July 17, 2012
One of the longest-standing and most active Republicans in the city of Staunton, Justice C. "Cliff" Fretwell, passed away two weeks ago. He leaves behind his widowed wife, Erma, two daughters, a stepson, two sisters, four grandchildren, and several nieces and nephews. Cliff worked his way up through determined salesmanship to become a successful realtor and businessman. I knew that he worked at 1st Choice Real Estate, formerly GMAC, and you could often see his face on the side of the moving van that his company used to help its clients get settled in their new homes. What I didn't know was that he got started as an insurance broker and later owned some local businesses, such as a Oaklawn cemetery and Spee-Dee Oil Change. He also held key positions in the Greater Augusta Regional Chamber of Commerce, and other associations. For more on his personal and professional life, see the obituary that was printed in the News Leader.
Cliff was a devout, sincere Christian and an active member of his congregation. At the memorial service held at Memorial Baptist Church on July 8, I learned that Cliff attained the clerical office of Deacon. At the reception for family and friends the evening before, I also learned about Cliff's family life, and the joy he shared with his children and grandchildren. He was deeply devoted to Erma, and they made a fine couple. He had a crystal clear sense of right and wrong that governed everything he did, in business, in politics, and in family life. In terms of morality, he was humble, not self-righteous. When Hurricane Katrina ruined large parts of the Gulf Coast in September 2005, Cliff went down there along with fellow church members to do volunteer cleanup work. He was also active in other charities.
I knew Cliff through my involvement in the Staunton Republican Committee. I distinctly recall doing door-to-door campaign work in Staunton and Augusta County with Cliff, and in marching with him and others in the Fourth of July parade. He was elected chairman of the committee after his predecessor, Patrick Haley, moved to Ohio in the autumn of 2004. It was during Cliff's term that Staunton Republicans achieved some of their greatest successes, in elections and in fund-raising. In February 2006 he and another party member, Stacey Morris, worked very hard to make the Ronald Reagan Dinner a big success. Nearly one hundred guests attended the event, held at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel in downtown Staunton, with guest speaker Rebecca Hagelin, and author with the Heritage Foundation. Cliff decided not to run for reelection when the Republican mass meeting was held in March 2006.
During the latter part of 2006, tensions began to grow as factional splits emerged in the local Republican scene. Cliff was among those who stood his ground and refused to be intimidated by the leaders of the self-styled "grassroots" faction. In early 2007 the nature of the problem came into sharp focus, as the "grassroots" aggressively promoted the candidacy of Scott Sayre against incumbent State Senator Emmett Hanger. Cliff was a loyal supporter of Senator Hanger, knowing first-hand how much hard work Hanger had put into building the local Republican Party during the 1990s. Cliff would say that he didn't agree with Emmett on all the issues, but that his integrity and responsible attitude on budget matters far outweighed the relatively minor differences over policy issues. That was much the same position I had in my support for Sen. Hanger. But after the battle within the party escalated out of control in the aftermath of the victorious reelection of Sen. Hanger, Cliff (and many of us) found that the state party organization had been taken over by hostile forces bent on pushing aside old-line pragmatists. That is, basically, the reason why Cliff (and his wife Erma) were two of the founding members of the Mountain Valley Republicans, an organization devoted to promoting civil, open dialogue and debate within the party, and resisting malicious acts.
For all of his charitable good works, Cliff could also be a prickly character to deal with. He was a bottom-line-focused businessman through and through, and didn't suffer fools gladly. Being very candid and blunt, sometimes he said things that offended people. When incumbent Delegate Chris Saxman announced he would not run for reelection in July 2009, Cliff offered himself as a candidate for that position, and spoke to a public meeting hosted by the local Republican leaders. (They chose then-City Councilman Dickie Bell to run, and Bell has served in the Virginia House of Delegates ever since.) As I wrote back then of Cliff, "He is a gruff, no-nonsense kind of guy who reminds me of the mustached actor Wilford Brimley: 'Eat your oatmeal!'" In short, he was almost the ideal kind of Republican who ought to serve in public office. I was honored to work alongside him, in good times and in bad, and I hope he gets the recognition that is due to a stalwart party leader.