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Link’s Letters : Media: Common Cause honors Clara Link, 83, as an ‘indefatigable agitator’ for writing prolifically to editors over the last 40 years. She says she’s just an educator.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This story had better turn out right or else the boss will hear about it.

Clara Link, after all, has never been timid about sitting down at her antique typewriter and pounding out a letter to the editor.

She has written hundreds of them over the last 40 years. And people seem to pay attention.

That’s why the 83-year-old Pasadena widow has been named a winner of the 1994 Public Service Achievement Award by Washington-based Common Cause. The public interest lobbying group praised her as an “indefatigable agitator” for good government.

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Link laughs at that description. She sees herself as more of an educator than an agitator.

That’s why she spends hours studying an issue before carefully rolling typing paper, sandwiched around a sheet of carbon paper, into her 45-year-old Royal and pecking out “Dear Editor:”.

“I’ll try to write that day if I see something that makes me mad enough. I rewrite and rewrite to get the nastiness out,” she said. “Of course, I don’t want it to end up too sugary.”

Fat chance of that. A Link letter pulls no punches. They never have.

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Over the years she’s sounded off on such touchy topics as integration of Pasadena schools (she supported it) and the closure of local streets for Rose Parade rehearsals (she opposed it).

She’s backed freedom of speech for Angela Davis, linked crime to poverty, analyzed the Watergate scandal, pushed for health care reform, panned the “disgraceful” neglect of the environment and supported tax reform.

Link said she writes in hopes of stimulating others to think about a subject. Politics is her favorite, she said, because--like football or baseball--"it’s moving all the time. And politicians are very interesting characters. They’re all actors.”

She spends part of each day doing research at a card table set up in front of a television set that is usually tuned to C-SPAN or CNN. She subscribes to two daily newspapers and reads a third that is passed along each night by a neighbor at her Grand Avenue condominium.

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Government policy papers, mailers from special interest groups and magazines pour in. Two years worth of the New Republic and Time magazine are stacked on a table in her busy study.

A cardboard box stuffed with reports and statistical studies sits on a chair. A file cabinet jammed with folders full of yellowing newspaper clippings on taxes, redevelopment and a hundred other topics stands in the corner.

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Her writing is done in her bedroom. The old Royal sits on a rolling stand between a French-style desk and a window that opens to a courtyard. Neighbors aren’t shy about shouting a friendly “Whatcha up to, Clara?” when they hear her typewriter clacking away through the window.

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They find out soon enough in the newspaper, of course.

“I’m not surprised anymore at what she writes,” said Pat Karr, a friend for more than 25 years. “She’s not a wise guy. She says things simply and plainly and to the point. You know exactly what Clara’s saying.”

Link keeps a busy schedule of dinners with friends, outings to plays and trips to the nearby Ambassador Auditorium “whenever there are any eggheads in town speaking.”

Larry Wilson, who has been editorial page editor at the Pasadena Star-News for seven years, looks forward to her letters--and to bumping into her at various functions around town.

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“She obviously pores over what she writes. If there’s a lot of Wite-out on the page she’ll write a little note: ‘Larry, I was up until 2:30 correcting this and I really hope it goes in because this is an important issue,’ ” Wilson said.

“She is really concerned about what she writes about. She always addresses a serious subject. . . . Her letters almost always get in.”

Readers call her up asking where she’s been if there’s an unusual gap between her published offerings. Others ask her to tackle a specific issue on their behalf.

“They’ll say, ‘Clara, you have to write a letter about this,’ ” Link said. “I give them my standard speech: I tell them that a letter is just refined conversation that’s put down on paper. I tell them if you can talk then you can write your own letter.”

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Sometimes people call her to complain about what she’s written.

“One guy went through three of my phone message tapes to give me a blistering that I was all wrong on abortion and women’s right to be a human and decide for herself how many children to bear,” she said.

Others write back. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, for instance.

Mahony, then an archbishop, wrote to explain his position in 1990 after Link sent a scathing letter to The Times criticizing his lobbying of Catholic officeholders to repeal abortion rights legislation. She was responding to a newspaper profile of Mahony that had been headlined “The Plugged-In Archbishop.”

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“If Mahony were ‘plugged in’ to reality, I believe, he could eventually achieve consummate blessedness,” Link wrote.

“Instead of threatening politicians and consorting with Operation Rescuers, he could use his energy and his brilliance to persuade the hierarchy in his own church to teach the morality of wanted, healthy, planned-for children by two loving, wedded parents who understand the necessity of safe contraception and the long-term obligation to child rearing. The Catholic Church could take credit for the sharp downward curve in abortion statistics. Archbishop Mahony could become Saint Roger.”

Over the years Link--a registered Republican--has consistently hammered away in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, planned parenthood and sex education in schools.

“Oh my, I surprise myself, sometimes,” laughed Link--who admits to sometimes cooling off with a glass of rum-laced coconut-banana fruit juice at the end of a hot day.

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Link’s wide view of the world may have been shaped by her childhood.

She grew up in the desert hamlet of Luning, Nev., living upstairs at the railroad station where her father was the Southern Pacific agent. She attended a one-room grade school and Mineral County High School--which had a total of 17 students.

“Three out of the four students in my graduating class went on to the university,” she said. “It’s absolutely amazing what you can learn in a small school.”

Before moving to Pasadena in 1954, Link worked as a teacher, an oil company secretary, a World War II Lockheed aircraft factory safety inspector, a Navy industrial relations coordinator and a salary analyst for Paramount Studios.

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Link and her late husband, investment banker Richard M. Link, were raising their children Laura and Charles when she began her letter-writing crusade almost by accident.

She had become upset over inroads the ultraconservative John Birch Society was making in the Republican Party and was pleased when a newspaper published her letter on the subject. Her first real battle involved a proposed school bond issue in Pasadena.

Link said she “practically fell off my chair” when she was invited to Washington a few weeks ago to receive her Common Cause award.

“I’m just a little old lady in Pasadena with an old typewriter. I just like blowing off steam and keep doing it instead of reading romance novels,” she said.

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Common Cause President Fred Wertheimer said Link has helped hold public officials’ feet to the fire, however.

“She believes that citizens can make a difference and she goes out and does it. In all the years she’s been doing this, she has not given up on the system,” Wertheimer said.

“If we had a country full of Clara Links, you would not see the kind of cynicism and concern about the failure of our system working today that you see.”

As for Link, she says her next letter will probably focus on the issue of an open election primary in California. Unless, of course, she sees a story in the paper that rubs her the wrong way.

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“I might comment on something I read,” she cautioned with a grin.

Some Link Letters A selection of excerpts from Clara Link’s letters over the years:

The summer of 1994 may go down in our cultural history as the summer America woke up. We have learned that soccer is an interesting, very athletic game, worthy of watching.

Watching the O.J. hearings we have learned how important our justice system is. Perhaps we have learned that spousal abuse is a serious social malady that can no longer be tolerated.

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Maybe we will become convinced that President-bashing and congressional gridlock does not result in government of, by and for the people.

Sept. 28, 1989

The Legislature adjourned without appropriating $25 million for mental health, leaving Los Angeles County short $7.3 million required to maintain five mental health clinics. Restoration of $24 million, cut from the budget by the governor for family planning programs, failed to survive trade-off negotiations between the governor and the Senate over the governor’s work plan for prison inmates.

Did the long hours of pressured lobbying, hundreds of eleventh-hour votes in the closing days of the session cause the Senate honorables to lose sight of the needs of the mentally ill, of poor women?

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March 4, 1985

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The yearlong ordeal of Edwin Meese III awaiting confirmation to the office of attorney general of the United States has ended.

Standards of ethics and competence for the position were not seriously considered in the confirmation process. California’s Republican Sen. Pete Wilson, citing the independent counsel’s finding that there was no basis for criminally prosecuting Meese, argues that Meese had done nothing “improper or illegal.” Democratic Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware responded to Wilson: “We have now concluded that if you’re not eligible for indictment, you’re eligible for appointment to the Cabinet of the United States.”

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Pretty strong stuff. What really bothers me about the Meese nomination and confirmation is that people who should have been upset weren’t.

April 1, 1977

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I was amused, amazed and grateful to SenI. Hayakawa (R-Calif.) when I read in The Times that the code of ethics adopted by the Senate was “terribly insulting to all of us. This is a reaction to the morally arrogant groups who say all congressmen are crooks. Those who voted for it were unduly intimidated.”

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I was amused at Hayakawa’s apparent unwillingness or inability to understand that the Senate had earned its reputation for self-serving behavior. All a citizen has to do is read the provisions for the code of ethics and do a little remembering. I was amazed that the senator, a distinguished semanticist, would stoop to demagoguery--a practice he claims to abhor.

Jan. 15, 1972

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If men will stop leering at us long enough to listen to us, more and more women can and should succeed in political careers. . . . Women have been in continuous political training all their lives. When we were young and pretty we learned very fast--as a matter of survival--to tell a slick proposition from a genuine statement. The mature woman has an uncanny ability to sort out con artists. This is a great asset to political negotiation.

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Running a city, or county, state or nation is not much different than rearing a family. The secret is facing up to problems and never giving up.


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