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EL CERRITO NOTABLES
A remarkable number of noteworthy people have come from El Cerrito or have lived here at some time in their lives. A few were world famous, others were
Les Blank (1935-2013) - documentary filmmaker who lived in Berkeley, but had his business, “Flower Films,” on San Pablo Ave. in El Cerrito. Some of his best-known works include “Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers,” “Burden of Dreams,” and “Gap-Toothed Women.”
Lehman Brightman (1930?-2017) - a professor of American Indian studies at Contra Costa College. Dennis Banks, an activist in the American Indian Movement in the mid-1970s, hid from the FBI in Brightman’s then home in El Cerrito (on or near Earl Court), but was discovered and arrested there.
Ernest Gilbert (“Ernie”) Broglio (1935-2019) - major league baseball pitcher 1958-1966; played for the New York Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals. Set the stolen base record that was later broken by Ricky Henderson. As a player at El Cerrito High School, he pitched to catcher Elijah (“Pumpsie”) Green, see below, who also went to the major leagues.
Victor Ramon Castro (1817-1897) - born at the Presidio in San Francisco, son of Francisco Maria Castro, a soldier. Victor became the owner of part of the Mexican land grant “Rancho San Pablo” which became El Cerrito and other nearby towns, and built an adobe ranch house near Cerrito Creek in 1839, where El Cerrito Plaza now stands. He was elected a Contra Costa County supervisor in 1852. His adobe rancho was said to be the finest in California in its day; it was destroyed by fire in 1956.
Amy Chua (b. 1962) - author of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” she graduated from El Cerrito High School and went on to Harvard, then Harvard Law School, and now lives in New Haven, Conn.
Doug (“Cosmo”) Clifford (b. 1945) - drummer, best known for work in the rock band “Creedence Clearwater Revival” which began at Portola Junior High School, continued at El Cerrito High School, and went on to international fame during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Clifford still plays drums with Stu Cook in the band “Creedence Clearwater Revisited” which was formed in 1995 and plays many CCR hit songs. See also Stu Cook and John and Tom Fogerty.
Ugo Conti (b. 1939?) -former researcher at UC Berkeley; in 1975, spent 3 years sailing around the world. Lives on Brewster Court and designs advanced fuel-efficient boats.
Stu Cook (b. 1945) - bass guitarist who grew up in E.C. and lived at the corner of Terrace and Bonnie Drive. Best known for his work in the famous rock band “Creedence Clearwater Revival,” which began as “The Blue Velvets” at Portola Junior High School, and rehearsed at Cook’s house on Brewster Drive; later they rehearsed at Fifth and Gilman in Berkeley. See also Doug Clifford and John and Tom Fogerty.
Belva Davis (b. 1932) - pioneer African-American television journalist and broadcaster; after several years at KTVU (Channel 2), she retired from San Francisco PBS station KQED in 2012, where she had hosted “This Week in Northern California” since the 1990s. Her autobiography, “Never In My Wildest Dreams,” mentions the years she lived in El Cerrito and tells the story of why they moved away.
Edward M. (“Ed”) Downer, Jr. (deceased) - president of Mechanics Bank from 1939 to 1971; lived on Charles Ave. and later at 2524 Arlington. Mechanics Bank was originally founded by his father in 1905 as the Bank of Pinole, then chartered as Mechanics Bank in 1907.
John C. Dvorak (b. 1952) - technical journalist and author of many books on the subject of computing and telecommunications; current E.C. resident.
Albert B. Elsasser (1918-1999) - archeologist and anthropologist known for his research and writings about Native Americans of California.
Richard (“Dick”) Erickson - quarterback of UC Berkeley’s football team, 1946-1949, which went to the Rose Bowl in 1948 and 1949; later executive director of the California Alumni Assoc., and UCB’s Campus Development Officer 1972-1984.
Shawn Feeney - artist and musician, and sometimes a sculptor who has carved portraits into pumpkins and other fruits and vegetables. He studied forensic imaging at the FBI Academy, and later worked for Industrial Light and Magic (Lucasfilm) in the Bay Area. He was Artist in Residence at the De Young Museum for the month of June 2015. He likes to use musical themes in his art. Current EC resident.
John Fogerty (b. 1945) - lead singer, songwriter and guitarist for the band “Creedence Clearwater Revival” (also called “CCR” for short). CCR was active from 1967 to 1972 with many hit songs known around the world. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the entire band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. See also Tom Fogerty, Stu Cook, and Doug Clifford.
Thomas Richard (“Tom”) Fogerty (1941-1990) - rock musician who joined his brother John in a local band, “The Blue Velvets,” which changed its name to “The Golliwogs” and later became “Creedence Clearwater Revival.” Tom and John grew up in a house on Ramona Street. See also John Fogerty, Stu Cook, and Doug Clifford.
Joel Fort, M.D. (ca. 1929-2015) - Psychiatrist who specialized in public health, criminology, and social problems; testified in the Patty Hearst trial and the trial of Charlie Manson for masterminding the Tate-La Bianca murders, and many other civil and criminal cases. Founded free clinics in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco during the hippie era. Long-time resident of El Cerrito.
George Friend - comic actor of the Vaudeville and silent film era; married Gertrude Spring, daughter of John H. Spring for whom the Spring Mansion was built on Arlington Ave. in North Berkeley by architect John Hudson Thomas. George became a wealthy realtor, lived on an estate called “La Casa de los Amigos” at 1101 Arlington Ave., and was the sub-divider of the adjacent neighborhood across from Arlington Park. It was his idea to make a Boy Scout camp of the former Bates & Borland Quarry (now Camp Herms).
Andrew Melvin (“Drew”) Gooden (b. 1981) - professional basketball player on several teams, 2002 to present; graduate of El Cerrito High School. As a senior, he led the Gauchos to the 1999 California Interscholastic Federation championship game for Division III. He was the National Assn. of Basketball Coaches Player of the Year in 2002 for leading the nation in rebounds, at the University of Kansas.
Louis (“Lou”) Gottlieb (1923-1996) - bassist for folk music group “The Limeliters” who were active from 1959 to 1965, and for whom Glenn Yarbrough was guitarist and tenor vocalist. He moved to a “hippie” ranch in Sonoma County which he tried to deed to God; his family chose to remain in El Cerrito, in a house with enormous glass walls in the hills.
Karen Grassle (b. 1942) - actress best known as “Ma” in the TV series “Little House on the Prairie.” Moved to E.C. about 2004; current resident and participant in the local “Lunafest” annual traveling film event featuring films by and about women.
Cornell Green (b. 1940) - football player (defensive back) for the Dallas Cowboys, 1962-1974. Graduate of El Cerrito High School; after his professional football career, he became a scout, and has over 35 years experience scouting for the NFL, at least 28 seasons of doing it for the Denver Broncos. Younger brother of “Pumpsie” Green.
Elijah Jerry (“Pumpsie”) Green (1933-2019) - Major League Baseball infielder who played for the Boston Red Sox. Grew up in Richmond, graduated from El Cerrito High School, and is now a longtime E.C. resident. He has the distinction of being the first black player to play for the Boston Red Sox, the last major-league team to integrate.
Camilla Hall (1945-1974) - member of the notorious Symbionese Liberation Army, which committed bank robberies, murders, and kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst. Camilla had lived for a time in El Cerrito, was hired for a job with the city, but was quickly fired.
Harlan Hand (1922-2008) - lived on a very steep lot on Shevlin Drive, on which he developed a renowned garden which was the subject of numerous tours and articles and was painted by many local artists. He made his own concrete stepping stones to navigate the lot, inspired by rock formations in the Sierra.
Larissa Kelly (b. 1980) - lived in E.C. during her appearances as a contestant on “Jeopardy!” in 2008 and 2009, at which time she set a record for the highest total winnings by a female player, and several other records which have since been broken. Later moved to Richmond.
Catherine (“Kay”) Kerr (1912-2011) - wife of Clark Kerr, and co-founder of “Save The Bay” in 1961, along with her friends Sylvia McLaughlin and Esther Gulick. This organization stopped the rate of turning San Francisco Bay into landfill and developing the shorelines, and continues to promote restoration of wetlands. It also inspired the creation of many other environmental organizations, and much successful legislation.
Clark Kerr (1911-2003) - Chancellor of the UC Berkeley campus from 1952 to 1958, then President of the entire UC system until being fired by the Board of Regents in 1967 for perceived leniency during the years of the Free Speech Movement and student unrest. The Kerr home was above the Hillside Natural Area.
Roderick (“Roddy”) Lee - teacher (now retired) at El Cerrito High School, his alma mater (class of 1967). He held dual citizenship in Taiwan (Republic of China) and participated in the 1970 Asian Games, winning two silver medals in track events, and also represented Taiwan in the 1972 Olympic Games. Still a current resident of E.C.
Tung-Yen (“T.Y.”) Lin (1912-2003), world-famous structural engineer, founder of T.Y. Lin International; a pioneer in the use of prestressed concrete in construction. He oversaw the design and building of over 1,000 bridges worldwide. Wikipedia says his home in El Cerrito is the world’s “first residential structure made of prestressed concrete.”
Edwin (“Ed”) McMillan (1907-1991) - Physicist and discoverer of the element neptunium; worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II; became a professor at UC Berkeley, then later director of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory. Awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1951 (shared with Glenn T. Seaborg). Lived on Vista Rd.
Willie Monroe - Television news broadcaster, and bureau chief for ABC Channel 7 for many years. Graduated from UCB in 1971. Current resident.
Ray Faraday Nelson (b. 1931) - science fiction author of many published short stories; best known for “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” (1963). He claims to be the creator of the propeller beanie (hat or cap). Current resident; lives near FatApple’s and is sometimes seen there.
John Patton, Jr. (1930-2005) - opera tenor and actor. A graduate of El Cerrito High School, he debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1965. His best-known acting roles were in “Hill Street Blues” (1981), “The Color Purple” (1985), and “Runaway Bride” (1999).
Thomas Pridgen (b. 1983) - noted drummer, best known for his work with the hard rock band “The Mars Volta” 2006-2009. It is said that The Mars Volta practiced in El Cerrito during Pridgen’s time as a band member.
Jerry Quarry (1945-1999) - well-known heavyweight boxer. He lost two matches with Muhammad Ali and two with Joe Frazier; George Foreman consistently avoided him. He was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1995 but by then had gone from being a millionaire to suffering from pugilistic dementia. He actually lived in Richmond Annex but spent much time in El Cerrito.
Sally Rand (born Helen Gould Beck) (1904-1979) - burlesque dancer and actress, famous for her “fan dance” and “bubble dance.” She was given the name Sally Rand by Cecil B. DeMille. She appeared at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, performing her fan dance with large feather fans; and starred in “Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch” at the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in 1939-1940. During World War II she had a night club in San Francisco, and after the war she owned a night club in El Cerrito on San Pablo Ave. just north of the county line (about where the Wells Fargo Bank is now). After only two years, she sold her club to Lu Watters in about 1948.
Ishmael Reed (b. 1938) - noted African-American writer, poet, editor, etc. with many honors; taught at UC Berkeley for 35 years. Primarily a resident of Oakland, he lived on Terrace Drive in El Cerrito for a couple of years after having lived in Berkeley; he described it in an article, “Why I Live in Oakland.”
Maria Remenyi (b. 1946) - won the 1966 Miss USA beauty pageant, representing the state of California. A graduate of El Cerrito High, she was a student in astrophysics at UCB when she won the title, but dropped out to fulfill her duties and later transferred to Cornell. She presently lives in Vermont and works in the real estate industry.
William (“Bill”) Rockwell (ca. 1930?-2000) - Up until 1940, UC Berkeley’s mascot, the bear, was occasionally a live animal and therefore dangerously unpredictable. In 1941, student Bill Rockwell made a bear mask to wear to games, and became an instant hit as a character named “Oski.” Bill’s education was interrupted by World War II, but on his return to Cal, he formed a secret committee of students to wear the Oski costume and mask; the committee and mascot endure to this day. Bill went on to be a design engineer for the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, and much later moved to Washington state.
Hank Rubin (1916-2011) - a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, he served in the U.S. Army in World War II. After the war he obtained a Master’s degree in public health from UC Berkeley and worked for the Contra Costa Public Health Dept. in the 1950s. Then he opened the “Pot Luck” restaurant in Berkeley with Narsai David in the 1960s and became a wine columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle as well as a longtime wine editor for Bon Appetit magazine. Lived in E.C. until 1990 when he moved to San Francisco.
Harvey Salem (b. 1961) - Played offensive tackle for the UC Berkeley Golden Bears, 1979-1982, directly out of El Cerrito High. Played professional football for ten years: four seasons with the Houston Oilers, five seasons with the Detroit Lions, and one each with the Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers. Later became a football and track coach at Albany High. His family still lives in and around El Cerrito.
Randy Schekman (b. 1948) - winner (with two others) of the 2013 Nobel Prize in “Physiology or Medicine.” A professor at UC Berkeley since 1974, he is Berkeley’s 22nd Nobel laureate but the first in this category. His share of the prize was to go towards an endowed faculty position in basic cancer biology. He is also a proponent of academic journal publishing reform. Current resident.
David Schwartz (1923-2012) - with his wife Alice, founded Bio-Rad Laboratories in Berkeley in 1952, which became a top-ranking company in life science research. Now headquartered in Hercules, it has facilities worldwide and employs more than 7,000 people, and is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Sundar Shadi (1900-2002) - Came from Punjab to UC Berkeley in 1921 to study Pomology; married here and reared a family on Arlington Ave. Was noted for his summer displays of flowers grown in patterns, and his Christmas displays of life-size shepherds, sheep, wise men, etc. making their way to Bethlehem. He was also very active in community organizations and civic improvement.
Dosho Tessema Shifferaw (or T. Dosho Shifferaw) (d. October 2014) - born in Ethiopia, he came to the U.S. as a teen and supported himself as a cab driver while attending San Francisco City College. He patented the idea for the Bowflex exercise machine and started selling it directly to consumers in the 1980s when exercise equipment manufacturers were not interested. He eventually became rich and was the owner of the estate at 1073 Arlington Ave. (built 1936) which he expanded and modernized.
Frank L. “Spanky” Spenger (b. 1941) - third generation and last family member to operate Spenger’s Fish Grotto in Berkeley, which opened in the 1930s. By the 1950s, Spenger’s claimed to serve more fish than any restaurant west of the Mississippi. Spanky’s father, Frank Spenger Jr. (“Buddy”), sold the business to the McCormick & Schmick’s chain in 1998. Spanky lived in Rough and Ready, Calif. for many years.
Chris Strachwitz (b. 1931) - although a resident of Berkeley, he owns and operates both Arhoolie Records and Down Home Music on San Pablo Ave. near Stockton. He is well known for recording blues, Cajun, and other “roots music” and regional music. He recorded the anti-war song “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” by Country Joe McDonald (of “Country Joe and the Fish”) in 1965; when Country Joe sang it at the Woodstock Festival in 1989 it became a hit, subsequently covered by Pete Seeger. Strachwitz is the subject of the documentary film “This Ain’t No Mouse Music.”
Gary E. Strankman (b. 1941) - was a Superior Court Judge in Contra Costa County, and a resident of El Cerrito when appointed in 1991 to the state Court of Appeals. Later moved to Santa Rosa.
Tess Taylor (b. 1991) - poet and visiting professor of English at Whittier College, who grew up in E.C. and whose poems have appeared in many respected magazines; has won several awards. She was “NPR NewsPoet” for August 2012 on National Public Radio. Author of “The Forage House” in which one of her poems said El Cerrito “looks like a Diebenkorn.”
John Thomas (b. 1935) - a graduate of El Cerrito High School, was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in 1957 and played ten seasons with them.
Andras (“Andy”) Toro (b. 1940) - won a bronze medal in canoeing for Hungary at the 1960 Olympics. Defected to the U.S. at the 1964 Olympics; became a coach for the U.S. canoeing team; competed again in 1972 and 1976; and served on the U.S. Olympic Committee board for 14 years. Thus he attended all the Summer Games from 1960 to 1996 in one capacity or another. E.C. resident since 1974.
Tom Toro (born Tamas Babcock Toro, 1982) - son of the above; grew up in El Cerrito, graduated from Yale University, then became a cartoonist, especially noted for having many of his cartoons published in the New Yorker magazine since 2010.
Gail Tsukiyama (b. 1957) - author of seven novels, best known for “The Samurai’s Garden” and “Women of the Silk,” which were best-sellers. Born in San Francisco, a long-time resident of E.C., obtained her B.A. and M.A. degrees at San Francisco State Univ., with an emphasis on creative writing.
Lucius (“Lu”) Watters (1911-1989) - Dixieland jazz trumpeter, leader of the “Yerba Buena Jazz Band” which bought Sally Rand’s night club on San Pablo Ave. near the Alameda County line, and operated it as a combination night club and restaurant called “Hambone Kelly’s” from 1948 through 1950. Members of the band included Turk Murphy, Bob Scobey, and Clancy Hayes. Some of their performances which were recorded live at Hambone Kelly’s are still available. Watters later became a geologist and a chef.
Milton (“Milt”) Wolff (1915-2008) - originally from Brooklyn, NY, he worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression and became a member of the Young Communist League, which led him to volunteer to go to Spain to fight fascism during the Spanish Civil War. He met Ernest Hemingway during this time. During World War II he served in the U.S. infantry. After the war, as a member of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, he defended the VALB in hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee and became its National Commander. After his marriage broke up, he came to California and traveled the world with a lady friend, after which they settled in El Cerrito. Both are buried in Sunset View Cemetery.
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