Remembering Theodore Nelson Clegg Jr.

Theodore Clegg, a homeless man who resided on California Avenue, died on Feb. 23, behind the Shell gas station 2200 El Camino. The day of his death was one of the coldest nights of the year in Palo Alto, with temperatures reaching the low thirties. 

Clegg’s absence is missed by many Palo Alto community members and I, as he spent over a decade living in Palo Alto. Before his death, Clegg spent years living in San Francisco and San Mateo until finally settling here. 

For decades, Clegg’s family had searched for him up and down the Bay Area, and according to “The Daily Post”, Clegg was declared dead in 2003 after a two decade search. His brother had come to the Bay Area numerous times to find him, but left each time without indication that Clegg was alive. Clegg was essentially legally dead, with his only record of existence being his physical self. 

Although the cause of Clegg’s death is unknown, the unfriendly weather most definitely contributed to his plight. Could Clegg have been saved if he had a blanket to keep him warm? 

After his death, the Palo Alto Police located his family in Texas within a week. I assume that immense frustration must have been expressed by his family, who had gone great lengths to locate Clegg. 

Clegg’s death is an indication for our potential as the Palo Alto community to help the homeless. 

  Every morning, Clegg chose one of three spots to read his newspaper: the bus station on El Camino Real, the gas station next to it or somewhere in between. When he was not reading his newspaper, he would take a nap in the shade, with his cart of belongings tied to his ankle. He never revealed what was inside his blanket-covered cart, but he bound himself to it as if to say, “If you take the cart, you take me.” 

When I saw him on cold winter nights, Clegg’s blanket was always laid on the cart while he rested on bare concrete without any source of warmth. I felt a sense of irony as he seemed to take better care of his cart than himself. 

During his memorial in late March, neighbors who lived by him shared that he was particular about his belongings. For example, one neighbor said he had rejected many sleeping bags the community offered him because they wouldn’t fit in his cart. 

However, Clegg’s refusal to take physical necessity offerings may have been an indication for another need. As the Palo Alto community, we do not know if Clegg wanted to communicate with his family, but a simple conversation may have answered that question. 

Because Palo Alto is a small city with relatively small numbers of homeless, we have a wonderful opportunity to converse and engage with homeless people. 

During the years that I saw Clegg, it never occurred to me that to help him was to have a conversation with him, rather than providing him with physical necessities. What we must realize is that whenever possible, it is important to ask the homeless what they specifically need. What he may have needed was to repair his long-lost connection with his family. 

His death was enough for the Palo Alto Police Department to initiate a search for his family. But what if the search started a year earlier? The outcome could have been different. 

And Clegg is not forgotten. 

Rather than acknowledging Clegg as an indication of how we should treat the homeless in the future, we should remember him as an individual. 

Theodore Clegg was the man who would lean against his blanket-covered cart of belongings with a Starbucks coffee in his hand, and his name should be remembered.