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Monday, October 9, 2017

Gene Clanton, Mentor and Friend

I was slightly woozy Sunday evening, having just returned from a long weekend at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. I'll be posting a commentary on that experience in due time. Because something more important happened and my priorities changed.

Spooling through social media posts, I learned my old friend Gene Clanton passed away Sunday morning. I was surprised, not shocked. Gene was 83, but I knew he had moved from Pullman to North Carolina earlier this year. He had family there. I never asked, but I suspected he was ill.

I first met Gene in 1976 while an undergraduate at Washington State University. He became one of the most significant influences in my approach to thinking and writing. If you see anything you like in these pages or in the articles I write for various publications or in my book on Portland's beer history, it's largely due to Gene's influence. He did not teach me how to write. That I learned. He taught me something far more important...how to think.

He was teaching a History 210 class on the JFK assassination when we met. I was as intrigued by the topic as he was and we quickly developed a rapport. I would stop by his office to talk even after the semester ended. Two years later, I took an upper level class focused on the same topic.

We lost touch after I graduated in 1979, but renewed our connection when I entered graduate school in 1983. The History graduate program was quite small, which gave students the opportunity to become well-acquainted with professors. Having known Gene before, we took up right where we left off.

As I navigated the program, I eventually chose to work with another professor, Ed Bennett, on a diplomatic topic for my Masters. Gene was on my MA committee and never voiced a concern about that choice, though I'm sure he thought I should have delved into something more serious. It was his style not to meddle.

I finished my MA in 1986. Soon thereafter, I had to decide what to do about a PhD. I decided I would work with Gene on an unspecified Cold War topic. We had many discussions about possible research paths and scenarios. But I became wary of the projected PhD job market and realized I would probably never complete the program. Gene had to have known, but he never said a thing.

While I was bumbling on in the PhD program, I decided to circle back and get a high school teaching credential. Gene, who had taught at the high school level and knew the downside, told me what to expect, but refused to push back. When I started writing opinion pieces for the Daily Evergreen, he frequently hit me up with suggested topics. Here and there, I chose to use them.

Gene was a gentle soul, but he was not a wimp. They had a policy of reviewing the work of graduate students in the History department each semester. At the end of one semester, someone in the department issued an unfavorable review of my work. The problem was, I had only worked with Gene that semester. It was a "scandalous normality," he said. The negative comment, we knew, was political, an inappropriate reaction to my opinion writing in the Evergreen. We challenged the Director of Graduate Studies, who hid like a baby behind his desk and refused to explain.

After I left WSU at the end of 1988, my PhD plans were shelved, for good as it turned out. But I kept in touch with Gene through his retirement in 1997 and beyond. We exchanged letters, phone calls, emails and, eventually, social media banter. I visited when I was in the Palouse country and he once flew his plane to Vancouver for lunch.
Senior picture, 1952
I had a particularly poignant visit in September 2008. Gene and his wife, Jane Ann, were living in a duplex in Northwest Pullman. She was ill with some form of dementia and he was determined to care for her as long as he could. I had met Jane Ann during my graduate school years, but she didn't know me well. While Gene was off collecting some item, she whispered to me, "He's a really good guy." Of course. Jane Ann passed away in 2014 and I don't think he was ever the same.

Sadly, I didn't see Gene often enough in recent years. My trips to the dry side were reduced after I was laid off in 2009. I met him at a Pullman watering hole several years ago and we had a great conversation over several craft beers (this is a beer blog, after all). One of my biggest regrets is missing a planned meetup with him last October. I misjudged my arrival time at the pub where we were to meet and he had gone. Efforts to connect by phone flamed out. Now he's gone. Damn.

Gene's published works on the Populist movement of the late 19th century, his specialty, are highly regarded in the academic community. He was a meticulous researcher and thinker, and I believe his body of work is and will remain relevant to historians investigating Populism or that period of American history. I believe Jane Ann assisted him in that work. That's how they rolled.

I never met Gene's two kids, Spencer and Kimberly. They would have been young adults during the years when I was closest to Gene. There are apparently grandchildren and great grandchildren. To the family, to the former students and colleagues he touched during a celebrated teaching career and to the friends he leaves behind in Pullman and elsewhere, we are left with only the memories.

We've lost a fine man.

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