Evanston bestows honor on Malibu East resident

Posted on Tue, 11/01/2016 - 11:30am

By Tracy Poyser

Clara Hairston PateDuring my 10 years as a volunteer staff writer for the Dialogue, I have had the pleasure of interviewing many wonderful residents, but rarely someone like Clara Hairston Pate, whose amazing life force never let anything stand in her way despite the odds.

Our neighbor Richard Hicks had alerted us that the City of Evanston had honored Clara’s long and successful tenure as a former Oakton Elementary School principal and District 65 teacher with her very own street name: The portion of Oakton Street between Ridge and Barton avenues has now been designated as “Clara Hairston Pate Way.”

The Evanston City Council approved the resolution in June, and the official ceremony took place on Aug. 25 on the school lawn at 436 Ridge Ave., attended by a large contingent of former and present-day students, fellow educators, friends and Evanston city officials. For more details, you can Google “Clara Pate Street Name Evanston Review,” and it’ll pop right up.

It’s clear from listening to Clara that kids and teaching were her life – and that of her beloved late husband, Edward Pate, who passed away in March 2015. It was a great joy to her that, in 1971, Edward became the first African American principal of Chute Middle School, a stone’s throw away from Oakton Elementary. That meant that “Pate’s Kids,” as Clara’s students were lovingly known, could go right from Clara’s caring leadership into that of Edward, and the couple were able to support each other and gain strength from their shared passion as educators.

Clara’s teaching tenure in Evanston from 1963 to 1994 included many firsts: the first African American female principal of Evanston’s College Hill, Timber Ridge and Oakton schools; the first principal to implement an all-day kindergarten program, a breakfast program and three special education classrooms; the first guidance counselor in District 65; and the first to introduce team teaching, among other groundbreaking initiatives. But that doesn’t even begin to express Clara’s passion, resilience, pride, diplomacy and grace in the face of incidents of racism, which struck me when I listened to her telling me about her and her Edward’s life together. And, she never backed away from challenging school bureaucracy that didn’t make sense, personally nurturing kids in need of special encouragement, or creating an open-door policy where none had existed before.

Both Clara and Edward were born in 1936 in Winston-Salem, N.C., where they attended excellent, though segregated, schools. While in college in Durham, N.C., and Baltimore, respectively, they met at a winter-break party in 1954 and married on Nov. 8, 1958, in Chicago, where both had found teaching positions. Not surprisingly, given the pervasive undercurrent of racism at the time, social and civic engagement soon became an integral part of their lives, including civil rights lunch counter sit-in demonstrations.

Clara recounted several glaring examples of overt prejudice:

In 1958, when Clara and Edward went in person to book Hyde Park’s Ramada Inn Lake Shore for their wedding reception, they were shocked when the hotel staff told them that the space wasn’t available for that date, which she knew wasn’t true because they had checked earlier and were told that the hotel did have space available. Although they had to cram their large gathering of family and friends into her cousin’s house, it was a memorable and joyous wedding day. (A quick fast-forward: When she planned their big 50th anniversary on Nov. 8, 2008, Clara, intrepid and dignified as always, went to the very same Ramada Inn and told the manager how they had been treated 50 years earlier. The manager was deeply apologetic and made sure they got absolutely the best function space and pricing for their celebration, including a complimentary deluxe suite for the golden couple.)

And, during an early job interview in Evanston, she was asked if “she felt comfortable teaching children who lived in $600,000 homes.” I found that as hard to fathom as her being directed to the back door of one of those large Skokie homes where she had gone as a school principal to attend a PTA meeting. From then on, she directed all PTA meetings to be held in the school library.

After Clara and Edward had earned their master’s degrees, with Clara teaching for five years at what was then one of Chicago’s worst public schools, Carver High, the couple accepted teaching positions in Evanston/Skokie. In 1968, they adopted nine-month-old twins, Paula and Paul, and in 1971, they left their beloved Hyde Park home to cut down on a two-hour commute.

Their new home was a brand-new condominium building on North Sheridan Road: our very own Malibu East, where they were the very first owners to move in while the building was still far from finished, with only one elevator running at the time. I was intrigued to see “Breezes from the Malibu East” from August 1971, the precursor to your Dialogue, with tips for moving and photos of the first pool party. Clara still loves her southeast corner unit with its great view over the lake and all the great memories with family and friends that she and Edward made in it.

Not only did the Pates overcome obstacles to become ranked among the more lauded educators in Greater Chicago, but their leisure time was full of daring adventures. They traveled widely all over the U.S. and worldwide, including hang-gliding over waterfalls in Hawaii; attending the Passion play in Germany’s Oberammergau; seeing the Step Pyramid in Egypt; taking a balloon flight over Australia’s Phillip Island; and, for Clara’s 80th birthday, trying a skydiving jump – to name just a few.

It’s clear that both embraced our entire world with all of its history and beauty, but their spiritual life has clearly been their most important guiding light. Volunteering for numerous church initiatives and programs to make life better for their fellow beings was a natural extension of their passion as teachers and is now a great comfort to Clara.

Knowing of my interest in photography, she had told me a while ago that she loved taking photos, but that hardly described the loving way in which she created numerous framed biographical poster collages that will keep her legacy alive for future generations. I wish we could print them all here and that we had enough space to share all of Clara’s vivid anecdotes and stories about her family and stellar professional life, so I sure hope she’ll publish an autobiography sometime soon. Her courageous life has surely touched many, in addition to all her former students.

Clara attends many of our Malibu East social functions, and I hope you’ll have a chance to talk with her sometime soon (an elevator ride wouldn’t be enough).