Midtown History: Harry Anisgaard, born 01-10-1917
Interviewed by Elaine Elbizri

When I arrived on Greer Road the first people to introduce themselves and ask if I needed anything were Harry and Cecille Anisgard. They became fast friends and true neighbors to me and my family. Cecille was very supportive while I was raising my daughter, Alice, and studying at San Jose State. As a teacher and counselor Cecille was a good listener when Alice was going through ups and downs at Jordan and Paly. She arranged a neighborhood party for my graduation. She was a good friend up to her death in 2002.

Harry & Yoyo            Photo by Sharon Fox
After living and working in the heat and humidity of Venezuela, Colombia, the Philippines and New Orleans the climate of the Bay area suited Harry and Cecille just fine. As a geologist working for Exxon, Harry was introduced to Palo Alto when he stayed at the Cardinal Hotel while taking a course at Stanford in the 1950s. He was also encouraged to come to Palo Alto by his cousin Whom some readers may know - Rubin Tepper - already settled in Palo Alto. Rubin introduced Harry to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Harry retired from his employment but not his many other activities when in 1973, he and Cecille came to live on Greer Road. Harry's inquiring mind and expansive interest in the world and his outgoing activist nature led him into many endeavors.

Growing up Jewish in New York, Harry was well aware of abuse of civil liberties and witnessed first hand the violation of peoples' rights and freedoms. His family was poor and Harry worked during school holidays from an early age. As a youngster in the '30s he witnessed workers striking against low wages. While watching employees of Mays Department Store in Brooklyn picketing for better working conditions, he saw mounted police force the pickets to move on. It was an awesome sight - Harry watched the police with drawn batons push the pickets into a plate glass window. Fiorello LaGuardia, a progressive Italian mayor of NYC, decided to investigate the incident. He placed a notice in the newspapers "Anybody who witnessed this incident should contact the mayor's office." Harry volunteered and was picked up by a big black limousine and taken to the 39th police precinct. Cops, all Irish, were lined up in their uniforms for inspection. The young Harry could not tell one policeman from the other.

In 1943 Harry was drafted to serve in World War II. His skills as a geologist were used by the US Army Air Force in their map-making unit. Maps were needed for pilots navigating sensitive areas in oil field regions such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

Harry majored in Geology and Mathematics at Brooklyn College and completed his Masters degree at Columbia University. As a geologist he worked for Texaco in Colombia. Here, he saw first hand the inequality and unreasonableness of the class system. Geologists were paid in dollars, had comfortable living conditions and sports facilities. At a lower level, accountants were paid much less. The peons who did all the laboring work and services had very low wages; were paid in pesos, and lived in squalor in filthy places.

Even playing tennis Harry was not immured from concerns for civil liberties. In the early 60s, while living in New Orleans, he joined and played tennis as a member of the City Park Tennis Club. The Club enjoyed reserved tennis courts and was equipped with a locker room and showers. On the courts one day he watched a black man playing two courts away. Harry was impressed with his fluid motion and beautiful strokes. He approached the player and made a date to play with him. He invited the man to play on the reserved courts of the City Park Tennis Club. Later, Harry was told by the president of the Club "we don't play with black people." Harry was thrown out of the Club. The Club rules also said there must be two empty courts between blacks and whites. Harry asked his black friend Nehemiah Atkinson how the black players managed without toilets and water. He was told "they bring their own water and pee in an old shed." Harry continued to play with Nehemiah in another park in New Orleans. He addressed this issue of tennis segregation with the Mayor of New Orleans, who happened to be a tennis player also. Harry told the Mayor that the Club facilities had been paid for by Federal money and segregation was against US government policy. As a result the 'White only' clause was thrown out of the Club rules. Harry said "I was out of the Club, he was in." (Nehemiah Atkinson later became the No 1 player in the country in his age group. After seven decades of playing and teaching tennis, in 2000, he won worldwide recognition in the international tennis circuit for seniors as the national singles champion in the Men's 80s.)

Harry continued his habit of speaking out when he came to Palo Alto. He served as a board member for the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center and the Funeral Consumers Alliance. Cecille and Harry taught Math and English at the Redwood City Jail for several years. They helped the inmates obtain their GED.

Perhaps his most abiding service has been Harry's concern for civil rights and liberties. When he joined the Midpeninsula Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California it was a small group. Harry has seen the local Chapter grow from less than 100 members to the current figure of nearly 3,500. He worked on civil liberties with a tennis buddy, Larry Sleizer, his cousin Rubin Tepper who lived on Ferne Drive, and another well known local activist, Peter Giamalis who lives on Rorke Way. In the 70s and 80s they worked on local issues - monitored civil rights, addressed rental problems, and police action. Harry also served on RUMTUF, Palo Alto's Rental Housing Mediation Task Force, the forerunner of the current City-appointed Palo Alto Mediation Program.

Harry turned 90 in January. He continues a life of activity and travel. He has visited such diverse places as Machu Pichu in Peru, China, Tibet, Bhutan, Belize, Iceland, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Alaska. He recently impressed me by undergoing hip surgery last year and only four months later - July 2006 - visited the Galapagos Islands, which he says are unlike anywhere else in the world.

I finish this piece with a typically blunt and open comment from Harry when I asked him why so much concern for civil liberties - "I could hide from anti-Semitic remarks but blacks could not avoid being shit upon because of their color."

Return to
MRA Home Page