|Bill Clements interviewing Dr. King, 1966|
Has anybody here seen my old friend Bill?
When my uncle Bill Clements died unexpectedly in August of 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."
In addition to being a beloved uncle, Bill Clements was known primarily as an "investigative reporter" for the Chicago Daily News and, later, the 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 at it than anyone - 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."
|Bill at Sheila's prom, 1954|
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:
|Cousin Bill Clements, Jr.|
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 was attending a Catholic high school in River Forest, a suburb of Chicago ten miles to the west of the city. One day he overheard a teacher telling another one that the evil reporter who wrote such a nasty 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:
|Bill with his father and Bill, Jr.|
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.
MESSAGE TO CHICAGO CATHOLICS WHO STILL DOUBT THE STORY:
|Bill (right) with my parents and Jack|
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 - George Clooney as Bill Clements; Now 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 - and 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 condition on my part.
A big thanks and a hug-and-a-half to cousin Bill Clements for the details on the Cardinal Cody series.
Here's a link to read some of the journalism of my cousin, Bill Clements, Jr:
Photo of Uncle Bill and Dr. King courtesy of cousin Bill Clements. That's a keeper!