News

Remembering Mr. Clements

Reflections on the rich life of a beloved Menlo-Atherton drama, English teacher

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.

Comments

11 people like this
Posted by Shannon Griscom
a resident of Menlo-Atherton High School
on Feb 1, 2018 at 4:15 pm

I taught high school English with Lee Clements at Menlo-Atherton High School until he left teaching because of the beating in 1985.I would still see him occasionally around Palo Alto. Everything in your obituary sounds accurate to me, and I honor him not only for his teaching, but for his honesty and openness about his life. He paid a high price, but what an early role model he was. Thank you, Lee.


6 people like this
Posted by Brian
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Feb 1, 2018 at 5:05 pm

I graduated in 1985 and worked on several plays as a stage hand while at MA. Mr. Clements was very nice and fun to work with. He didn't even get mad when I would play practical jokes on the actors during the dress rehersal.


7 people like this
Posted by Marc
a resident of Atherton: other
on Feb 1, 2018 at 10:01 pm

My favorite teacher at MA by a mile. He was inspiring, funny, gentle and genuine. His english class was one I always looked forward to. Godspeed and RIP.


9 people like this
Posted by Gretchen
a resident of Menlo-Atherton High School
on Feb 2, 2018 at 9:20 am

M-A theatrical productions standout as some of my fondest high school memories. Mr Clements classroom and the Jbuilding were “safe places” before there was a term for it. As a teenager I truly was unaware that fellow classmates, much less staff, were gay. Maybe I was naive, but I like to think that teachers like Lee Clements fostered an atmosphere of acceptance and nurtured creative self expression in a safe environmen tallowing young people opportunity to developer as individuals. I remember those long rehearsals before a show would go up- sometimes there until 11 pm- and the magic of opening night - and the thrill of breaking the set and the celebration at the cast party when it was all done... and the excitement when the tryouts for the next production were announced. Here’s wishing Mr Clements an eternity of peace, acceptance and access to the best seats in the house !


2 people like this
Posted by Steve_J
a resident of another community
on Feb 3, 2018 at 8:23 am

rest in peace Mr. Clements. You were a true professional at all times.


5 people like this
Posted by Curielle
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Feb 5, 2018 at 9:37 pm

Mr. Clements was demanding, exacting, larger than life and expected the best out of his students and performers. I will never forget being late to a rehearsal and having to sit outside of J Building on the concrete until rehearsal was over. It only happened once. I use the skills he taught me every single time I speak publicly. He treated all of us as adults from the very first interaction, and that in turn caused us to rise to the occasion. He was a great teacher. The ripple effects of his life go far and wide. Thank you Mr. C. We are grateful for your presence in our lives. Class of '78


2 people like this
Posted by Fred
a resident of another community
on Feb 5, 2018 at 10:32 pm

I had Mr Clements for freshman English and will never forget him.
Things I remember about him are: "TV turns your brain into oatmeal", "There is no such word as nother", "Students entering and exiting the stage through the center of the curtain will be severely beaten; survivors will be charged grade points." When he took us to see a play at ACT in SF, some of us the next day were commenting on seeing "crazy" people on the city streets, and he reminded us that they are not on stage and we did not buy a ticket to see them perform; they are that way by nature.
For the first half of the year, I thought his first name was Ethelephen, because he always answered the phone "Ethelephen Clements." I later discovered he was saying the room number "F-11".


3 people like this
Posted by Roca Thompson Welch
a resident of another community
on Feb 6, 2018 at 10:18 am

My father, Phil Thompson, also an English teacher at MA, worked with Mr. Clements for many years as the set designer for all of those productions. This was my father's creative outlet for a very long time and it was exhausting work. But some of my greatest childhood memories are from seeing those productions. Our family spent a summer in Eugene, OR so dad could take more set design classes. It takes dedication and love to put that kind of effort into high school productions. We are all grateful.


2 people like this
Posted by Ricky
a resident of Atherton: other
on Feb 6, 2018 at 10:30 pm

Under Mr. C’s direction I took part in “A Midsummers Nights Dream”, “Bus Stop”, and “The Boyfriend”. Unforgettable experiences that will stay with me forever. Few teachers leave a lasting impression on students. Mr. C was definitely one of them.


2 people like this
Posted by kip
a resident of Atherton: other
on Feb 7, 2018 at 4:52 am

Took english classes from him and did theater from 1968 to 1970 when i graduated MA. Kiss me Kate was one of our plays and i have fond memories of doing that. I sang,danced and played about 4 characters as well as a dead body. That was the pinacle of my theatrical career. He was one of the few teachers that i remember from HS and would actually have liked to see again. Sorry to hear of his passing.


2 people like this
Posted by Shelley
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Feb 7, 2018 at 6:47 am

I am so sorry to hear this news. I was just sharing with my husband and 16 year old son how Mr. Clements changed my life as a struggling freshman. I will always be grateful for his teaching but more importantly how he cared for his students and their emotional well being. He created a safe place for us to share our struggles and he was vulnerable, honest and wise in his response. I am 100% positive my life would have had a different and harder path without his influence. He was great man. RIP Mr. Clements.


Like this comment
Posted by Michael Boyd
a resident of Menlo-Atherton High School
on Feb 8, 2018 at 11:47 am

Mr. Clements ( could not say "Lee")was a wonderful man. I was in two of his productions, I was "File" in "110 in the Shade" with Liz, Carolyn, Stan, Dency, and Karin 1968-1969. During the Summer we did "Midsummer Nights Dream". When I did "The Roar of the Greasepaint" starring and directed by Kenny Ortega he told me: "tell your director he can't act and direct at the same time!" I gave that advise to a choreographer two days ago.(smile.)I fondly remember him even when he made us restart the play from the start if we messed up. Thank you Lee.


Like this comment
Posted by Wendy Sterne Brown
a resident of Menlo-Atherton High School
on Feb 8, 2018 at 8:48 pm

1964-1968. He was a really great teacher/director/friend. I was in High Spirits, The Boy Friend, Paint Your Wagon. So sorry to hear the tragedy in his later life. We all loved him.


Like this comment
Posted by Suzan
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 8, 2018 at 9:09 pm

I was deeply saddened to see this article, but I am so thankful you shared it.
Mr. Clements asked me to be the "Student Director" of The Pajama Game; I had no idea what that was, but I learned. What an amazing experience. Reading the other comments I realize, now, the deep and positive influence he had on me during those years.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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