Monday, October 18, 2010

Goodbye to a friend

My friend, who perhaps knew me much better than I knew her, passed away after a long illness Saturday morning at 5:30 a.m. at her home, surrounded by her family. Her daughter called me to tell me, "You fan base has expanded to heaven." I will have much more to write about Barbara Clemons in the coming days. What follows is the feature story I wrote for Sunday's News Herald.

PANAMA CITY - Barbara Wells Clemons, wife of former Panama City Mayor Gerry Clemons and a driving force behind area civic organizations and charities throughout the last 60 years, died at her home Saturday morning after a prolonged illness, surrounded by her children and grandchildren.

She was 80.

Born in Montgomery, Ala., on May 24, 1930, Clemons was raised in Blountstown, where her father operated a grocery store and her mother was the first librarian for Calhoun County. She had one brother, now deceased, Rodney Bernard Wells.

Barbara met Girard Clemons in Pensacola, where he was in flight training with the U.S. Marines. They soon married and had the first two of five children. In 1957, after Gerry left the service, they moved to Panama City, where Barbara Clemons began a 30-year career as a pharmacist at City Drugs and her husband began his career in life insurance.

Clemons is survived her husband, their five children and 12 grandchildren: Kathie Bennett (and husband Roy) and children Katherine and Mary Scott; Becky Rast (husband Hank) and children Matthew, Megan, Laura and Luke; Gerry Clemons (wife Allyn) and children Rivah and Girard; Scott Clemons (wife Pat) and children Mary Katherine and Olivia; Ross Clemons (wife Mindy) and children Mara and Mark.

“Our family always came first,” said daughter Kathie Bennett, who was 3 years old when the family moved to Panama City. “They were married 58 years, and have five children and no divorces. I’m 56 and my youngest brother is 46. I attribute their love for being a role model to us children. I know no other like it.”

Cynthia McCauley, who now heads the Chautauqua Learn and Serve Charter School in Panama City, met Barbara Clemons at City Drugs more than 40 years ago. McCauley had just moved from Indiana, where she worked for her father in his pharmacy, and she got a job at the drugstore. Though Barbara barely knew the young mother, she was a steadfast supporter through a difficult time in McCauley’s life after her son developed encephalitis.

“Barbara, Gerry, and all their children prayed all night on their knees and he recovered. It was a miracle,” McCauley said. “While I can never repay her, I will work to develop the promise in every life I can. I will care for them and have faith in what they can be — without limits. Barbara Clemons did that for me.”

In 1958, Barbara Clemons became president of the Newcomers Club. Later she served as president of the Junior Women’s Club and was on the executive board of the Junior Service League. She was also a Cub Scout and Girl Scout leader, and taught Sunday School at Holy Nativity Episcopal Church.

Clemons served on the board of directors and as chairwoman of the Junior Museum of Bay County, where her passion for the arts and children became an effort to bring the two together. She was on the founding board of the Northwest Florida Mental Health Center (now Life Management Center) and later served as chairwoman.

“Her instruction to us, all our lives, was ‘Find a way to be more, to give of yourself,’” Bennett said. “I can’t even list all the things she’s chaired.”

Clemons was a lifelong patron of the Arts. She served on the boards of both the Panama City Music Association and the Bay Arts Alliance, and was the driving force behind the renovation of the Marina Civic Center through a partnership with the mayor — her husband.

“One topic that always came up during our visits was the pride she had for her family,” said author Michael Morris, who met Clemons at a Books Alive event. “She taught them to stand up for social justice, whether for those in need or for books that others decided to ban. But beyond all of the social contributions that Barbara Clemons leaves behind — and make no mistake there are many — her greatest successes are found in her children and grandchildren.”

Her leadership brought about the expansion of the After School Assistance Program. She championed the construction of an ASAP building, as previously the program was housed on an unoccupied apartment.

“As a result of her work there, she discovered that many of the children served weren’t given birthday parties,” Bennett said. “This gave ‘birth’ to the Birthday Club, a group of roughly 40 of her close friends banded together to host monthly birthday parties and holiday parties for the children. … At Christmas, they ensured every child got something they needed and something they wanted.”

Clemons instilled a love of literacy and learning in her children and many others, Bennett said. “Regular conversations with her included references to great books, which challenged all of us to read and to be enlightened,” she said.

Both Barbara and Gerry Clemons enthusiastically supported the Bay County Public Library’s annual Books Alive conference in hopes that this would enhance literacy and the cultural environment of Bay County.

“She gave other fine gifts to her community, but this was one of the finest, one the entire community looked forward to with much anticipation and joy,” said author and Books Alive presenter Linda Busby Parker in a letter to the Clemons family. “Though she was a small woman, she was a mighty force — a mighty positive force.”

Bettina Mead, in charge of community relations for the library, said Clemons was a friend and mentor for the past 30 years.

“My mother died when I was 20, and I know I could call Barbara and speak to her about whatever was on my heart," Mead said. "I know she would listen, give me advice if I ask, which of course I do, and most of all love me, as one of her own. Not only do I love her, I admire and respect her and will always cherish her in my heart.”

Scott Clemons, now the mayor of Panama City, said his mother’s greatest gift was her “infinite devotion and love” for her husband and family.

“Above all, this is a love story about a husband and a wife whose love was so profound that it redefined their very being,” Scott said. “A love so boundless that it poured over into and shaped the lives of five children and 12 grandchildren. So boundless that it flowed out, forever changing a community.”
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