A memorial dedicated to a child killed in 1970 is in bad shape, says a man organizing a crowdfunding campaign to implement a new one. David Gonzales, a retired Santa Barbara police officer, is seeking funds from locals for his old classmate, whose death at 11 years old led to the building of a traffic stoplight on Cliff Drive.
Curtis “Chipper” Nelson was walking along a crosswalk between Cliff Drive and Flora Vista Drive in front of Monroe Elementary School on January 21, 1970, when he was killed by an oncoming vehicle. Gonzales recalled Chipper as a simple, fun-loving kid who enjoyed nature. Chipper’s father would visit during recess to tell stories to the schoolkids, he said. Other children may have picked on Chipper at times, Gonzales said, but generally the children in his sixth grade class got along with him fine.
The community was stunned by Chipper’s passing. Even more so, they were angry that the intersection where he was killed had no stoplights or traffic signals. According to Gonzales, the community had already considered the lack of traffic guidance on that particular crosswalk “dangerous,” as it lay right next to an elementary school.
The accident inspired parents to act. Gonzales recalled his mother taking him on trips around the neighborhood to have petitions signed. As it turned out, implementing a stoplight on Cliff was no simple task, since the street also served as the now decommissioned State Route 225. Thus, any changes to the road would have to come from the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and not the city itself. It wasn’t until 2014 that the city of Santa Barbara obtained control of the roads composing the former highway.
Families wrote to Santa Barbara City Councilmember Franklin Lowance and got him on their side, Gonzales said, but the state would not budge. Caltrans argued engineering traffic signals at that location would be too difficult. However, local families remained persistent. “It brought the community together,” he said, “fighting for this common goal of getting the state to work with us.”
Eventually Lowance, along with other key politicians, succeeded in pushing forward the community’s efforts. Caltrans placed a new traffic stoplight at the Flora Vista intersection on Cliff. In addition, parents, educators, and students built a memorial for Chipper. For years, a redwood tree stood over a marble plaque with his name and year of death. The site of the memorial overlooks the playground where, according to the campaign’s webpage, “Chipper and his classmates spent many hours playing.”
In more than four decades since, the memorial has aged considerably. The redwood tree became diseased, Gonzales said, and Monroe Elementary removed it from the site. The marble plaque, meanwhile, has undergone wear and tear, and the words etched upon it are no longer as visible.
Gonzales took to the website GoFundMe in order to raise money for a new memorial. He also contacted old classmates on Facebook and reached out to a local monumental company. To preserve its longevity, the new plaque would be bronze instead of marble. Any excess donation money will be donated to the elementary school.
One of Gonzales’ goals in his efforts is to memorialize the community’s success in building the stoplight. “It taught me and a lot of little kids that there is power in coming together to change minds for the betterment of the community,” he said.
Ultimately, Gonzales said, the “devastation” of losing Chipper is what motivates him to preserve his old classmate’s memory. “It affected us all that he died,” he said. “But if he’s forgotten, then it was all in vain. We’re not going to let him be forgotten.”