The life of Ellen Fletcher, a longtime Palo Alto councilwoman who helped transform the city into one of the nation's most bike-friendly communities, was celebrated Sunday at a memorial service, where city leaders, bike advocates and members of Fletcher's family paid tribute to the iconic leader.
Fletcher, a Berlin native who fled Germany at the age of 10 and lived in London and New York before coming to California, died Nov. 7 at the age of 83 after a battle with lung cancer. More than 200 people, some wearing suits and others decked in bicycling spandex, attended her memorial service at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center on Sunday. In what can be interpreted as a tribute to her legacy, more than half of those in attendance raised their hands when asked if they rode their bikes to the memorial.
Jeff Fletcher, Ellen's son, read an autobiographical passage in which his mother described her childhood in Berlin. She was living in a foster home in 1938, when the Nazi government passed a series of restrictions on Jewish people, including ones barring them from certain streets. She recalled Kristallnacht, the night of pogroms targeting Jewish people. She and other children in her home were asked to get dressed and sit quietly on their beds. They "sat for what seemed like a long time" while listening to screaming outside.
Shortly before turning 10, she received a telegram informing her that she will have to leave Germany because of a new law targeting foreign citizens (her father was a Polish citizen). Her 10th birthday, she wrote, was supposed to be her farewell party as well. But only one person was able to attend because of restrictions barring Jewish people from walking the streets that day. Fletcher recalled seeing the entire population of Berlin joining "in hating Jewish people with enthusiasm." She was taunted in school.
"The abuse we had to put up with daily was daunting," she wrote.
Ellen Fletcher ultimately left for London as part of a Kindertransport program, which provided passage from Germany to England for Jewish children. She recalled sitting in a hostel for refugee girls and hearing bomb sirens outside, though she did not know back then what the sirens signified.
In 1946, Fletcher moved to New York, where she graduated from Hunter College and discovered bicycling, an activity that became a lifelong passion. After graduation, she moved to Menlo Park and Palo Alto and became deeply involved in local politics. Her daughter, Terry Fletcher, remembered how the family would sit quietly at the dinner table while the U.S. president was speaking. Ellen Fletcher began to walk precincts to support her favorite candidates long before she won her own election for City Council in 1977.
She would serve on the council for 12 years, establishing herself as one of the leading voices of the "residential" camp that resisted major developments and focused on preserving the city's quality of life. Her top issues included anti-smoking laws, environmental protection and, of course, bicycle improvements.
Terry Fletcher said it was "exciting and empowering" to see her mother win a council seat. She also recalled her mother's advice: "If you see something wrong in the world, get up and do something about it. With enough effort, you'll be successful." She said her mother remained engaged in politics, local and national, all her life.
"It may not be a coincidence that she died immediately after the election, just hours after being told Obama was re-elected," Terry Fletcher said.
Former Councilwoman Emily Renzel, one of the city's most prominent residentialist voices, called Fletcher a "kindred spirit" on preservation issues and a "true civic-spirited advocate." She cited Fletcher's support for instituting the 50-foot height limit for new buildings and for requiring downtown buildings to have retail on their ground floors. She also credited Fletcher with elevating public support for bicycling by supporting ordinances such as the one requiring companies to have showers for workers. The city recognized her leadership on this topic in 2002 when the council designated Bryant Street the "Ellen Fletcher Bicycle Boulevard."
"Ellen put Palo Alto on the map for being in the vanguard on bicycle issues," Renzel said.
"A lot of the amenities we enjoy in Palo Alto are due to the farsighted actions taken by Ellen and others decades ago," she later added.
As a bicycle advocate, Fletcher always rode the talk. Paul Goldstein, member of the Palo Alto Bicycle Advisory Committee (which Fletcher helped found and on which she served before and after her council tenure) noted that she always rode her bike.
"She would always refuse an offer of a ride home, even when it was raining," Goldstein said.
Goldstein called Fletcher a "person of grace and courtesy," grateful to people who agreed to join her causes and gracious to those who didn't. She remained on the bicycle committee until earlier this year, when she resigned because she felt her coughing fits were too disruptive to the meetings, Goldstein said.
The City Council is scheduled to pass a resolution in Fletcher's honor at tonight's meeting. The resolution, which Mayor Yiaway Yeh read at the conclusion of Sunday's service, cites her many accomplishments and notes that she owned a 1964 Plymouth Valiant that "needed gas only once a year."
The city, the resolution states, "hereby gratefully records its deepest and abiding appreciation and the appreciation of the community to Ellen Fletcher and her family for her meritorious service rendered and contributions made to Palo Alto throughout her adventurous life and graceful spirit."