The year was 1952 and Atascadero High School junior Jerry Clay told his coach Bud Ewing that he wanted to try out for the tailback position on the Greyhounds varsity football team.
“He didn’t get it so he stomped off to JV. If it wasn’t varsity, no big deal. At least he got the position he wanted,” Mayor Tom O’Malley said, laughing, about his longtime friend.
“It’s just an example about Jerry’s personality, perseverance.”
Dedication was a common thread among the many people who talk about Clay’s leadership in Atascadero. On the City Council since 1996, his seat expired this year and he stepped down Tuesday.
Now a face so long associated with Atascadero - and one that has seen the town change over the years - will no longer look down from the city council. But his plans to continue volunteering may never come to a close.
When Clay’s term was up this year, he didn’t run for reelection because, he said, he didn’t want to take votes away from his colleagues.
While councilman has been a title Clay has held for the last 16 years, locals have also come to know him as a longtime champion of youth sports, 4H, FFA and a steadfast Atascaderan since age 6.
“My wife (Barbara) describes him as one of the real people,” said Chuck Ward, a longtime supporter and chairman of the Planning Commission.
“He’s down to earth. He’s reliable. He’s well respected. He’s been around the block. He’s the type of citizen that any community, large or small, is blessed to have.”
Clay, 78, has helped guide Atascadero’s growth and tackle major issues.
He remembers an Atascadero without stop signs, but Clay hasn’t been one to join the no-growth camp while on the council.
He’s consistently supported bringing new stores to town, including a controversial Walmart center on the city’s north side. He’s long touted sales tax gains for the city.
“Jerry has always had the attitude to live and let live,” O’Malley said. “Someone wants to save a tree, that’s fine. And someone wants a Walmart, that’s fine.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s all for change. Clay has adamantly opposed changing the names of places that honor others, such as the Charles Paddock Zoo.
His drive to support his city is an inherent part of who he is, colleagues say.
When he was 15 years old, his high school heroes were graduating and moving away.
“But I thought, ‘If I can’t make it here, I can’t make it anywhere.’ So I decided to stick it out,” Clay said.
Clay played sports throughout high school, worked at Atascadero’s old turkey plant, helped his dad farm strawberries, raised Holstein heifers and did dairy testing in the early morning hours.
At age 31, Clay became a counselor at the Paso Robles Youth Authority and stayed almost two decades.
“They used to call me ‘Eight-hour Clay’ because I’d do my eight and hit the gate and head home to my 4H meeting or one of the games,” Clay said.
He also coached youth baseball for 37 years and founded Atascadero’s Babe Ruth baseball and youth basketball programs. He later worked in real estate.
In 1988, when the city council began discussing the Highway 41 bridge realignment over the Salinas River, Clay said he became a regular meeting attendee.
Once on the council, he helped kick start the Colony Park Youth Center project, supported allowing second units on homes for aging parents and was one of the original supporters of building a veterans’ memorial at Atascadero Lake Park.
Clay served Atascadero’s mayor from 2002 to 2003.
“A young boy who grew up in Atascadero and became the mayor, that was quite an event for me,” he said.
Last summer, Clay also worked to bring the community’s Fourth of July celebration back to Atascadero Lake Park so families could enjoy the day together.
“Jerry would say it only takes one person to get an idea started and he did that again this July,” O’Malley said.
And, people could always count on Clay’s traditional pitch to eat and shop local at the end of each council meeting.
“We make a joke out of that but it’s so true,” Ward said of Clay’s customary closing comments.
On Wednesday, Clay was out buying a child’s bicycle for the local Toys for Tots drive.
“I’ll keep trying to do the right things in the community,” he said.