Obituary: Clifford Needham / Animal lover, expert bridge player and devoted volunteer

Died May 28, 2014

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Clifford Needham -- animal lover, expert bridge player and devoted volunteer -- died Wednesday from respiratory failure. He was 69.

Mr. Needham was best known as "the bear man" for his work as a docent at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

He lived in Harmar, where he and his wife, Kit, 66, had retired after living in Bethesda, Md. He was born in the District of Columbia and attended Bethesda/Chevy Chase High School before going to Franklin & Marshall College.

When he began in 2002, Mr. Needham helped out at the "touch tables" displaying elephant tusks, tiger skulls and different furs for children. Then he fell in love with Rocky, a Kodiak bear, and spent his volunteer hours -- 391 of which he racked up last year -- educating visitors at the exhibit.

"He was a bear person," said Judi Diven of Squirrel Hill, who is also a docent at the zoo. "He loved the bears. He knew Rocky really well and he would always be at that site where Rocky was. He had all the information about bears in general."

Mrs. Needham recalls numerous occasions in which a child or parent would approach them in a supermarket or while walking through Point State Park and say, "Hey! You're the Bear Man." She said her husband also had a licence plate and T-shirt that said "Bear Man."

Later, Mr. Needham would sit in a chair under the polar bear tunnel, answering questions and quizzing visitors about bear facts, which Mrs. Needham said earned him another nickname -- "the hook" -- among the docents, because he was very engaging with visitors.

Before his retirement, Mr. Needham worked as a commercial lender at Riggs National Bank in Bethesda and later American Express as a financial planner.

He and his wife moved to Pittsburgh in 2000 when Mr. Needham retired and Mrs. Needham found a job in the area. He volunteered at UPMC St. Margaret for four years, helping direct people to different units and assisting those not able-bodied enough to walk themselves.

Among all of his volunteer work, one of Mr. Needham's proudest accomplishments was making silver life master in bridge, which is accomplished by attaining 1,000 life master points and at least 200 silver, red, gold or platinum master points.

Mr. Needham was also a frequent audience member at the Tuesday Blue Grass jam sessions at the Starlite Lounge in Blawnox.

"Cliff would be there every Tuesday around 6:30," Mrs. Needham said. "When he was out sick for a while, no one sat in his spot. He didn't play anything -- he just listened."

Later in his life, Mr. Needham suffered a series of minor heart attacks and strokes, but was relentlessly optimistic, his friends and family said.

"He was a very kind person," said the Rev. Jeff Murph, rector of St. Thomas Memorial Episcopal Church in Oakmont. "Despite the health problems that he had, he always kept a remarkably positive attitude and was astonishingly persevering."

Besides his wife, Mr. Needham is survived by two daughters, Catherine Needham and Lauren Patricia Needham-Palmer, both of Virginia.

A memorial service will be held at St. Thomas Memorial Church in Oakmont at 2 p.m. June 21.


Max Radwin: mradwin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1280.


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