Wednesday, November 16, 2016

From Humble Beginnings Come Great Things

“From humble beginnings come great things.”

Two words I have heard over and over in the past few weeks when people described Papaw Jr. were “humble” and “kind”.  Both of these are true.  I’m reminded of the Bible verse about God opposing the proud and giving grace to the humble.  Papaw Jr. was definitely humble, and I can’t help but think that God did show him grace and favor throughout his life… and his humble beginnings truly did become something great.

Papaw was raised at Clayhole.  His family lived with his grandparents and he had fond memories of them. When Caleb was little and I talked about how he liked to sleep with his Papaw William to rub his eyebrows, Papaw Jr. would tell me that was ok, that he slept with his Grandma until he was six or so. His Daddy’s property was divided from his Grandpa’s by a big rock with a line drawn down the middle. Papaw Jr. and his brother Willard would fight, so one day their grandpa put Willard on one side and Papaw Jr. on the other and dared them to cross. Papaw said he thought that put an end to that fight… but I’m sure there were plenty others.

Papaw went to Caney School and went to Clayhole Brethren Church for Sunday School. He talked about how he never packed his lunch for school because he was too busy playing during that time to eat, and that he was starved by the time he got home. His Grandma always had a little milk put back in a jar just for him, because she had him a little spoiled, he said. He loved to tell us stories of the mischief he and his cousins got into. One time at the Sale House, a place where they would give away clothes, the women were grabbing what they wanted and piling it up, and Papaw and his cousin Ronald went by and move the clothes from one pile to another, almost causing a fight.

When they moved to town, they got electricity and would listen to the radio if Papaw Barlow was working on somebody’s.  He said he loved to listen to prize fighting and the Grand ol’ Opry. Funny, I can’t remember a time when he didn’t have a radio by his chair in the living room.  He was always listening to a ballgame or the weather or the station out of Mount Carmel.  Those Reds games must have been captivating, because he’d always fall asleep… but as soon as someone approached the dial to turn the radio off or change the station, his eyes would fly open. “I was listening to that!”

Papaw went to work at a young age. His Dad worked on coal trucks and Papaw went to help him. One day an opening came for a coal truck driver. Papaw didn’t have his driver’s license, but at the age of 17 he went to town and got his license and started driving a coal truck the next day.

He made $14 a day driving that truck. After that company closed, he went to work at Dalton’s Garage, which was located right here where this church is. Funny how much time Papaw spent in this one little area. About this time he was hanging out with that troublemaking cousin across from the courthouse when some little young lady carrying a guitar as big as she was came down the steps after a revival. A few months later, he pulled his car over at Clayhole and asked if she reckoned they could make it on $35 a month. As they say, the rest is history… the Clemons Clan legacy started right there.


He was a proud veteran, serving in the Army as a wheel vehicle repairman. During this time, my Mom was born. When he got out of the service, he opened Clemons Garage and devoted over 60 years to his family, his work, his church, and his community.

On the weekends he’d load all six kids in their station wagon and make a trip… to church, to the Church of God Campmeeting…  to Whick or Lick Branch or Dayton to visit Mamaw’s family. A jar of ice water provided drink for the group and few stops were made since he didn’t believe in bathroom breaks. I’m sure there was lots of arguing in that crowded station wagon. I’m also pretty sure that if he tried to get them to quieten down, he’d never call them by the right name… “Karen, Mike, David, Lisa, Nora… Dana’s your name” This tradition of not getting the names right until he went through the whole line continued with the grandchildren, until there was so many of us that he just gave up. 

He worked hard to make sure they had all that they needed. My Mom’s siblings talked about going to Papaw for a dollar. “Aaahhh… I wish that’s all I needed” was his response. He did provide them with treats like Sweet-tarts from Bob Gross’s service station. He remained a bargain shopper, driving thirty miles to save ten cents on gas Dana said she’d miss Saturday morning  trips to the Dollar Store because he had a $5 off coupon. He still had one of those coupons in his wallet when mom was looking through it on Saturday.

His hard work continued even when most people his age were retiring. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1999, and scheduled every radiation treatment for 8 AM in Lexington. He’d come home, eat some peanut butter and crackers for lunch, and head into the garage. I guess he had to keep working, as long as Mike Fugate had that old brown truck! Credit was easy to obtain at the garage, and he didn’t care to loan his tools, either. He couldn’t always remember customer’s names, but he could remember what kind of vehicle they drove. Guess that’s why Caleb could name all those cars when he was three years old!  He also gave people a helping hand. Dana talked about a coworker who started out working with Papaw at the garage, and said he had often told her how indebted he was to Papaw., that he and his family would have gone hungry if Papaw hadn’t given him that job. One of my memories of Papaw is him coming home on lunch break, me, Glenn, and Jenn lined up on the couch or climbing the tree or the banisters on the porch. He’d have on his green work shirt and those greasy hands, and he’d always pretend like he was going to grab us. Those hands were permanently stained, didn’t matter how hard he washed them… but those stains meant love, because of what he worked for.

Nora talked about how he’d keep her old LTD in working shape. She said she’d be praying every time it’d tear up that it would be for good, but Papaw would just load his tools up, drive to Morehead, and it’d be good for a few more miles. She also said that Papaw would be the first standing and clapping at her chorus concerts at Morehead. Most of her songs were in Italian or Latin, but Papaw didn’t care, because it was his baby singing them.

Mom talked about how he fostered her love of sports. He loved ballgames, and would go as often as he could, traveling to neighboring counties. She commented, “I guess he knew to get out of the house, he’d have to take a kid or two along, so it was me and Mike.” She knew the words to Breathitt and Jackson’s school songs, and that love of sports is evident in most of us. He loved Reds baseball, UK basketball, and anything that the grandkids played.. He grew to love football as Glenn and Brayton played, and never failed to ask me how Caleb’s football team was doing or tell me what Glenn was telling him about Breathitt’s football team. The winter after Mamaw died, Papaw frequented the gym watching the Ladycats and Landry at Jackson, and it pleased my heart to get to sit next to him. He didn’t get too excited, but Mom said when she was little he’d rub his hands together when the game was close. My fondest memory of that time was sitting with him at Memorial Gym at Hazard, and him telling me about Earl Stevens breaking his leg. He also loved to tell the story of the heartbreaker against Austin Dumas and Dunbar in the Sweet 16. Standing room only at UK’s Memorial Coliseum, and he had a bird’s eye view of the winning shot. He was such a basketball fan that he missed David’s birth because he was at a basketball game at Hazard. “If Breathitt hadn’t gone into overtime, I’d have been ok”, he said.

That same winter he spent lots of Sunday evenings at my Griffith grandparents house. My Papaw Paul had a big screen TV, and they’d usually watch whatever ballgame was on, Papaw Paul in his recliner, Papaw Jr. on the bed.  I think they spent as much time napping as they did watching TV. One day I had told Kami that Pappy J was watching a game with Papaw Paul, and she texted back and said, “Does he go over there often?” I replied yes, to which she replied, “Do they even like each other?” I guess she thought Mom was trying to force a friendship… but two of the greatest men in my life, and they were always friends. I’ve been blessed. I never knew that inlaws didn’t get along and grow gardens together.

He never had much to say, that I can remember. I guess we were a loud and boisterous group, and that only grew with the grandkids. He was quick witted, though, if you listened. When Nora had Allie, Mamaw called him at the garage and told him he had a new granddaughter. A couple of hours later she called back to tell him Kami had been born. “Don’t call back today,”he said.  Didn’t matter how loud we were, though… he’d load us up in that van and off we’d go. Gentry and Brayton talked about going to look at Christmas lights.

The family grew as we got older and got married. One day Wallace was quarreling about something with me and said, “Jr., why didn’t you warn me about these Arrowood women?” Papaw just smiled and said, “You wouldn’t have listened.”

Papaw and Mamaw’s house was a haven to the neighborhood kids, and as the grandkids got older, they adopted their friends into the family. Allie talked about having a sleepover with a friend one night. This was before they had central air, and only had a window unit in the living room. Allie and her friend crept into the living room in the dark of night to climb up on the loveseat in front of the window unit. Her friend stepped up on a step stool… only to find out it was Papaw, kneeling and praying. It was too dark to tell it was him. Al said she couldn’t remember his response, but they hightailed it back to the bedroom. He probably just kept on praying…. Or sleeping, if he had fallen asleep.

The Clemons Clan continued to grow, and his great-grandkids truly brought him much joy. He loved when Lily would entertain him, and he’d talk about Braylee Naomi. On Braylee’s first Thanksgiving, Chelsey and Brayton had gone to Walmart for black Friday shopping, leaving Braylee with her Nonna. Braylee was not happy about the situation, and was crying pretty loudly. “Ah.. she’s just having one of those Naomi fits”, he laughed.

The first time I can remember my Papaw telling me he loved me I was sixteen, at his Mom’s visitation. I was headed to go cheer at a football game, and I leaned over to give him a hug. He may have told me before, but it didn’t matter. I knew. We all knew. The last three weeks, I’ve been blessed to have breakfast with Papaw most weekday mornings, and the last thing I’d hear as I headed out the door to work was “I love you.” Few words, yes… but a life of actions that showed that love to each of us.


He truly was a miracle. He talked about as a child witnessing a murder, hiding in an old car as a man got shot dead in the middle of the road. “We didn’t realize it, then”, he said.. “But that was dangerous. We could have been shot by a stray bullet or anything.” He also fell 40 feet when he cut into a live electric line while working on a tower at a blacktop plant. A fractured skull and finger that had been severely burned were two of the injuries. As a nurse, I’m still amazed at the unconventional way they treated the open wound on his finger… by cutting a hole in his abdomen, sewing the finger in, and allowing it to heal before taking out the stitches.

Papaw’s strong faith was evident through his service to this church. It seems funny to stand up here and not look back and see him in the pew next to the window, or to see him not standing here leading a song. That’s usually where he’d be when we’d come dragging in, late. I can’t read the book of Daniel without hearing Prayer Bells of Heaven in my mind. He served this church many years as church clerk and Sunday School Supt., driving a church van all over Breathitt county and making sure it was in working condition, and hauling youth groups to Camden Park and the Smoky Mountains, smiling most of the way.  The church van parked at the side of the house provided the grandkids many hours of enjoyment as we played inside… and apparently, the kids, too. Dana said one time she knocked it out of gear and it rolled across the lane.

A man of humble beginnings, yes… but a man who has left us with a lifetime of great things. Pappy J., you’re one of the best. May your legacy live on in each of us.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful tribute! A grand fellow, to be sure. You have my prayers for peace and strength for the season of loss.