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Chester County Press

A mayor’s milestone, a mayor’s legacy

Image courtesy of Daily Local News.

In 2022, the Chester County Community Foundation established a visionary award to recognize individuals whose civic engagement, community service and charitable philanthropy light the way and inspire others. Its recipients are bridge builders, door openers, public servants and visionaries, creating futures that up to the point of their contribution had been only imagined ones. A powerful leader, the Foundation wrote, “empowers others to be the change they wish to see in the world.”

To the surprise of no one, the Foundation gave the recognition an official name: the Honorable Dr. Clifford E. DeBaptiste Visionary Award. For DeBaptiste, who will celebrate his 100th birthday on May 19, translating the phrase “uplifting life through service” has served not just as a personal motto but as an active sense of responsibility.  

In 1954, after serving in the U.S. Army and graduating from mortuary school, DeBaptiste and his wife Inez made West Chester their home, where they raised a family and operated the successful DeBaptiste Funeral Homes. But that was not enough for DeBaptiste; he was also a tireless elected official and a community advocate, dedicating thousands of hours in the service of the town he loved, imaging West Chester as a better place – a revitalized and safer borough.  

Beginning in 1994, he campaigned for – and was elected to – two terms as West Chester’s first African American mayor. While in office, he championed the need to strengthen the police department through promotions and new hires and saw it grow by nearly 50 percent during his tenure. 

At a time when West Chester was seeing the mass exodus of commercial businesses to the outer suburbs, DeBaptiste and others helped to encourage new businesses to come to the borough, leading to a rebirth of the downtown district that now reverberates with a vibrancy of stores and restaurants.

In honor of Black History Month and the soon-to-be occasion his 100th birthday, Rep. Chrissy Houlahan honored DeBaptiste with a speech last week on the U.S. House floor in Washington, D.C. She praised him for his 70 years of selfless service to the community and called hm “a beloved figure in the community.”

“His work revitalized West Chester’s downtown and led to incredible growth for local businesses, with the number of restaurants in the borough rising from 15 to 57 during his term,” Houlahan said. “Since his retirement, he has remained active in our local community, and we are so grateful for his contributions and those of his daughter, Lillian, who followed in his footsteps and is the current Mayor of West Chester.”

To our credit – and perhaps to our detriment -- our nation is drawn to those who hold us spellbound with the execution of their talents, the amplification of their accomplishments and the magnitude of their resilience. And yet, most of our nation’s grandest work has been achieved by those who are blessed to be in a position of influence and perform quietly, in the enclaves of small towns, with no self-aggrandizing fanfare. They are inspired to do nothing but draw back the curtain and open the door and reveal the possibility of the change they wish to see in the world and ask others to follow them.

In the weeks leading up to what will be his 100th birthday, let us acknowledge and praise the ongoing legacy of Dr. DeBaptiste in the hopes that it will be magnified and eventually duplicated.