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A Life of Service and Style: Emma Kaliterna: 1918 – 2020

For more than three quarters of a century, if you wanted to see friends, get the latest ‘do,’ and donate to a vast array of community organizations, you could do it all at Emma’s Coiffures on Franklin Street. She told the Weekly in 2016 that it was what kept her healthy.

“There was always a raffle going on inside the shop to help raise funds for school or library programs,” recalled longtime friend and retired Santa Clara Deputy City Manager Carol McCarthy.

Kaliterna died June 14 from complications of congestive heart failure at the age of 101.

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“Until the last couple of years when Emma broke her hip, I never saw her sit down very much except to play her daily games of Scrabble,” said McCarthy.

“She was always picking up or replanting in her yard, and otherwise keeping busy. It never surprised me to drive up to her home and see her on a ladder painting her home.”

At her 100th birthday — where she was, as always, perfectly coiffed — she responded to friends’ compliments, “I should look great. I’m only 100.”

After Emma broke her hip, her daughter Danielle moved back to Santa Clara to care for her mother.

“Family comes first for the Kaliterna family,” said Danielle. “After my dad passed in 2014, I wanted to be more available for my mom so I left my career of 30 years of teaching elementary school in Redding, California to come here and support my mother.

“We got to add many adventures and opportunities these past six years,” she continued. “I knew the time together was priceless, and as Mom’s only daughter, I wanted to be here for her.”

Kaliterna’s life spanned Santa Clara’s history from a small farm town to a Silicon Valley hub.

A Santa Clara native, Emma Fontana Kaliterna was born Dec. 26, 1918, one of Sisto and Caterina Fontana’s four children. Her father Sisto started Santa Clara’s first garbage collection business, Santa Clara Scavenger Company.

“That’s where we got all our toys,” she told the Weekly in 2006. “What we got, you couldn’t believe: a lot of dolls, dollhouses and buggies.”

After high school, Kaliterna attended beauty college, and worked in the canneries that dotted the Valley in those days to save money for her own shop. “I used to cut ‘cots [apricots] when I was 12 years old,” she said, “so I’ve worked all my life,” Kaliterna was 21 when she and a partner put together $250 to open their own shop.

In 1941, she married Mickey Kaliterna, the start of 72 years of happy married life together. They bought the lot on 1346 Franklin St. in 1946 and built the building that was home to Emma’s Coiffures.

She took a short sabbatical after adopting Danielle, but as soon as Danielle was in school, Kaliterna was back in her shop.

As well known as Kaliterna was for her beauty shop, she was even better known for her enormous energy as a volunteer.

She raised more than $100,000 for a variety of community organizations including local schools, the City Library, Aquamaids, Triton Museum, Santa Clara High School and Santa Clara Youth Village. She also served on the city’s Cultural Advisory Commission and the Keep Santa Clara Clean program.

When Agnews Developmental Center closed, she rode her bike over and asked them to donate the cafeteria chairs to a local school.

Among her many awards were induction into Santa Clara Unified’s Hall of Fame, the Chamber of Commerce Award of Merit and the Austen Warburton Award, and she received Santa Clara’s first “Those Who Inspire” award. She was once dubbed a “One Woman Chamber of Commerce for the City of Santa Clara.”

The yearbook section of the Santa Clara City Main Library is named for her as well as a yearly Children’s Author Event.

“She was such an enthusiastic Library supporter that anonymous donors set up an endowment in her name for an annual Author Event, always well attended by the community,” said McCarthy.

In 1964, with Celine Von Raesfeld, Kaliterna organized a fundraiser to help finance Benny Bufano’s Universal Child Statue at the then-new City Hall and Civic Center.

Fundraisers were her forte, and Kaliterna deployed her style savvy in themed fashion shows: Japanese, Western, and even a Guys-turned-Dolls show featuring the men of the community — including Police Chief Frank Sapena — dressed as women.

One 1960s fashion show, however, drew objections from its beneficiary, St. Clare’s School, with its “LSD” theme – “Loads of Sensational, Delicious fun, food, and fashion.”

For Kaliterna’s faithful following, there was no place like Emma’s Coiffures and no one like Emma. 

One customer came all the way from Santa Barbara to have her hair cut and highlighted by Kaliterna. “Leonardo da Vinci was also one of a kind,” she replied when asked why she traveled such a distance for Kaliterna’s services. Other customers said that stepping into Kaliterna’s shop was like stepping back into a pleasanter, more relaxed past.

Brian Halla was a customer for four decades. “I didn’t have to tell her how to cut my hair,” of his first visit to her shop. “Then I went there just to see her. She was an amazing person and I hoped some of that would rub off on me.

“She always had energy for more,” Hall continued.

“In her eighties she had a heart valve replaces and it slowed her down. That meant she only three clients in the morning and she told me she always did one big project every afternoon. One day she told me she was going to clean her gutters. I said, ‘You mean you’re having someone clean the gutters.’ She said, ‘[Do you think] I can’t go up on a ladder?’”

In 2013 Kaliterna persuaded Halla to donate some of the proceeds from his children’s book, Boot’s Bridge, to the Santa Clara City Library.

“I think Emma always enjoyed the paper publishing something about her,” McCarthy told me. “I’m hoping this [article] would have made her happy.”

Emma Kaliterna was preceded in death by her husband of 72 years, Mickey Kaliterna. She is survived by daughter Danielle Kaliterna, grandson Michael Kaliterna and his wife Kari Kaliterna, and 10 nieces and nephews.

Private graveside services will be held next week for family and burial will be at Santa Clara Mission Cemetery. A memorial service and celebration of life is planned for late summer.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Santa Clara City Library Foundation & Friends.

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