according to the national office. A Girl Scout scholarship paid her tuition when she entered the University of Texas at age 16 in 1932.

Discouraged (because she was a woman) from following her first choice, a pre-med plan of study, she instead majored in sociology with a minor in economics. Her commitment to social action found an outlet in the YWCA, the international “Student Christian Movement” (which did not survive World War II), and the Mortar Board honorary society. She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated Magna Cum Laude, winning a full scholarship to attend the University of Chicago. At Chicago she earned a master’s degree in Christian theology and social ethics, while also working for a black Congregational church on the south side. She and Alvin, the love of her life, were married in 1938.

In 1940, Ms. Scaff accepted an assignment from the Congregational church with her late husband to participate in founding Dansalan College on the island of Mindanao, Philippines, an effort to bridge tensions between local Muslim and Christian communities. The couple was then transferred to Silliman University in Dumaguete, Negros, just as the war in Asia began. After the fall of Bataan and Corregidor, they chose to flee into the mountains where their first son, Lawrence, was born. They evaded capture for nearly two years. Seized by a Japanese patrol in late 1943, they were jailed in military prisons, and then interned in Santo Tomas in Manila, then in the Los Baños internment camp.

On February 23, 1945, they were liberated under fire—along with more than 2,000 internees—by the 11th Airborne, a column of amtracs, and Filipino guerrillas in a daring rescue behind enemy lines, famous among military historians as model of successful planning and execution. 

Having returned to the United States, Ms. Scaff arrived in Claremont in 1947. Her husband accepted a position on the faculty of Pomona College, teaching sociology and chairing the department for nearly 20 years. Over many decades hardly any area of community life was left untouched by her enthusiasm. In Claremont she immediately joined the League of Women Voters, the PTA and other organizations. While raising three children, she also worked for the College Church with Rev. Edgar “Pete” Reckard, doing outreach and editing the book Perspectives on a College Church. 

She was a strong advocate for excellence in public education. She established the nursery school at Claremont United Church of Christ. She served on the Claremont Unified School District board from 1956 to 1960, and led in the district’s expansion, planning more elementary schools and the new campus for Claremont High School. From 1982 to 1984 she served again on the school board. 

Having a passion for modern architecture and design, she and Mr. Scaff designed and built two homes (330 Radcliffe Drive and 670 South College Avenue), influenced by the post-and-beam constructions of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Robie House on the University of Chicago campus had served earlier as their private retreat.

In 1960, the Scaff family moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where Mr. Scaff created the Social Research Section of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. Ms. Scaff spent her time educating women about health care. She took her daughter Marilyn to tea with the English suffrage leader, Sylvia Pankhurst, who had retired from feminist advocacy to support the liberation of Ethiopia.

Back in Claremont, Ms. Scaff earned a master’s degree in American history at Claremont Graduate University, and was employed as a teacher and counselor at the new El Roble Intermediate School. She felt that counseling was so important that she completed a PhD in educational psychology in 1968. She enjoyed young people, saying, “The world is changing so fast, personal stability is much more important today than job stability. I want to help adolescents plan for flexibility.”

Her professional accomplishments led her beyond Claremont to faculty positions at the University of Iowa (where she was the first and only woman in a department of 35) and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she became a mainstay of the graduate program. She mentored the first African American woman to earn a graduate degree in counseling at UNC-G. Her university career ended fittingly with assignments in the Philippines at De La Salle University in Manila and Silliman University, 40 years after she had started there. 

After retiring from university teaching, Ms. Scaff returned to Claremont and threw herself into community activities. She was president of both the Claremont and Los Angeles County Leagues of Women Voters. She chaired many studies, including the original hillsides study and conference that led to the Claremont Hills Wilderness Park. She spearheaded the movement to save the Thompson Creek Spreading Grounds and for Claremont to have its own water company. She was an enthusiastic founding member of Sustainable Claremont and the United Nations Association.

Her favorite place in Claremont was Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. She enjoyed leading students on tours and telling them stories about the original Tongva people who lived around “Indian Hill.”  She sat on the Garden’s Board of Overseers and became its honorary chair. In 2015 to honor her 100th birthday, all herbarium specimens were labeled “Accessioned during the Marilee Scaff Centennial Year” so that “all future viewers of these specimens might ask about this remarkable human being.”

For the last 32 years, she lived at Pilgrim Place. She was a master gardener. She helped fund the building of Pilgrim Place’s greenhouse and happily grew orchids, succulents and flowers there. In the 1980s, she and Mr. Scaff built some of the raised beds that still exist in the community garden today.

She received many lifetime achievement awards, including from YWCA, Girl Scouts of America, United Nations Association, US Congress, California State Senate, California State Assembly, Los Angeles County and the City of Claremont. In 2015, she was grand marshal of the Claremont Fourth of July parade, which she happily shared with her great-grandchildren. For years she was listed in “Who’s Who in America,” and in 2018 received their lifetime achievement award for leadership in education. 

Two of her favorite honors were “women of distinction” awards, one from Congresswoman Judy Chu, and another from Assembly member Chris Holden. Judy Chu wrote, “Your dedication, compassion and selfless commitment to the community is invaluable.”

Ms. Scaff was a lifelong hiker, camper and naturalist. She was the subject of the film Spirit of Place that won the John Muir Award for film excellence. To celebrate her 99th birthday, she hiked in her beloved Yosemite Valley, at the foot of Half Dome, which she climbed (without ropes!) 81 years ago.

At age 102, she wrote her autobiography titled Strength for the Journey. She concluded, “The challenge of life is to make something satisfying and beautiful out of the chaos of events that make up your days amid the times in which you live and the personal relationships that you cherish.”

“Marilee Scaff was a brilliant renaissance woman,” her family shared. “Her passing marks the end of an era.”

She is survived by her three children, five grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, and many, many friends. She will be missed by all.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 20 at Claremont United Church of Christ, 233 Harrison Ave., Claremont. After the ceremony there will be a reception and (for those who wish to see it) a showing of the film Spirit of Place.