‘My parents were told not to rent a house in the Hawthorne district (in San Luis Obispo) because the kids were tough the Rizzolis and the Cattaneos,” recalled legendary Hawthorne Elementary School teacher Clara Baldridge in 2008.
Her parents, Ruth and Franklin King, had moved here from Blythe in 1929 when Clara was in the fifth grade. The Great Depression had not yet begun. Clara’s dad heard about a job as a dairy inspector in San Luis Obispo County. She loved to ride along with her father to the farflung dairy farms as he tested milk. They liked to stop in sparsely populated Baywood Park alongside the bay to eat their breakfast or lunch.
The family lived in “so many ‘hole in the wall’ places including a converted garage,” recalled Clara’s daughter, Susan Stanley.
Then, Clara’s mother got to “cook for the cowboys” in the cafeteria at Cal Poly. The family got to live above the cafeteria, which was across from the football field and was later converted into a girls dormitory.
“I’d go to the library (now the History Center) on Saturdays to look at True Romance magazines. I wasn’t allowed to dance because my mother was a ‘deep water Baptist.’ ”
Clara graduated from San Luis High at 16. She spent a lonely year at Redlands, too far from home. Her mother said that she “had to persevere and get a college education.” So she transferred to the newly founded Pepperdine College, a few miles south of downtown Los Angeles. She enjoyed the “urban experience” in which she and some other women students lived in a hotel and took the trolley cars to school.
“During the summers, back to San Luis, she took flying lessons for 10 cents a lesson” at McChesney Field, now San Luis Obispo’s airport, and got her pilot’s license, Stanley said.
“In 1943, the government asked Clara to join the women pilots who were ferrying supplies for the war, but she said ‘no’ because I had just been born,” Stanley recalled.
After graduation and student teaching at UCLA, Clara taught at Hawthorne Elementary School. “I immediately fell in love with the kids and taught there until 1981.”
"My first principal was Mrs. Forester, who never smiled and had hair combed with a Mixmaster.”
Bill Cattaneo writes from Louisville, Ky., “Our class was Clara’s first. I had never seen a woman quite that tall. She towered over her young charges.
“One day she announced we were taking a field trip to Cal Poly. It turned out to be agreat delight. One by one, we entered Cal Poly’s ice cream manufacturing building and were given vanilla ice cream cones. So many times over the years, that wonderful day has come back with all its magic.”
Clara recalled her many early ‘fans,’ including one who was heartbroken when she married on the eve of Pearl Harbor: “A first-grader named Teddy decided he was going to marry me the first year I taught. He was heartbroken when I eloped. Teddy became a minister.”
Famed artist Robert Reynolds was in her second class. Hanging in her living room was a painting by Bob of his son, Scott, with “a jar of pollywogs.” Today, Bob’s daughter Jill Berry teaches kindergarten at Virginia Peterson Elementary School in Paso Robles. Fifteen years ago she had 20 students. Now she has 32. This year, 12 days were cut from the 2012-13 school year. Clara Baldridge would join Jill in asking “How can we cut anymore?” Please consider voting Yes on Proposition 30 in honor of all the great teachers who help us.
This column is by Liz and Dan Krieger. Liz Krieger is a retired children’s librarian from the SLO County Library.
Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.