Remembering My Dad

The Passing of My Patriarch: Remembering Lester S. Clemens  
Dad at 95

I know - patriarchy is not in fashion these days- and rightfully so. But my father was the patriarch of our family. Actually, his father, my paternal grandfather, John C Clemens was more of a patriarch- having fathered 14 children, 10 surviving past infancy; my paternal Grandfather was the more classic model but I was only 9 years old when he passed and had only spent a few summers with him when he lived in our small basement apartment when he came north from his winter, spring, and fall home in Sarasota, Florida where he moved after retirement. He is the one who started the family business and provided the vision that was followed by 4 of his sons in what is now known as the Clemens Family Corporation but was merely Hatfield Packing Company in my childhood. 

My dad's patriarchy was over his 3 sons, 9 grandchildren, and 18 great grandchildren (with one on the way). His passing, at age 95, leaving only his youngest sister, my Aunt Betty, age 92, marks the end of that generation. He provided the spiritual leadership, the financial stability, and the discipline for our family. Although my mom co-parented- especially when he was away on business trips during my pre-teen years, we three sons knew who had the final word. 

Dad's faith and belief was a central core to his identity. Yes, he was also a veteran (having survived World War II as an Army infantryman), a quiet philanthropist, a businessman, and a community leader - but all of those identities were subordinated to his desire to be known as a disciple and follower of Jesus. 

My father was a Veteran. Dad never talked to me about his military service until I asked him direct questions after his 80th birthday celebration on the way back to the airport for my return trip to Minnesota. "I did some things I'm not proud of because I wasn't a Christian then. But I told the Lord, if I made it home [from Europe] safely, I'd go to church and change my life," he told me. And he did.  As a boy, I marveled at the German Mauser rifles, replete with removable bayonet bearing the  swastika,  and officer's Luger pistol, he had sent home from the battlefield.  We used the rifles for deer hunting in our earlier teenage years. Not once did he ever give me the impression that he was proud of his military service – he did it out of a sense of obligation.

Even though he and some of his generation eventually left his Mennonite tradition disagreeing with the ban on jewelry, musical instruments in worship, the need for women to wear head coverings, ... he still retained much from that pietist heritage. He identified as an "evangelical" because he felt he had an obligation to share his "good news" about his relationship with Jesus with others. His faith in and commitment to Jesus was the most important thing he wanted to pass on to others.

Yes, Dad was a philanthropist- he gave the bulk of his wealth away to many dozens, if not hundreds, of organizations, causes, or people. While never living extravagantly, he and my mom traveled to many distant places after his retirement at age 65, primarily to visit missionaries they supported in prayer and financially. Yes, a few organizations recognized Dad for his donations - including been given an honorary doctorate by a local seminary, despite having only a 10th grade formal education. But he was content not to make a show of his generosity- he was merely passing on "the blessings he had received from his 'Father in heaven'". I would be surprised as a young child to see someone from our church who had recently lost his job now working as an employee at the meat packing plant which was a mere 50-100 feet from our front door. He strongly insisted that his sons continue his practice of giving to others. Even his personal checks bore the scriptural verse, "For what shall it profit a man to gain the whole world but to lose his own soul?" That made a real impression on my brothers and me! 

Dad was a businessman - but here too, his ethics and values of his faith, also shared by his 3 brothers in the meat packing business, took priority over profit. Even though the plant employees were not unionized (unions were considered corrupt and too confrontational for my Dad and uncles), they instituted a "profit sharing" plan that eventually lead to a very comfortable retirement for many of the men I worked alongside of as a youth. [Dad had us working at the plant starting at age 7 before and after school. I started at 15 cents/hour and was elated when I turned 15 and could then command $1.15/hour.] Having grown up as "the boss' son - my Dad was Vice President to my Uncle John as the company President until I went off to college and he succeeded my uncle - I knew I was in a privileged position even though when I was assigned a job of bagging kidneys and livers, making scrapple, boxing frozen chitterlings, or assembling corrugated boxes I sometimes felt his desire to make us appreciate the work we had was trying to make us "too equal". I look back now on those days and lessons with deep gratitude and appreciation for his leadership and direction. 

Dad was a community leader. He regularly served on the church council and the missionary board. We often hosted missionaries in our home when they were on home leave as well as hosting special guest speakers who came to our church for the annual "Missionary Conference". Dad served on the Board of Directors for a Bible Conference, a local seminary, and other local businesses and organizations. 

But most of all, my Dad was an example of how to live a faithful life. Even though we have parted ways theologically, politically, and geographically, I still see my Dad as a role model. Sure I have some regrets: he wasn't very expressive emotionally as I was growing up but he was much more effusive as his health started failing him - maybe causing those stoic Mennonite genes to relax a little more. In his evangelical zeal, he was not affirming when I chose a different path - yet I knew he still loved me despite what he saw as my "rebellion". We certainly have some diverging philosophies when it comes to "charitable" giving with my predilection for social justice and his for evangelism but we both agree on direct service to the needy both at home and abroad. Without his generosity to me, I'd have a lot less to share with others as I've chosen to spend my vocational years with non-profit groups and organizations. 

He has left big shoes to fill. But he has blazed a path for his sons and their offspring. And he couldn't have done all this without his loving partner, my Mom - now slowly disappearing into her Alzheimer's. 



Peter said...

I'm sure your Dad appreciates your thoughts about passing to you the strong values and commitments he and you both have exhibited. Even though you express them differently you each have made a difference in the world.


Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing this Steve. It's easy to see where you get your values and you have certainly followed in his footsteps with your generosity, community activism, faith, work ethic, and all.

sue ann