Nancy McClellan. Photo: David Gallagher
On Nancy McClellan: “You never knew what she was going to say, which made it pretty interesting.” Photo: David Gallagher
On Nancy McClellan: “You never knew what she was going to say, which made it pretty interesting.” Photo: David Gallagher

On Russell Street a tree is blooming. Tibetan prayer flags are strung across its branches in a rainbow of color. White paper tags that flutter, holding messages of hope and healing, are its blossoms. Looking closer, one might notice laminated photographs and Buddhist passages hanging from the boughs, bouquets of flowers at its base.

The tree stands outside the Berkeley Zen Center, a Buddhist meditation group whose roots date back decades in South Berkeley. The memorial was created to honor Nancy McClellan, the zen center’s head gardener, who was mortally stabbed after leaving a wedding at the center in mid-September. McClellan died in October after being removed from life support when she failed to recover from the injuries she sustained the sunny Friday afternoon she was attacked less than a block from her beloved garden at the zen center.

Having just lost a friend to illness, McClellan spent much of the wedding telling those around her that she loved them, friends recalled.

Friday, Oct. 24, the 18-year-old man who has been charged with trying to kill 72-year-old McClellan after a failed carjacking is set to enter a plea in that case. Kamau Berlin of Richmond — a student at nearby B-Tech — has been charged by the Alameda County district attorney’s office with attempted murder and attempted carjacking. Berkeley police said, after McClellan’s death, the charge would likely be upgraded to murder.

Sunday, the Berkeley Zen Center held a memorial for McClellan to allow for “final goodbyes” from members of the meditation community, as well as others who knew McClellan.

This month, close friends of McClellan who live around the Bay Area have grappled with their grief, particularly as some thought at first she might recover from the brutal attack.

“I’ve had a hard time getting her out of my mind these last few weeks,” said Karl Anderson, a Castro Valley man who knew McClellan for more than two decades. “She probably looked like an easy target but, in fact, she must have fought back and that was what happened, knowing her. I can imagine she’d say, ‘Oh, no you don’t.’ She would not give in.”

Friends described the Emeryville woman as a true original: an artist, gardener, improvisational actor and playwright. She had an absolute love for the San Francisco Giants. Her sense of humor, unique perspective and loyalty to the people around her, and the communities she took part in, were traits that distinguished her.

“She was sort of like Harpo Marx, really very clever,” said Anderson, who practiced and performed improv with McClellan for many years. “You never knew what she was going to say, which made it pretty interesting.”

Anderson said McClellan had an innocent, elfin quality. She was gentle, but also feisty and tough. Sensitive and self-deprecating, McClellan was a careful listener and observer who loved substantive conversations about meaningful topics.

“It was never idle chit chat with her,” he said. “She had a lot of depth to her, I think. She was serious about life. And I liked that about her.”

Nancy McClellan: "When I had a pet duck." Photo: Nancy McClellan/Flickr
A family photograph from Nancy McClellan’s childhood, which she captioned “When I had a pet duck.” Photo: Nancy McClellan/Flickr
A family photograph from Nancy McClellan’s childhood, which she captioned “When I had a pet duck.” Photo: Nancy McClellan/Flickr

Art school days: “A lively time of the mind”

McClellan moved to the Bay Area from Southern California in the 1960s. At first, she lived in a small cabin in Mendocino, where she would make art. She started pursing that passion at a young age. According to a 2011 profile of McClellan that appeared in the Berkeley Zen Center newsletter, she became an artist at age 6 “when she made her bedroom closet into a studio where she secluded herself for hours to draw and paint.”

McClellan moved to San Francisco to attend the Art Institute in 1965, where she focused on painting and drawing, and later received an MFA.

On the first day of school, during registration, McClellan befriended Sandra Woodall. Both women were painters, focused on “learning to see in an aesthetic way,” and working to refine their craft. It was a time of questions, of wondering whether they were on the right path, or working in the right form.

“Her beautiful red hair is clearly in my mind,” Woodall said recently, adding that McClellan was always tuned into the details of life, whether the two were exploring their North Beach neighborhood, tromping through nature or spending the day at Aquatic Park. A point of pride, McClellan often wore unique socks with interesting patterns on them. It was just one way she attended to the little things, Woodall said.

Outside class, the two worked together as file clerks at Macy’s in an upstairs room that sales staff would ring up when they needed to check on somebody’s credit for a purchase. As clerks, one of their duties was to consult customer files to see if shoppers had paid well previously and could be permitted to charge their purchases. They made about $40 a week: enough to pay their rent and have coffee in the mornings at Malvina’s, but not much else.

As time went on, they received keys to the art school — a privilege bestowed on students who had established themselves in the program. After work, the friends would often head back to school to paint.

As students, the two were inseparable: in class, at work, and on walks home from the store. For a time, each had an apartment in the same building. Later, when Woodall moved to the South of Market neighborhood, McClellan did too. McClellan had an art studio on Eighth Street, and planned to find a day job to support her art after she finished school.

Woodall described McClellan’s painting as lyrical and poetic, ironic and “very fantasy” rather than concrete: “It would be plants, images, more characters or beings, but not rendered realistically.”

It was a psychedelic time in San Francisco, though Woodall said they weren’t particularly part of that scene. Still, the influence filtered throughout the community and had an effect on the young artists as they laid the foundation for their futures. In painting, too, there was a shift happening from the figurative movement to a more conceptual, non-linear approach to art.

The two were among many who began going to the San Francisco Zen Center, which had been founded in 1962 by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. (He was to establish the Berkeley Zen Center with a student, Mel Weitsman, five years later.)

“It was kind of a lively time of the mind,” recalled Woodall. Eventually McClellan moved to the East Bay, and the two saw each other less but remained close in spirit, picking up like no time had passed when they would reconnect.

Law firm boss: “She didn’t do anything halfway”

Nancy McClellan. Photo: Ann Feehan
Nancy McClellan. Photo: Ann Feehan

After art school, McClellan continued painting. To pay the bills, she had many jobs, both art-related and otherwise, “including night work at Macy’s and I. Magnin,” the high-end department store. In the 1980s, she started working for an Oakland law firm that specialized in class-action lawsuits and consumer-protection work.

Kristen Navarro worked with McClellan at that firm for more than 20 years. Navarro left the firm years back, but she and McClellan stayed in touch. (McClellan retired from that job in 2006.)

At the firm, Navarro was a secretary and McClellan ran the office and did paralegal-type work. The firm represented mostly low-income people who perhaps hadn’t read their contracts or didn’t otherwise know what they had signed up for.

In one of the cases McClellan worked on, Woodall recalled, the firm went after a fraudulent aluminum siding business. It was a big case that lasted 4-5 years. McClellan was known at the firm for the attention she put into her work, which could involve long phone calls with people confused about legal issues.

“She really cared about the clients,” said Bob Goldstein, who ran the small firm with another attorney. One of McClellan’s duties, along with research and clerical work, was to contact potential clients to get their stories. “She was very good at that because she really cared about people. She was truly dedicated to what she was doing.”

Goldstein also said, because of her passion, McClellan could get “overexcited” about things. He said she could, at times, be hyperactive.

“She didn’t do anything halfway, that’s for sure,” he said. “What she was interested in, she was interested in. And she devoted herself to it.”

Navarro concurred: “Nancy was raw, and she was who she was. She didn’t filter things. And whatever Nancy was into, she was into 100%.” Early on, that might have been McClellan’s dog, Sheba, and later her cats; her artwork and writing, which she didn’t share much around the office; or her neighborhood near the Emeryville-Oakland border, by a liquor store at 45th and Market streets, where she bought a home in the late 80s. It was a transitional neighborhood but she felt deeply tied to it.

Nancy McClellan's lemon tree. Photo: Nancy McClellan
Nancy McClellan’s beloved lemon tree. Photo: Nancy McClellan
Nancy McClellan’s beloved lemon tree. Photo: Nancy McClellan

A friend from art school who stayed close with McClellan over the years, Carolyn Morton, said one thing in particular McClellan loved about her home was a lemon tree in her garden. It provided the fruit McClellan often used to bake lemon bread, as well as a lemon chiffon pie both women had loved as children.

Morton lives in Sausalito, but the old friends would often get together or talk on the phone: “She’d call me up and talk my ear off. She was stalwart about her passions.”

Sometimes the subject would be gardening, and other times they would compare notes on the personalities of their pets (both women had cats they loved). They had a tradition of spending Sundays together. McClellan would help in Morton’s garden, bringing along produce to share that she had grown in her own back yard. Tomatoes, rainbow chard and huge quantities of lemons came from her beds.

“She was a good cook,” Morton recalled. (Another friend said homemade chicken stock — that took days to prepare and involved roasting the bones and other slow-food techniques to enrich the broth — was one particular favorite.) “She would bake something and bring it over. Or sometimes she’d just bring the ingredients and start baking here.”

Her neighborhood could be a cause for concern for McClellan, who was always involved in the community and wanted to make the area safer, Navarro recalled. Once, someone attacked McClellan when she was walking to her car. It shook McClellan up, and nearly prompted her to move. But she loved her house and her garden, and didn’t want to leave. Moving likely would have been financially infeasible too.

Navarro said McClellan would often go into San Francisco, but was uncomfortable spending too much time away from her neighborhood and her home. She wanted to stay close to make sure everything was all right around the property.

“She was just extremely brave because she was on her own in that community, but she would go out at night. It didn’t stop her,” said Navarro. “Though it stopped her from going down south to visit her family. She didn’t feel safe leaving it overnight.”

Nancy McClellan. Photo: Kate GIlpin
Nancy McClellan in the garden. Photo: Kate Gilpin

Improv: “She was kind of unpredictable in the best possible way”

At a certain point, McClellan got the acting bug. She took a method acting class with Jean Shelton, as well as other classes, and ultimately became deeply involved with Jim Cranna’s Improv Workshop at Fort Mason in the late 80s or early 90s. It was a community she would remain tied to until her death.

Each Saturday, anywhere from a handful to a dozen or more people would show up to work on spontaneous scenes, creating characters and learning how to react quickly to each other and embrace all the ideas that would arise.

“Nancy and many of us fell into it as our religion almost,” said longtime friend Brady Lea. “It was a place where you could go and be crazy and laugh with all these smart, funny people. And it was really welcoming of people from all walks of life.”

McClellan performed with several improv groups in the 90s, said Lea. And she also wrote plays, some of which made it into the Fringe Festival. Onstage, friends described McClellan as a force of her own, who was fearless in her range of characters, unafraid to play someone silly, dumb or unlikeable in some way. And she unfailingly kept her fellow performers on their toes.

“She was kind of unpredictable in the best possible way,” said Lea, who met McClellan 25 years ago, and at one point also taught a class McClellan attended for several years. “Her brain just saw things in a unique way. She loved to observe people and relationships; she was very curious in general about people. And that sort of gave her an interesting perspective that she would bring to scenes.”

Said Mick Laugs — who now runs the Improv Workshop with Grace Sargent since Cranna retired in 2005: “Some people are brilliant in just picking plums out of the sky, and Nancy was one of those, who would just say and do things and you would say, ‘Where in God’s name did that come from?’ But it was brilliant. She nailed the essence of whatever we were doing.”

McClellan also was known among friends as a strong supporter of their work. She could often be found in the audience when fellow performers had shows of their own. One friend, Lisa Geduldig, said McClellan would come to Geduldig’s monthly comedy shows at El Rio in the Mission, no matter what the weather. She had a standing spot on the guest list, and would only miss a show if she was sick.

McClellan often brought her camera to the Saturday workshops, and would photograph the scenes and her friends. (McClellan became increasingly interested in photography over the years, shooting everything from portraits of friends and pets to plant and insect life; people in line at the grocery store, and the expressions of famous actors on television. On her Flickr account, beautifully composed nature shots are mixed in with more bizarre images, such as a zombie-like woman on BART or a particularly pretty pat of bacon grease. Throughout, McClellan kept her artistic sensibility, with an eye for light, shadow and composition, but also an appreciation for unexpected humor or absurdity.)

After class, the group would typically go to a bar to drink and talk. Laugs said that, though McClellan often showed up toward the end of the three-hour session in recent years, she had no trouble jumping in.

“She could just walk in and pick it up right there and then, rather than needing the big ramp up,” he said. “We’d see her walking in and say, ‘Oh, Nancy’s here: Something good’s gonna happen.’”

A tree outside the Berkeley Zen Center has become a memorial to Nancy McClellan. Photo: Emilie Raguso
A tree outside the Berkeley Zen Center has become a memorial to Nancy McClellan. Photo: Emilie Raguso

“You could see that she loved beauty, but she saw it in unusual things”

As it turns out, the improv community wasn’t the only family McClellan became part of. In college, she became interested in Zen philosophy, reading several books on the subject, including Suzuki Roshi’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.” She dropped in at the Berkeley Zen Center in 1992, but it wasn’t until four years later that she took up the practice in a more focused way.

The group comes together to meditate, and also has talks and longer sittings. There are communal meals, ceremonies and other types of activities, too. Seven years ago, McClellan became head gardener at the center — a volunteer position, as are all positions there. She was easy to spot working around the property, in her red jacket and wielding clippers or a rake, according to the 2011 profile.

Longtime friend Ann Feehan said it might have been their emphasis on being present that drew McClellan to both improv and zen: “She could be pretty critical of herself. In improv, you can’t have too much of an inner censor go on. In zen too, it’s all about being in the present and not judging yourself or, if judgment comes, just letting it go.”

Laurie Senauke, a friend of McClellan’s and one of her teachers, said she had been surprised to learn that, when McClellan took the head gardener position, she hadn’t had much experience with landscape work, though she did have a garden of her own at home.

“She asked a lot of questions,” said Senauke. “She had an eye for beauty and a green thumb, but she didn’t know that much about how to take care of trees and plants when she started.”

Senauke described McClellan as very sociable, quick to chime in during talks at the zen center, and always open to conversations with people she’d meet in the garden.

“You could see that she loved beauty, but she saw it in unusual things,” said Senauke. “It was an artistic view of life, almost like surrealism. She had her own angle, which I guess real artists do. They don’t just make things pretty. They see things through their own eyes.”

The grounds at the zen center — a double residential lot with four buildings — have a few flower gardens, as well as numerous trees and bushes and “a lot of plants.” One of the trees on the property is a Meyer lemon tree that has never flourished. But McClellan did her best with it, said Senauke, often making special trips to water it, and experimenting with various techniques to try to coax it into health.

“She did stuff she didn’t have to do trying to get that lemon tree to be happier,” she said. “There are many things around that will remind us of her.”

Op-ed: After fatal stabbing, be the change in South Berkeley (10.08.14)
Emeryville woman dies weeks after Berkeley stabbing (10.08.14)
Teen charged in stabbing of 72-year-old woman (09.24.14)
18-year-old arrested in stabbing of 72-year-old woman (09.22.14)
Police arrest suspect in homicide attempt of woman in 70s (09.19.14)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...