When my uncle Bill Clements died unexpectedly on August 7, 1983, thirty years ago this week, Gregory E. Favre, the managing editor of the Chicago Sun Times wrote these words in tribute to his colleague:
“No, there won’t be any movies about Bill, but there ought to be. There ought to be a place for a story about a man who inspired others by his actions; a complete professional who loved the truth and honesty; a man whose faith in God and in himself was never shaken; even in the tough times when he was a target because of what he was writing.”
Bill Clements was my mother’s younger brother. He and Aunt Sheila were vacationing at their summer place at Beaver Island on Lake Michigan on August 7, 1983. He was wading waste-deep in the water when he was stricken with a fatal heart attack. They found his body several hours later. He was only fifty.
I was living and working in Syracuse, New York at the time. Early the next morning I was atop three sections of scaffolding when the superintendent of the building yelled up to me, “Are you Tom Degan?” When I told him that I was, he said he had a call for me and handed me a cordless phone. I knew instinctively that the person on the line had bad tidings to bear. Sure enough, my dad was on the other end. He broke the dreadful news to me as gently as he possibly could. It was almost as if I had been slammed in the gut by a pickup truck going at full speed. I loved the man that much.
Bill Clements was an “investigative reporter” for the Chicago Daily News and, later, the Chicago Sun Times. But as Mr. Favre noted in his tribute, the words “investigative” and “reporter” are kind of redundant. After all, what is a reporter if not an investigator? Whatever term you wish to use he worked hard at his craft and was better than anyone at it – Woodward and Bernstein be damned. It was his mighty pen that sent former Illinois governor, Otto Kerner, to prison in 1974 in a bribery scandal. Again, in the words of Gregory Favre:
“Bill worked the mean streets of corruption and fraud and lies, but there wasn’t a mean streak in his body.”
Oh, and did I mention the fact that he was one of the funniest men who ever lived? In fact, on more than one occasion he was mistaken by strangers as being Tim Conway. For a couple of years in the nineteen-fifties he lived in nearby Chester, New York, at the home of my widowed, paternal grandmother – exactly seven-hundred miles from his native South Bend, Indiana. One of the summer jobs he had while he lived here was as a Goshen’s Good Humor man. It was a job perfectly suited for Bill Clements; the man had good humor to spare. I can just picture him….
When Bill married Sheila in August of 1958, my parents missed their wedding because they were expecting me. That was the first time that I threw a monkey wrench into a family function, It wouldn’t be the last.
I bonded with Uncle Billy quite early, spending the entire summer of 1963 living with him and Sheila at their home in Dayton, Ohio. At that time he was working for the Dayton Daily News. One of his friends also employed by that paper was another aspiring journalist named Phil Donahue. I’d like to be able to tell you that living with Bill Clements and his family for so long a period wore off on me (When you’re five years old, four months is a very long time indeed). I think that it did. I can say with total candor that no person I ever knew made a larger impact on my life. He is the standard against which all others are measured.
In 1981 he and fellow-reporter, Gene Mustain, broke the story that ironically made him and Sheila (who was at the time a beloved fourth grade teacher at a parochial school) pariahs among their fellow Catholics in Chicago. It involved the financial corruption of the late John Cardinal Cody. My cousin, Bill Clements, Jr., is today a reporter in Minneapolis. He remembers all too clearly that gut-wrenching time:
“The Cody series was a jaw-dropper: The stories accused Cody of stealing money from the church to support a woman and her son–and it intimated that Cody was the father of the son. The Sunday after the series first hit, Mom and Dad and my brother, Mike (the youngest and only kid still at home), attended Mass at St. Luke as usual. But this was not a normal Mass. The pastor, our family friend, denounced the stories and my Dad personally from the pulpit that morning.”
Immediately after receiving communion, they quietly slipped out of the church. From that day on they would worship at another parish “where nobody knows us”, as he said to his wife and son. During this same period, Mike Clements, his youngest, was attending a Catholic high school in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago ten miles to the west of the city. One day he overheard one teacher telling another that the evil reporter who wrote such a smear-piece about their beloved Cardinal Cody would go straight to the pit of hell. It was that kind of time in the life of the Clements family.
Here is where I must relate a personal story of my devout uncle’s relationship with God and his church:
I lived with Uncle Bill and Aunt Sheila during one more extended period of my life – in the Spring and Summer of 1977. By this time their family was complete – with four, very nice children (Bill, Jr., Julie, Katie and Michael – Hi, cousins!). Every Sunday morning it was the same ritual: Attend nine o’clock mass, then come home and sit down for breakfast – and I don’t mean hanging out in the kitchen, halfheartedly munching on sausages and toast – I’m talkin’ about a grand meal in the dining room, with their best china and silverware. Sunday breakfast at the Clements home was like freakin’ Thanksgiving. For the record: Grace was said before every meal – breakfast lunch or dinner.
One fine Sunday morn, I skipped out on the family and missed the traditional mass and munchies. At the end of the day he confronted me on my way to bed. The conversation went like this:
“Did you ever get to church today, Tom?”
“I didn’t, Sorry ’bout that.”
“I dunno, Uncle Bill, I just didn’t feel like it.”
He almost ran me out of town on a rail. As you might imagine, while I lived under his roof I never missed mass again.
Bill Clements was the most devout Catholic I ever knew. He once told me that he hated writing the Cody series more than any other of his career – but he wrote it – and you’d better damn-well believe that it’s the truth. Case closed. Once again from Gregory Favre’s tribute:
“No, they won’t make a movie about Bill Clements. But then they don’t make movies about a lot of people who are our real heroes. And, besides, it would take someone like Spencer Tracy to truly play the role….and we don’t have any Spencer Tracys around anymore either.”
I have to respectfully disagree with Mr. Favre on this one point. The story of the Cody reporting alone would make one heck of a movie! Spencer Tracy has passed into eternity? No problem. Mel Gibson as Bill Clements; that sounds like a plan.
If he heard a statement or an idea that he found preposterous, he had a habit of saying, “That’s goofy!” It challenges credulity to think that it’s been thirty, very long years, since I’ve heard that wonderful voice of his – or that I’ll never hear it again – at least not in this lifetime. That’s pretty goofy, too. I often say that for every person that goes before me I fear it less and less. There must be one fantastic party happening on the other side of that unknowable void. Having a family member like him was better than winning the lottery. I still miss my uncle Bill. This is more-than-likely a permanent ailment on my part.
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