Joe McClain with a former Cragmont student named Sean Martin-Hamburger. Photo: Sue Martin
Joe McClain with former Cragmont student Sean Martin-Hamburger. Photo: Sue Martin/Stephanie Wade

By Eli Wolfe

On Saturday, around 200 people gathered at Berkeley’s Cragmont Elementary School to remember Joe McClain, a much-loved art teacher who died of cancer Aug. 22. He was 58 years old.

Numerous speakers shared their memories of McClain at the event, including Cragmont Principal Evelyn Tamondong-Bradley, Cragmont After-School Program Director Sara Rosenfeld, and Cragmont’s Black History Program and co-creator of S.O.C.I.A.L. Dean Woods. Several Cragmont graduates, former administrators, current students and a parent also told anecdotes about McClain, who for 15 years ran the art program at the school.

“Oh my goodness, he was the most gregarious guy,” said his fiancée, Julie Anna Bautista, speaking to Berkeleyside. “Everywhere he went he had friends. He treated everybody in the same respectful, warm and compassionate way.”

Bautista said that growing up in Tacoma, Wash., as the youngest child with five older sisters, McClain’s family used to jokingly call him King Joe for his sincere magnanimity and kindness. Bautista can testify that his magnetism didn’t fade with age.

“It was almost like basking in the glow of King Joe,” Bautista said. “We could go out somewhere and everyone responded to his outgoing personality.”

Before “King Joe” came to Cragmont, he had a lucrative job with Nordstrom, helping set up department stores in San Francisco and San Diego, doing art on the side as a hobby. After several years he experienced a sudden awakening about his life, Baustista said.

“He said it was like a calling, like a voice told him, ‘you’re going to teach art to children,’” Baustista said. She also noted that after studying in New Mexico and San Francisco, McClain came back to the Bay Area and did odd jobs while searching for teaching work. “He told me he walked home instead of taking the bus to save money and he prayed, because he didn’t feel like he was doing what he was meant to do.”

A sample of Joe McClain's artwork. Photo:
One of Joe McClain’s artworks. Photo: Sue Martin/Stephanie Wade
One of Joe McClain’s artworks. Photo: Sue Martin/Stephanie Wade

Mark van Krieken, a former Cragmont parent, said that he stumbled upon McClain by accident after he had to fetch his child from the JCC, where McClain taught a class. After getting roped into helping move a table into McClain’s class, Krieken said he stepped back and was shocked by the beautiful artwork on the walls.

“I asked him if he taught middle-schoolers or high school kids because they were so mature, and he goes, ‘oh no no, all elementary students,’” van Krieken said. “Before I even put the table down I was already starting the recruitment interview with him in my head.”

Van Krieken arranged an interview between McClain and the principal of Cragmont, Jason Lustig Yamashiro, who hired him almost immediately. The move was a major piece of Cragmont history because hiring McClain prompted the school to turn what was going to be a science room into an arts classroom. Van Krieken, who spoke at the service on Saturday, said encountering McClain was “one of the most wonderful little accidents of my life,” because McClain proved to be a naturally gifted teacher.

“He had that energy, sincerity and enthusiasm with all the kids he worked with,” van Krieken said.

People close to him said McClain had a special talent for raising the spirits of children who were inexperienced in art and who were facing difficult challenges outside the classroom.

“He came from a rough beginning,” van Krieken said. “He was living out of an abandoned car at 17. He understood what it was like to come up from far down. He was amazing at making children who weren’t succeeding in school feel like they really had something special in art. He built up the self-esteem of kids.”

Photo: Sue Martin & Stephanie Wade
Joe McClain and a work of art. Photo: Sue Martin/Stephanie Wade

McClain also had a knack for making art accessible and fun for children thanks to a teaching style that got kids out of their desks. Bautista laughed as she recalled McClain teaching first graders about Dadaism by getting them to chant and dance around the class as he told them about the art movement.

“These were little kids — what were they going to know about the Dada movement and WWI?” Bautista said. “He was giving them bits of info, planting seeds, because he knew if he sat them down and read them facts they weren’t going to get it.”

McClain treated art as a therapy for children as well as adults. Van Krieken recalled dropping by McClain’s classroom when he was in a bad mood and being given tea, pastels, paper, and instructions to draw.

“That classroom had the best vibe of any room in the school,” van Krieken said.

McClain also loved to travel, journeying to Cuba and Europe in recent years to immerse himself in new cultures. McClain’s artistic touch extended outside the classroom to the clothes he designed and sewed, as well as the dining table he painted.

Bautista said that McClain’s teaching philosophy was the same as the lessons that guided his life.

“I can tell you what he would say,” Bautista said. “Enjoy life, enjoy one another, and love more than you are loved.”

McClain is survived by his sisters Carolyn Miller, Sylvia Regan, Tisha McClain Celada, Diana McClain and Paula McClain. He also lives on in the memories of his fiancée, Julie Anna Bautista, and the thousands of students and parents he taught and befriended.

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