There was the time before, and then there was the time after that day. Lee Clements would thereafter refer to it only as "the day they broke my head."
In the time before, Lee Clements was a brilliant and beloved drama and English teacher at Menlo-Atherton High School. He shepherded two decades of students through his productions, many of whom were inspired to pursue careers in theater.
One such student was Dency Nelson, senior class president of the class of 1970. When he started high school, he said, he never thought he'd participate in musicals or theater. But he had Mr. Clements as an English teacher, who encouraged him to get involved with the drama department.
Mr. Nelson would later go on to be a theater arts major in college and spend a 40-year career as a decorated stage manager in Hollywood.
"None of that would have happened had I not met Lee Clements as a student," he said.
Suzan Bateson was a drama student and close friend of Mr. Clements who worked with him as a student director. "He was smart, funny, and treated us like adults," she said. With his directorial services (hired for $1), she and Mr. Clements put together a multi-media Shakespeare play during the summer of 1970.
Mr. Clements was the kind of teacher who supported his students' artistic works, and even went to see their shows in other venues. According to Mr. Nelson, Lindsey Buckingham, in his pre-Fleetwood Mac days, was an English student of Mr. Clements and once said he heard Mr. Clements' distinctive ho-ho-ho laugh echo from the audience at one of his early concerts. Mr. Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, who also attended M-A her senior year, would occasionally stop by Mr. Clements' classroom, much to the excitement of his students.
Mr. Nelson recalled that Mr. Clements always concluded his English classes before the holidays by reading Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" aloud to his students.
Ann Reinhart, class of 1979, had been familiar with Mr. Clements' legacy even before she got to M-A: "I grew up going to the fall musicals at Menlo-Atherton and my goal in life was to be up on that stage," she said.
"What set him apart from other high school drama programs was the professionalism he drilled into us. We rehearsed from after school until about 9 p.m., doing our homework between scenes. He sat at his table middle of the room as we awaited the dread shout 'From the top!' when we messed something up. Broke character. Hit the curtain entering the stage. Now I realize it was his dramatic way of simply getting us to rehearse the material over and over."
Born Buddy Lee Clements in 1938 in Texarkana, on the border of Texas and Arkansas, he moved at age 8 to Seminole, Oklahoma. He attended the University of Oklahoma, where he received his bachelor's and master's degrees in theater. In the early 1960s, he moved to California, living in San Luis Obispo before beginning his teaching career at Del Mar High School in San Jose. One day in 1962, he was invited to a colleague's home for dinner, where he would meet his colleague's wife, Barbara Williams.
The two struck up a friendship that would last until the end of his life. Mr. Clements was gay, "but never closeted," Ms. Williams said. "He never hid things like many people did."
In 1964, he began teaching at Menlo-Atherton High School. He would live in Palo Alto or Menlo Park for most of the rest of his life.
"In the early days, he was my mentor," Ms. Williams said, noting that he encouraged her to pursue work as a drama and English teacher, which she would later do across the Bay in Newark. He gave her teaching pointers. One of his practices was calling his students by their last names until they became friends. The exception, he once told Ms. Williams, was a girl with the last name of Fluckinger. "I think I'm going to call her by her first name," he laughed.
He picked challenging productions for his students: Pulitzer-winning plays and shows like "No Exit" by Jean-Paul Sartre, she said. He demanded a lot from them, and they adored him in return, she said.
"He was a lover of life," Ms. Williams recalled. He would travel to New York in the summers to take dance classes, and he taught her and her son how to ski. He was constantly introducing her to new literary authors and plays.
Then, that day happened. In 1985, Mr. Clements was in San Diego visiting some friends. While out at the beach, he was brutally attacked in what Ms. Williams believes was a gay-bashing incident. The attackers were never caught.
"They broke practically every bone in his body," including his skull in many places, she said. He was found near death the next day by people walking on the beach and given medical care, but as a result of the brain injuries he sustained, he was never able to return to teaching.
Their friendship changed then, but Ms. Williams said she continued to help him with tasks such as ensuring he had his proper medications and balancing his checkbook. But it was painful for her to see him go from being such a vibrant person to "almost doddering" because of his brain injuries, she said.
They continued to enjoy movies and plays together, and during one personally significant production Ms. Williams oversaw – "The Laramie Project" by Moises Kaufman – she enlisted Mr. Clements' help. She said that play, which tells the true story of a gay-related hate crime that resulted in the death of 22-year-old Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998, holds many similarities to Mr. Clements' life.
"For every one Matthew Shepard incident that makes news all over the country, there are hundreds that don't make the news. Lee's didn't make the news," she said.
Her students at the time were grappling with another local hate crime: the death of Newark teen Gwen Amber Rose Araujo, a transgender 17-year-old who was beaten, strangled, and buried in a shallow grave in October 2002. The discovery of her death occurred only weeks before the play's opening day that November. Ms. Williams said the students she worked with on that production came to adore Mr. Clements too, as his old students had.
Later, when Ms. Williams could no longer move Mr. Clements, he relocated to the Empress Care Center in San Jose, and their friendship transitioned again. Ms. Williams would wheel him across the street to Del Mar High School to see drama productions at the same school where he started his career.
Lee Clements died Dec. 28 of complications from a longtime heart condition. He is survived by his two stepsisters, Amelia Carol Little and Linda Lea Varvil of Norman, Oklahoma, his half-brother, Dale T. Gray of Oklahoma City, seven nieces and nephews and 15 grand-nieces and nephews.
A memorial service for Mr. Clements will be held on what would have been his 80th birthday on Feb. 8 at 2 p.m. at Bay Area Mortuary Services Community Chapel, 1701 Little Orchard St. in San Jose.
At the service, Mr. Nelson plans to read from the book of Dylan Thomas poetry Mr. Clements gave him:
"Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
In lieu of flowers, family and friends ask that contributions be made in memory of Lee Clements to Not in Our Town, an anti-hate crime nonprofit, at niot.org.
Palo Alto Players is staging The Laramie Project through Feb. 4.