Wong looking into camera.
Cliff Wong. Courtesy of his family

Longtime BUSD staff member, mentor, and leader Cliff Wong died on Oct. 10 at the age of 93.

He began his BUSD career in the early 1950s as a PE teacher and dean at then Burbank Junior High School. He went on to hold many roles at BUSD, including Berkeley High School principal (from 1969-73, during the Civil Rights Movement), Director of Personnel, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction, and Lead District Negotiator, before his retirement in 1990.

After retirement, he continued to come back as a consultant into his 80s and served in interim senior roles, including Interim Superintendent.

Mr. Wong also worked as advisor and chief negotiator for the Union of Berkeley Administrators (UBA) where he delivered “sage advice” and “maintained a sense of warmth, humor, and integrity” during negotiations, according to retired Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School Principal and former UBA President, Janet Levenson.

“His encyclopedic knowledge of BUSD history was unmatched,” Levenson said.

Cliff Wong. Courtesy of his family

Clifford Ming Wong was born on March 13, 1930, to Arthur and May Wong in their second-story flat on 825 Washington St. in San Francisco Chinatown. He was the fifth of 10 kids (nine made it to adulthood) and, when May left the family in 1937, older sisters Helen and Frances helped Art raise the other kids. As Cliff would say, “Helen nurtured us with love and affection; Frances would beat the shit out of us when we got out of line.” Art would occasionally dole out the whippings when warranted — like when Cliff was caught cutting Chinese school. Art ran a lottery in Chinatown during their early years, and later owned corner grocery stores in Oakland and San Francisco. May was a waitress and later had a flower farm with her last husband.

During World War II in 1941, Art moved the family to Dixon to help a family friend run a restaurant. Unfortunately, Cliff contracted tuberculosis and went back to San Francisco General Hospital for treatment. Once out of the hospital he went to Hancock Health School instead of Francisco Junior High and complained about the cottage cheese they fed him. 

Cliff made friends at the Jean Parker Playground and would spend hours playing basketball there. He was awful in the beginning but practiced diligently until he improved. Born left-handed, he was forced to use his right hand in school … but that just helped him to be ambidextrous on the court. He played all four years at Commerce High, two years as team captain and two years as All City. He joined the Falcons Club at the Chinatown YMCA and started swimming. In that YMCA pool, he and three friends practiced their medley and won the All City for Commerce High at Fleishacker Pool. He claimed that’s how he got his nickname Trout – because of his swimming prowess.

Cliff Wong and his secretary Eva Hayes. Courtesy of Wong’s family

Across the street from the YMCA was the First Chinese Baptist Church (FCBC) that he started attending. He liked it because it had a basketball court right next door and later met his future wife, Letty Chan, there. One of the church workers suggested he go to the University of the Redlands in Southern California. He went for one year but felt it was too expensive for his father, so he transferred to UC Berkeley and majored in Physical Education. He was too short to play basketball for Cal, so instead he played for the San Francisco Saints (the Chinatown team for players who graduated from high school). The Saints were part of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and often played against the teams in the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL).

After graduating from Berkeley, Cliff joined the Army in 1953 during the Korean War and was sent to Japan to learn Mandarin to be a translator. He wrote every day to his sweetheart Letty, and she wrote back once a week. After his tour of duty was over, he started student teaching at Burbank Junior High in Berkeley and the principal liked him so much that he hired him onto the staff.  He married Letty on June 19, 1955, at FCBC and they honeymooned in South Lake Tahoe where they would later spend many summer vacations in the Wong Family Cabin. In the fall, he went back to Burbank Junior High and was a PE Teacher.

Cliff’s last season playing with the SF Saints was in 1956 and they were invited to a Good Will Asia Tour in Kuala Lumper, Bangkok, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Cliff was captain and they won the tournament. One of his teammates has said that Cliff was the best all-around player on the court.

Cliff went to San Francisco State to get his master’s degree in Counseling and Guidance. He learned how to listen to people and help draw out concerns which continued to be his strengths throughout his career. He moved on from PE Teacher to Dean and Vice Principal at Burbank.

Brian was born in 1958 in SF and Cliff had the late night and early morning bottle feeding duties. One morning, his brother Gene and brother-in-law Moe stopped by to take him golfing at the nine-hole in Golden Gate Park. Wearing Army boots and using borrowed clubs, he hit a couple good shots and went to buy his own set that afternoon. That was the day that “Cliff found Golf.” The family later moved to Richmond to be closer to his job in Berkeley. They bought a home on McBryde Avenue near his sister Frances and near Letty’s brothers Clarence and George and sister Marjorie and Wallace (Charcoal). Karen was born in 1962 and they stayed in Richmond until 1970 when Letty found a house in El Cerrito that she liked on Madera Circle, which is still the family home. Cliff then joined the Mira Vista (now Berkeley) Golf Club where he’d go several times a week to golf or play Gin Rummy with his buddies.

Cliff also had a couple groups he would play poker with on a regular basis during the week. In the later years, the groups disbanded due to people becoming ill, so he would go to the Oaks Club in Emeryville to get his Poker fix … and then when COVID hit, he played online poker on his laptop and younger friends would invite him to play at their homes when vaccines were available.

Cliff Wong and his sister Frances Hanks. Courtesy of his family

Cliff would take Arlington Boulevard to Berkeley for work throughout his career.

Former School Board Director Elizabeth Shaughnessy remembered Wong as a leader with political finesse and the ability to remain open to learning about and considering the viewpoints of others. “He paid a lot of attention to the details of his job managing the curriculum in the district,”  Ms. Shaughnessy shared.

“In public education, we sometimes have a surplus of philosophers and a shortage of people who actually get things done. Cliff was the latter, someone whose caring and commitment was expressed through actions and genuine service,” noted former BUSD Associate Superintendent Educational Services Pasquale Scuderi. Acknowledging that Mr. Wong was instrumental in the development of his own career, he continued: “My work ethic, as well as my negotiation and management skills all improved because of Mr. Wong. He was in his late 70s when we worked together and his energy reserves were deeper than most 30-year-olds I know now.”

“Cliff was someone very special. As well as being a strong and inspirational leader and innovative thinker, he was a man of integrity with a great sense of humor,” said former Associate Superintendent of Educational Services for BUSD Neil Smith. “He created meaningful connections with his students, his staff, and the community.”

Cheryl Chinn, former Principal of Malcolm X Elementary School, remembers Mr. Wong, who was her uncle, as a mentor and confidant throughout her life and career. “Cliff was full of wisdom, and could be counted upon to provide thoughtful and relevant advice, along with, no doubt, a witty rejoinder,” she said.  Her sister Chris Lim, former Associate Superintendent of Educational Services at BUSD, remembers her uncle as a “living legend” in BUSD. “Starting as a teacher and rising through the ranks, he left his handprint on every aspect of the district,” she said.

Family portrait by a Christmas tree
Cliff Wong with his family. Courtesy of his family

But the job he loved most of all was to be Goong-Goong (Grandpa) to Lindsay, Courtney, Brannon and Briley … not to mention all of the grand-dogs he loved to walk. Whenever there was a band event, ball game or swimming meet, Goong-Goong would always be there, oftentimes with his old secretary and friend Eva Hayes! He and Letty hosted weekly Monday night dinners, went to Tahoe for the annual Chan gatherings, and all the Wong and Chan meals and get-togethers. Family was always his priority and he continued to attend his Sibling Lunches as much as possible, including his last one on Sept. 20.

No matter his age or who he interacted with, Cliff was always known to be feisty! He was the shortest brother in his family (perhaps because of the tuberculosis), but was long on personality. Many friends and family members called on him to speak at their milestone parties, weddings or celebrations of life. Even when roasting people, you could see his warmth and love shine through along with his humor. During his last two months after leaving the hospital for congestive heart failure, Cliff got to see many of his family members and friends at the house on Madera Circle and played Gin Rummy with his friends at the golf club. He told everybody how much they meant to him, and they all let him know how much he was loved and respected too.

Cliff was never a big drinker because his brother Gene (aka the General or Tuna) chewed him out royally when he got drunk at a party when he was young … but he really loved his Diet Coke. A couple days preceding his death, he demanded that caregiver Vili, “Give me a Diet Coke in a cup with ice with a straw! I’m not dead yet!” He got what he asked for and gulped down quite a bit before throwing up … but he did it on his terms. He always said he wanted to go peacefully in his sleep, and he did just that a little after 5 a.m on Oct. 10, 2023. For a Chinatown kid who had tuberculosis and smoked for 35 years, Cliff lived a great life of 93 years full of love.

Cliff is survived by wife, Letty Wong, son Brian Wong and daughter-in-law Barbara Wong, daughter Karen Yuen and son-in-law Geoffrey Yuen; grandkids Lindsay Yuen, Courtney Yuen, Brannon Wong, Briley Wong; Siblings Helen Lum, Gene Wong (and wife Winifred Wong), Gilmore Wong, Laura Jew, Bernice (Wanie) Biggs, Christina Yuen (and husband Al Yuen); and several brother-in-laws, sister-in-laws, nephews, nieces, grandnephews and grandnieces.

Per his request, there will be no formal service for Cliff, but rather a simple family meal. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Chinatown Y (855 Sacramento St, San Francisco, CA 94108) or First Chinese Baptist Church of SF (15 Waverly Place, San Francisco, CA 94108).

Berkeley Unified School District staffer Kourtney Nichols contributed to this obituary.

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