Eulogy for David Fred Cleghorn
Our Lady of SorrowsChurch
April 11, 2008
By Stephen Cleghorn
Integrity! For many years now I imagined myself at this lectern speaking of Dad’s life and vowed that “integrity” would be the first word out of my mouth. So there it is. Defined by Merriam-Webster as “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values,” this was to my mind Dad’s most essential quality. It was his purpose to be a man of integrity, and he pursued that purpose with a strong will and unflinching resolve.
In your Mass program you have two pictures which reveal Dad’s nature in complementary ways. They reveal the tough and tender nature of the man, and they have in common that straightforward gaze of his. One was taken while Dad was still in mourning for our Mom, and the relaxed one shows him at the last family reunion with his beloved Clark family. As I tell my stories and speak of him today I hope these two pictures allow us to see the whole man.
We are gathered to remember our father who, we believe, is now in heaven, and to revere his name: David Fred Cleghorn. He did not belong just to us his children, but to all of us gathered here today, in ways too numerous for mention, each of them a powerfully realized name of love. We gather to remember the domains of family, friends and colleagues out of which he came and to the betterment of which he dedicated his remarkable will, his heart, his treasure and the works of his hands. We know that he is risen, but today it will be our purpose to lift up memories of his life and in our limited human way let him live again among us.
In this remembrance I will favor an exploration of Dad’s character over a chronological history of the man , because I believe Dad assessed character to be the essence of life, constantly endeavoring to improve his own and demanding – yes, “demanding” would be the right way to put it – that others do likewise. He was a good judge of character, even his own, and it made more than one of us sitting here today or speaking from this lectern, a little – perhaps even a lot – uncomfortable at times. But while this trait could seem at times to be judgmental, I came to believe that he did not mean it to be so and suffered greatly because he could not always communicate his truest intention with the grace he desired. His intention was to be helpful and to improve himself, improve the lives of his loved ones and improve his world. On the receiving end of that “improvement” there could be some pain, to be sure, but you could always count of Dad to let you know what was on his mind, when it was on his mind, and without a lot of gloss.
So in this vein I dare not neglect to say that we gather also today to forgive him his trespasses against us and ask him, in the state of grace he enjoys today, to forgive us our trespasses against him, for all the times and ways we may have disappointed him.
David Fred Cleghorn was born on September 10, 1917 in Huntsville, Alabama, son of James Henry Cleghorn and Lavada Spurlock. He had an older brother James Daniel, older sister Ruth and younger sister Dorcas. For a time he lived on a bit of land in east Tennessee where water came from a bucket dropped down a well and chickens provided breakfast and meat on the table. Otherwise he lived in both Huntsville and Birmingham, where his father worked as a cotton mill engineer. As Dad proudly told us many times, it was his father who engineered the ventilation system for cotton mills that achieved the moisture control needed for carding and spinning cotton into cloth with much less waste and greater profit. We grandchildren never got to know James Henry because he was murdered on the 3rd of July, 1934 in Houston, Texas when Dad was just16 years old. Middle of the Depression. Lean and difficult times. Dad managed to graduate from high school and immediately assumed a lot of responsibility for supporting his family, moved the family to Cullman, and worked among other things as a truck driver and meat cutter.
Then the world was overshadowed by the dark cloud of war. Dad joined the Army in 1941, met and fell in love with our beautiful mother Ida Mae Clark of Cullman, Alabama, who he considered to be the best dance partner he ever had, and married her in 1942 after asking permission of course from Daddy Clark. Two years later he found himself with the 102nd Infantry Division as it was deployed to breach the infamous Siegfried Line in Germany, taking part in a campaign that claimed more than 10,000 American soldiers. Dad never talked about the war much, but he once told us his unit took 80% casualties, he among them with a severely damaged back, which laid him up in an English hospital for months, the evidence of which we saw many years later as he wore a heavy steel back brace until he just had enough of it and put it aside. As his grandson Joshua put it to me, remembering how Dad quit a 40-year smoking habit cold turkey, the man had resolve! If he resolved to do something, it got done.
After the war Dad thought of going back to college, but he was married and by 1947 the first of his six children had arrived. Five more would come within nine years. As he explained to me, he could not afford to pursue his own agenda and put his family at risk, and so he continued what turned into a 20-year career with the Army. That career would take him to posts in Ft. Benning, Georgia, Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, and overseas to Germany, France, the island of Guam, and CampThule, Greenland. Through it all, except for the impossibility of living under the ice with him at Thule, Dad insisted upon and got permission to take his family with him. He also made sure that when we were posted far away, whenever it was not impossible, that we all came back to Alabama in the summer to see his mom, our Cleghorn aunts and uncles and cousins, and Daddy and Mama Clark and all the cherished Clark family.
Largely a self-taught builder and engineer, Dad consumed many an Army manual and other technical books, applying that precise thinking and logic he had inherited from his engineer father. I can remember a ceremony in Guam when Dad was awarded a medal for figuring out how to mix and apply a pavement material that held up in that tropical climate as he helped to construct Andersen Air Force Base. This man without an advanced degree was able to come up with a solution that had evaded other highly skilled and educated men.
Dad retired from the Army in 1961. He came home a changed man from the one who had grown up in the south. The Army had taught him many things, among them to judge a man by the content of his character, not the color of his skin. As part of the first major American institution to integrate African-Americans into its ranks, Dad had gained a great deal of experience learning to get beyond what he called the “bigot” that he had learned to be as a child. He had command over a primarily African-American unit and, as he put it, he quickly learned how to “separate the wheat from the chaff.” I can remember many times coming home from college when Dad would draw me into an argument about race relations in America, making sure I understood that no one gets an excuse in this life to do less than what they are capable of doing, so that many times I thought he would never acknowledge the historical suffering of African-Americans in America. But that was not it; it was simply about giving a man – black or white – a fair shake, and if he responded in a meritorious fashion Dad would be the first to give him his due respect.
I saw firsthand just how deeply this transition away from racial prejudice had been in his life. Once when Dad was helping me to sell our house in Birmingham, a white couple came to see it and seemed interested in buying it, but then they asked a question: “Do any blacks live nearby?” Now look at that black and white picture and imagine yourself in that couple’s position on the receiving end of that look as Dad said, “Yes, and it’s a good thing because it keeps the bigots out of the neighborhood.”
That was a no sale, to say the least.
Then there was the time Dad came to Washington, D.C. to visit me, and we went to ArlingtonCemetery with my good friend Cornell Chappelle, an African-American with whom I have worked for 15 years, who had recently lost his father. Cornell’s father had served in the quartermaster corps in World War II, before the Army was integrated, and Dad shared with Cornell how much he appreciated the work of all those who supplied the troops. But that expression was only the prelude of Dad’s appreciation for Tech Sergeant John Edward Chappelle. As Dad arrived at the grave he stood erect and snapped off a military salute with as much respect and honor as any man ever deserved.
Cornell was moved beyond words, and to this day he asks about how “Dad” is doing, taking our father on as his own while he could borrow him.
While I am telling stories, let me move on to Dad’s life after the Army, stories that speak of that word with which I began this eulogy. When Dad came back to Huntsville he worked for an old friend, but found that the man’s business ethics were not acceptable to him, so he quit that job. He got a job working for a respected Huntsville firm that did many commercial projects, including some state park work on MontesanoMountain above Huntsville, but one day found that a major concrete pour had been done before he could inspect it. He suspected that it had been done without proper steel reinforcement, so he had it x-rayed and discovered no steel in it at all. He ordered it to be re-done, but given state politics and connections his boss over-ruled his decision. Dad would never compromise his personal ethics, so he quit that job, too. He began looking for work in Birmingham, living for a while in the YMCA until he could find a job in Birmingham. Finally he found work with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, taking on the task of assuring the quality construction of many new UAB buildings at the hospital and university.
But the same thing he had seen elsewhere he found at UAB, contractors trying to cut corners, make a higher profit, and jeopardizing the integrity of the work. Dad would have none of it, and I will always remember one story he told about those days.
Seems that there was this concrete wall that got poured before Dad had inspected it, and he ordered it re-done. The contractor was so angry with him that he stormed into Dad’s office waving a pistol and threatening to kill him. Now you have to imagine Dad as he told us this story putting himself back into that moment of confrontation, feeling it all over again, and me being able to see just how he looked at that man and said:
“Well, you may shoot me, and you may kill me, and then you’ll have to go to prison. But when you get out of prison you’re still going to have to meet those specifications!”
Needless to say, that wall got re-done.
This was a trait Dad exhibited to the very end of his life. His wife Elizabeth can vouch for this as she watched him fight through his hearing disability and breathing difficulties to get their driveway in New Albany, Ohio re-done after it was wrongly installed, probably appearing to the contractor as a doddering old fool that he could ignore, and putting poor Liz in the middle as interpreter. But after the Better Business Bureau agreed with his complaint, that contractor had to do that driveway over. If something was not done right, Dad would make sure it got made right. He could be hard-nosed and he could command respect. Anyone in today’s gathering who worked with him as an Army man or as a civilian can attest to that.
Yet that hard edge was not all there was to him. He was generous with the work of his hands and intellect, whether for the sisters in Cullman or for neighbors in need. Even in those days when the black and white photo was taken, while he was still grieving for Mom, Dad was making himself available in his neighborhood of Homewood, Alabama to widowed women who needed help with their homes and yards. One of those women was Inez Houston, mother of Dad’s wife Elizabeth. Dad and Liz met at Mrs. Houston’s house and new love blossomed after a long period of mourning.
Our father’s life was blessed with the sacrificial love of two good women – our Mom Ida Mae and then Elizabeth. Each woman loved him deeply and each endured different sorts of trials to make a life with him. Mom endured the panic and trial of his war years, his convalescence from his back injury, traipsed all over the world with him, lived in a hovel of a beach home crawling with geckos and in a Quonset hut on Guam – that sort of thing – and she bore him six children. Most of you here know that history in great detail. Then within a year after Dad and Liz married 15 years ago, Dad suffered a heart attack and his health began to fail. Thus began a long journey back and forth to hospitals and ultimately a daily regimen of in-home breathing treatments. Still, there were also many good times together. Liz recalls working in the big 4-bay garage and shop he had always wanted for his many tools, figuring out ways to make something or improve their home.
On this earth Dad was a man whose abiding interest was the security and well-being of his family. Dad experienced a lot of evil in the world, and prayed for the humility to recognize it and eliminate it in himself, but above all I think he wanted to make sure his children had the tools of survival, that we understood that we had to take care of ourselves because “the world” was not going to take care of any of us.
He could be a taskmaster about that as he pushed all of us with that stern look to do better. At his core he was an exacting man, and as I look across the lives of my siblings I can see (in ways that Dad found hard to see) how each of us were shaped by his exactitude, his integrity, and his desire to make things right. I can see how the artistic values and high moral code by which integrity is defined are imprinted on all of us in the private and public domains of our lives, legacies of our father even while our particular pursuits may not have been as “practical” as he desired.
As I meditated on our father’s life these past few days, I thought how much he reminded me of things I knew about two of our great saints, St. Paul and St. Augustine. Here is how Paul describes himself in addressing himself to the new Christians at Corinth:
Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, with integrity and godly sincerity. We have done so relying not on worldly wisdom, and by the grace of God we have done this without ulterior motives. 2 Corinthians, 1:12-13
That really sounds like Dad to me, “godly sincerity” and “without ulterior motives,” his intention to be helpful and to improve his community of loved ones.
But in another important way I see Dad as closer to St. Augustine. As we all recall, St. Paul declared “Love” to be the highest of the three spiritual gifs that last: Faith, Hope and Love. But I have read that St. Augustine saw “Hope” as the greatest of the three gifts, saying that faith assures us that God is, and love tells us and others that God is good, but hope tells us that God will continue to be among us and work God’s will.
“And,” says Augustine, “hope has two lovely daughters: anger and courage. Anger so that what must not be may not be; courage so that what should be can be.”
Anger and Courage. Dad had both in great quantities. They were, as Augustine put it, the “lovely daughters” of his hope. You see, I believe the world tried to snuff out Dad’s hope, but by his anger and courage – both evidence of his bedrock hope – he would not let it be. More than sixty years after his father had been murdered, shot in the back multiple times in a Houston hotel, his death ruled a suicide by the police, our father was still livid with anger in telling that story, his eyes filled with tears of rage. That grievous injustice was not going to kill his hope for a future, nor would he forget it. And it was courage that got him to take those jobs in the midst of the Great Depression to support his family, and later took him to the bloody fields of Germany when a tyrant tried to extinguish hope for his family and millions more. Courage and anger were both present when that man stormed into his office with a gun, because Dad’s hope and Dad’s will were going to make sure that building got done right! And in the anger he expressed to us, his children, or other loved ones – for he would show it most, in its rawest form, to those he loved the most – I believe this wonderful, complex human being meant only good, wishing all the while that he could be more patient and kind, not resentful, and otherwise filled with the love about which St. Paul wrote so eloquently.
Years ago, on his birthday, I wrote of how Dad shared remarkably clear blue eyes with his mother, and I remembered even as Grandma Cleghorn faded away in the nursing home that she retained the “sparkling integrity” of those eyes. I wrote of Dad:
they are his eyes, exactly,
unwavering and set with conviction,
entranceways to the passionate artist
who beats its wings futilely
against the inside of his breast
attempting to get out.
yes, he is an artist,
a man crafting carefully his responsibilities,
striking out unnecessary words,
demanding to be judged by the work of his days.
one who lets his compassion
outlast his righteousness,
his love outlast his anger.
although holding us came hard for him,
we are held, I believe, tenderly in his heart,
and he so tenderly in ours.
We love you, David Fred Cleghorn. We love you, Dad. We always will.