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She made her mark

Marie Cleasby and her graffiti squad.

By Don Langley

While helping to form the Webster Street Historic District in the late ’70s,
Marie Cleasby insisted she wanted to paint her house purple.

Like her neighbors, she wanted to form the district as a hedge against further expansion of the California Pacific Medical Center, which abutted the back of her property. But she was adamant that the district’s restrictions not include color control. When the enabling legislation was passed by the Board of Supervisors in 1981, after an eight-year effort, it said nothing about color. Soon 2373 Washington Street was painted purple, with fuchsia trim.

Throughout many confrontations between neighbors and the hospital’s administrators, Marie was never bothered by the fact that her husband, Gil, was a prominent ophthalmologist affiliated with the hospital.

The episode was a metaphor for much of Marie’s life, which ended May 24, 2008.

She combined a strong sense of community involvement with an equally strong streak of personal independence. Through strength of will and determination, she usually got what she wanted — with one notable, final exception: She specified that when she died there should be no service. Her friends at the Sequoias, where she and Gil eventually moved, overruled her. Her memorial on May 30 drew a standing room only crowd to the large auditorium.

As she had in the neighborhood, Marie made her mark at the Sequoias. She and Gil moved into the retirement community at relatively young ages. A unit they wanted became available and they decided to take it, rather than chance they wouldn’t get what they wanted later on.

Within weeks of moving in, Marie was busy breaking up the cement-like soil around nearby street trees so she could plant flowers. Quickly she organized a committee of the well-to-do retirees to pick up litter on the streets around the Sequoias. For some, it was among the few tasks of their lives involving manual labor.

At the memorial service, her graffiti-abatement squad wore the irridescent lime green vests they sport during their Saturday morning patrols. Two representatives of the Japantown Task Force testified to the effectiveness of Marie’s projects.

A love of flowers spanned her lifetime. While still living on Washington Street she became a master gardener, took a job at a local nursery and became a docent at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. Naturally she later gave advice on the Sequoias’ gardens.

Longtime Washington Street residents remember one other aspect of the Cleasby era. On July 3 or 4, anonymous notes would circulate that there might be interesting activity in the Washington-Webster intersection after dark. It was her sub rosa announcement that her son David would once again put on our neighborhood’s private fireworks display, which was far more fun than the city’s bigger, showier festivities.