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From Alberta's plains to found Madera's Small Fry

Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune

Elle Row, who helped found Small Fry Preschool 55 years ago, sits at a piano that has been in her family since the 1930’s and was once owned by actor Ben Lyon.


“I was born on the plains of Alberta, Canada,” said Elle Row of Madera this week. 


She will be the featured speaker Friday at a celebratory luncheon at the Elks Club, marking the 65th anniversary of Small Fry, the city’s first cooperative nursery school. Elle Row was the school’s founding director.


About being born on the plain of Alberta, she was speaking literally.


“My mother was bucked off a horse, and there I was. I weighed 2 pounds 4 ounces.”


Her father, Robert Clare, was an Alberta horse rancher. The year was 1926. She says of her father: “He was good-looking and tall, with wavy hair.” The prototypical cowboy. After World War I, he had taken a herd of horses to Siberia in the pay of the government there, and had spent a year running horses on the Siberian steppes.


Eventually, after his return from Siberia, Robert Clare wound up in Hollywood, handling horses for the movies, back in the days when cowboy movies were extremely popular.


“There were a lot of movies made for kids back then,” Elle said. “Much different from the way it is now.”


Elle’s mother and father had a parting of the ways, and her mother remarried, becoming the wife of Robert Martin, a farmer of Madera, where she and the rest of her family moved.


Elle grew up in Madera and went to Ripperdan School, spending summers in Hollywood.


“When I was spending my summers in Hollywood, everyone was trying to get into the movies,” she said. She was never in a movie, she said, “but I knew some who were.”


After Ripperdan School, Elle went to Madera High School, from which she graduated in 1944.
“Those were good days,” she said. “A lot better than now. There was no bullying, as such. Those were good days. It was not economically a good time, but we didn’t know it.”


After graduation from Madera High School, she went to Fresno State, where she majored in education.


“Then, I quit, and went to teach in Goshen School, near Visalia.


“We had 56 children in third and fourth grade. A lot of them were behind.”


That experience piqued her interest in teaching handicapped children, and after going back to Fresno State, she and teaching pal Maxine Yokum of Madera took a six-week course in teaching the handicapped.


She and Maxine went to  Duane Furman, who had taken over that year as the first superintendent of Madera Unified School District.


“We talked him into having a special ed program,” Elle said. He liked the idea. “We didn’t have to talk very much,” she said. “It wasn’t very hard to do.”


By then, Elle already had been one of the movers and shakers for Small Fry cooperative nursery school.


It started in 1953, when the wife of a newly relocated winery manager wanted to duplicate an idea she had been familiar with in the Bay Area: a cooperative nursery school, in which parents provide some of the work that has to be done, and also serve part time as teachers.


The director had to be a qualified teacher. “They asked me if I would be interested in being the director. I said, yes!”


The mothers had to go to school one hour a week.


She said some of the fathers got together, acquired an old army barracks and had it shipped to some property the school district had said they could use.


“The fathers were just wonderful,” she said.


The school opened in November of 1953.


“The following summer, I got pregnant,” she said. “So I had to quit.” That was the rule when a teacher’s baby bump started to “show.”


She later went back to work at the school.


She said that the bottom age limit at Small Fry was determined in a practical manner.


“They had to be potty trained,” Elle said.


Sixty-five years later, Small Fry is located at Howard School. Michelle Oberti Desmond is director.
It remains a cooperative.


Some of the most prominent people in Madera are alumni of Small Fry.


Once she moved to Madera, Elle Row became a dyed in the wool Maderan.


Married to high school sweetheart Bobby Row, who was in the pest-control business, she was a pillar of the Episcopal Church, along with Maxine and her husband Ike, both of whom are deceased. She also is great friends with another Episcopalian, Charlotte Lesan, who lives a few doors down the street from her.


Those friends, along with others, operated a thrift store downtown to raise money for the church and its charitable concerns.


Bobby Row died in 2004.


At 91, she remains active, although in a slower mode, but a Maderan through and through.