Ellen Fletcher was an immigrant and a refugee, a Holocaust survivor, a daughter and a mother, a fierce bicycle advocate and Palo Alto City Council member.
And now, she is a Palo Alto school's namesake. Ellen Fletcher Middle School celebrated the school's new name on Monday, which would have been Fletcher's 90th birthday.
Students, staff and parents filed into the school's gym — passing handwritten posters in hallways urging students to walk or bike to school on Monday — to honor Fletcher's legacy.
Fletcher's daughter, Terry, cut a ceremonial red ribbon to officially rededicate the school, which the school district renamed this year along with Frank Greene Middle School to replace namesakes who were leaders in the eugenics movement.
Terry Fletcher, a retired teacher who grew up in Palo Alto, told the story of her mother, who was born to Jewish parents in 1928 in Berlin, Germany. Hitler came to power when she was about 5 years old, putting in place discriminatory laws against Jews, Terry said. As a Jew, her mother wasn't allowed to attend public school and faced bullying from non-Jewish children.
Because Fletcher's father was from Poland, she was not considered a German citizen under laws at the time and was deported at 9 years old to Poland, where she knew no one, her daughter said. A week after she turned 10 years old, she fled the Holocaust as part of the Kindertransport, which provided Jewish children with safe passage to England. She was one of nearly 10,000 children who left Nazi Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia alone, without their families, at the time, according to The Kindertransport Association.
Imagine "being 7-and-a-half years old, being put on an airplane or being put on a train, being sent to a country where you don't speak the language — that was my fate," Ralph Samuel, who chairs The Kindertransport Association's Northern California chapter, told the audience on Monday. "That's what happened to me, and it happened to Ellen Fletcher, too."
(Fletcher met Samuel in 1991 and became involved with the organization, which connected her with other Kindertransport survivors.)
After World War II ended, Fletcher reunited with her mother in New York City, her daughter said. She obtained her high school and college degrees and moved to Palo Alto in 1958 with her husband, an electronics engineer.
In Palo Alto, Fletcher's civic advocacy was born. She had become an avid cyclist during her time in England and worried about the lack of bike lanes in Palo Alto at the time, especially for children biking to school. She volunteered with the Fairmeadow Elementary School PTA, joined the school's bike-safety committee and became active politically. She ran and won a seat on the City Council in 1977, campaigning with a large "Fletcher for City Council" sign attached to the back of her bicycle.
Fletcher lobbied for the addition of bike lanes and bike bridges throughout Palo Alto and a bike boulevard that's now named after her as well as laws to require large businesses to provide bicycle parking and reimbursement for city employees using bikes as transportation while on city business, her daughter said — all pioneering changes at the time.
Fletcher died in 2012 after a battle with lung cancer.
In a Q&A section of Monday's event, students asked serious questions about Kristallnacht (when Germans destroyed synagogues, Jewish homes and schools, and arrested and killed Jews in 1938), post-traumatic stress disorder and survivors' guilt.
Most important about Fletcher's story, her daughter said, is to remember where she came from.
"She was an immigrant and she was a refugee, but look at what she did for Palo Alto. Some people think immigrants and refugees are people who are going to come in and take things from us but I think we should remember that immigrants and refugees are people who can come and contribute to our community," Terry Fletcher said.
Her mother left Palo Alto, and now the middle school, a legacy of advocacy. She taught her daughter the lesson that "if someone is being mistreated, if someone is being left out, you need to stick up for them — and not just in a personal way but looking at the world as well," Terry Fletcher said.
In honor of the renaming, the Fletcher PTA donated a new bike repair station and skateboard rack in response to student requests. The school library also has a display of books on Fletcher and the Kindertransport.
On Monday, the bike racks at the front of the Arastradero Road campus were full.