R.I.P. Alan L. Clem (1929-2016)
My father, Alan L. Clem, passed away one week ago -- Monday, April 11 -- while I was traveling west in hopes of getting a chance to talk to him one last time. It was a sudden, unexpected health emergency. Five days later, I gave the eulogy for him at funeral services held in St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Vermillion, South Dakota. The manuscript is shown below. As befitting a man of his great stature, there was a huge turnout at both the visitation on Friday evening and the funeral itself on Saturday morning. I'm still stunned and disoriented by it all, finding it hard to believe that Dad is no longer with us.
An article written by Carson Walker (University of South Dakota Media Relations), based in part on an interview he did with my brother Chris and me, appeared in the Yankton Press and Dakotan and the USD.edu Web site. The Sioux Falls Argus Leader took that same article and severely edited it, wrongly attributing to me words spoken by Chris.
Eulogy for Alan L. Clem
When I was trying to make up my mind in the late 1980s whether to stay in the government or go for a Ph.D., my dad told me that in the academic profession you can be the "captain of your soul." Those words really captured my imagination. Quite frankly, I was tired of being the "galley slave of my soul," and so decided once and for all to make my mark on the world by following in my father's footsteps. And the rest, as they say, is political science.
Looking back, that conversation with Dad sheds light on something very special and profound that he left behind as his legacy to our family, and thereby to American society: He instilled in each of us five children -- Dan, John, Connie, Chris, and me -- a strong inner "moral compass" to guide our choices in life. If there is one common characteristic shared by us five siblings, it is a fierce disinclination to fit in and go along with the rest of the crowd. When it comes to conventional ways of thinking and acting, we are all stubborn nonconformists. Modest appearances aside, we are "unconquerable."
Much has been written about Dad's innumerable career achievements, of which we Clems are of course all very proud. Not everybody gets to grow up with a Dad who often appeared on TV, and was widely regarded as an esteemed authority figure. But there are many aspects of his personal life that few people outside the family know very well, things that molded his sterling character and pushed him to achieve greatness in a way that would not immediately grab attention. Dad's life as a cadet at St. John's Military School imbued him with solid character traits, including self-discipline and studiousness. But there were also moments of loneliness and anxiety which he learned to remedy by reading classic literature and nurturing a vivid imagination.
At the University of Nebraska, Dad's combination of athletic prowess and literary talent came into full fruition. He played on the varsity baseball team, and for many years one of the family treasures was Dad's old-style baseball glove with the huge heel and small fingers. I wish I knew what happened to that glove. Dad was active socially at the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, and became editor of the Daily Nebraskan. Words cannot express the depth of his passion for his alma mater. Last summer he and I took a drive down to Lincoln, where he showed me Memorial Stadium, home of the Cornhuskers, the ATO house, and other familiar places from those days. He really enjoyed that.
After working in advertising for a while, Dad took a job in Washington, DC. Without a doubt, the day Dad first saw a fetching young woman from North Carolina named Mary Louise Burke was one that was divinely ordained. Dad spotted her across the hall in a Capitol Hill office building where they both worked, and soon began courting her, even though he did not yet own an automobile. In October 1953 they took a train west to Salina, Kansas, where they were married. My grandfather, Col. the Rev. Remey Leland Clem, officiated in the services.
A couple years later, I arrived on the scene, and from what I am told, I was giving impassioned speeches through the front window by the time I was two. Then came Chris, and then came Connie, and then came the day when Dad announced we were going to move from the Washington area to a faraway place called Vermillion. There was a television drama series at the time called "The Millionaire," and I naturally concluded that we were all going to be millionaires. Not quite.
Indeed, life was often hard growing up on the northern plains, but we managed to survive the years of drinking powdered milk and sleeping in a dank basement with concrete floors. Two more boys arrived in the mid-1960s, John and Dan. They were lots of fun to play with, and we the proverbial "one big happy family." In spite of Dad's busy schedule running the Governmental Research Bureau at the University of South Dakota, he found time to come watch my brother Chris and me play little league baseball. One of the most thrilling moments of my young life was when Dad took us to see his beloved Chicago Cubs play the Pittsburgh Pirates in historic Wrigley Field in 1963. We got to see Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Roberto Clemente, among others.
Later on, Dad taught Chris and me how to swing a golf club, patiently explaining the importance of a proper grip, a proper stance, and the proper shifting of weight. Chris had a junior-sized five iron, and I had a junior-sized seven iron. Golf absorbed nearly all of our athletic energy through our teen years, and Chris in particular excelled at it. Later on, John and Dan learned to play golf as well. Meanwhile, our sister Connie embarked on a different athletic path, becoming a champion swimmer with many medals and trophies to her credit.
One of the smartest investments our frugal father ever made was a set of World Book encyclopedias. We kids literally devoured those books! Well, no, we figuratively devoured them. Dad was always annoyed by bad grammar, usage, and punctuation, making sure that his children learned proper English. In that regard, I should mention that for years he complained about the sign on the small park in our neighborhood, using an apostrophe in the name "Bluffs," where it did not belong. When I was visiting around Christmas time a few months ago, we decided to finally do something about it, so we spoke to one of the officials in City Hall, and lo and behold, the correction was made. Trivial or not, fixing that typo was deeply satisfying for Dad.
Mary Clem, our "sainted mother," was always the light in Dad's life that kept him active in the local social circuit. 902 Valley View Drive was the scene of many a party for the university crowd, thanks mainly to Mom. For us kids, that meant being exiled to the basement while the adults whooped it up upstairs. But we understood the importance of such events.
By the time I was a teenager, Dad stimulated my interest in political analysis, especially political geography, and I vividly remember his night analyses being broadcast on local television stations. In 1972 I was helping phone in the election results to NBC, and used the opportunity to witness the concession speech of George McGovern, the Democratic candidate for president. About 25 years later, I introduced myself to McGovern at the University of Virginia, and he asked me to send fond greetings to Dad. The warm praises of Dad expressed by former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw, former Sen. Larry Pressler, and other distinguished figures are a testament to what a great impact he had on their lives, and by extension, on America as a whole. The rock-solid, morally upright Dakota character is evident in those people, and in hundreds of other former students of Dad's. God willing, the same propagation of scholarly virtue for which Alan Clem was renowned will carry forward in future generation of Clems.
After Mom passed away, Dad become less involved in social affairs, deriving most of his pleasure from family and fellow church members. I made a point to visit Dad at least once or twice a year, and every single minute with him was a sheer joy. He is so pleasant, so friendly, so amusing, and so interesting. I was looking forward to spending more years enjoying his company, but God had other plans. I am at least grateful that I had the opportunity to take Dad on a cross-country road trip in June of 2014, driving south to Texas and then west to New Mexico, to the home of his sister Connie and brother-in-law Bill, who recently passed away. That trip was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, as well as being a special occasion for a reunion among dear family members.
In the 1990s, while I was slogging my way through the insane labyrinth that is graduate school, Dad offered me another piece of advice that was fitting and well received: Ad astra per aspera. That means "To the stars through difficulties," and is the state motto of Kansas, where he grew up. As Dad departs from this earthly realm and charts his soul's course into the afterlife, it is worth remembering that all the pain and suffering we endure in life is but a preparation for what lies beyond. Farewell, Dad. As that Vera Miles song from World War II went, "We'll meet again."