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Sofiea Clerico

Sofiea Clerico, a vocal liberal in a conservative town who wrote lovingly about the World War II exploits of her big brothers and "thrived" despite a succession of personal tragedies, died Tuesday.

She was 74.

Clerico was best known publicly for her political outspokenness, including through her and her son's newspaper Village News and later as an online commentator and contributor to The Californian.

Those who knew her privately most marveled at her resiliency, pushing forward after such traumas as the incapacitation of her mother when Sofiea was a child, the death of her daughter and a 1972 car accident that left her paraplegic and, later, largely confined to her Westchester home.

But Clerico couldn't win her latest in a long, long series of health battles and died of complications from an infection, according to son Erin Clerico.

"It is unusual for a paraplegic to survive as long as she did," Erin said. "She didn't really survive, she thrived.

"If I live to be half as strong as my mom, I'll be lucky."

Clerico was born in Bakersfield on Dec. 30, 1938, the youngest of seven children. Her parents, Ed and Susie Bussell, were Rosedale farmers from the Missouri Ozarks.

Clerico's mom ran the office while her dad and brothers worked in the fields. The Bussells were poor their first few years in Kern County, but had prospered by the time Sofiea was born.

Clerico once called her early childhood a "satin-cushioned existence."

In the first of many personal tragedies to follow, Clerico's mom suffered a stroke when Sofiea was 13 and remained bedridden for the remaining 18 years of her life. Sofiea bounced around the homes of relatives and friends. She spent most of her free time at the Baker Street library, developing what became a lifelong love of learning, research and writing.

She attended East Bakersfield High for a couple years then graduated from Bakersfield High. "Desperate for a home," she told The Californian for a profile of her in 2002, she married Bob Clerico at age 17. They had three children then divorced after 10 years of marriage; they remained friendly.

On Jan. 12, 1972, Clerico was driving to work as an administrative assistant at the oil subsidiary of Belridge Farms when she lost control of her new red BMW convertible on Lerdo Highway near Lost Hills.

Dueto a malfunctioning seat belt, she was ejected from the car. Her spine shattered into tiny fragments. Doctors used pieces of her hip bone to patch it back together.

Clerico considered the result more of a "major inconvenience" than a tragedy, she told the paper. She used an electric wheelchair and, always insistent on being perfectly coifed, powered through a two-hour morning routine to get bathed, dressed and properly accessorized.

She always had people over in afternoons, she said, so she had time to make her house and herself camera-ready.

"If you had a meal with her, it was on appropriate dinnerware," said close friend of 30 years Elaine McNearney. "She was absolutely the lady of the house."

But she also could be "ornery," said McNearney, adding that that feistiness probably helped keep her alive.

Clerico unsuccessfully ran for the Bakersfield City Council in 1975 under the slogan "Get Bakersfield Rolling with Clerico." She rode in the back of an El Camino and used a bullhorn to get her message out.

Clerico later ran a store downtown that specialized in antique and ethnic jewelry. While recuperating from a surgery, she launched her publishing career, putting out a newsletter promoting the Al Bussell Ranch, a Knotts Berry Farm-like park without the rides, and then writing features for son Erin's Westchester Village News, later called Village News.

The paper's content grew more and more serious over time, especially after her adult daughter's death from a rare brain tumor. Clerico suspected exposure to Bakersfield's petrochemical industry helped cause Julie's tumor.

Clerico, unlike much of her family and community, was very liberal but not knee-jerk, McNearney said. She researched every issue before forming opinions.

"She delved into everything," McNearney said. "She never took anything at face value."

The Village News stopped printing in late 2001. For a few years after that, Clerico continued speaking out through a Drudge Report-like website. At the time of the 2002 profile, Clerico had railed on the then-proposed Borba Dairies on environmental grounds (though she still developed a friendly email relationship with proponent George Borba) and on then-Congressman Bill Thomas when he was accused of blocking Democrats' access to House meeting rooms.

"Oh Bill, you've embarrassed us again," she quipped. "What happens when you let Bakersfield people go to the big city?

"The boy forgets his manners -- and the fact that half his constituents are Democrats."

(Thomas' office had no comment at the time.)

Clerico later got into collecting used books and selling them online to make "grocery money," Erin said. She also got deeply immersed in World War II history and often wrote in The Californian and elsewhere about the experiences of her brothers who served in the war.

She wrote poignantly of the tremendous toll: One brother, Al, was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and was imprisoned at Stalag III-A in Luckenwalde for more than three months until Soviet soldiers liberated the camp in April 1945.

Al's brother Virgil, Sofiea noted, had agonized over the fact he was in the Ardennes Forest, only 16 miles away from Al's prison camp, and yet could do nothing.

Another brother nearly died in a Japanese prisoner of war camp and remained scarred by the experience for the rest of his short, difficult life. She also wrote of the anguish and pride of those on the home front. She recalled one heart-wrenching Christmas without her brothers in a memorable essay published in The Californian.

Sofiea also was Erin's go-to person when he had a problem or quandary.

"Throughout life, I've always taken tough questions to mom," he said. "She always made time for me, to hear my problems. She gave me advice, told me the right thing to do in every situation."

Clerico was also good at "finding the amazing qualities about you," he said.

"I think people always liked themselves better when they'd been around mom."

In addition to Erin and his wife, Kathleen, Clerico is survived by son Kevin and his wife, Tanya; five grandchildren; one great-grandchild born just weeks ago; and other extended family including a nephew she was particularly close to, Norman Bussell.

Services are pending.

-- Californian Editorial Page Editor Robert Price contributed to this story.