Childhood in Canal Zone tuned a talent with people

By STEPHANIE HAYES, Times Staff Writer
Published December 30, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - It was nearly impossible to get a rise out of Stuart Clemmons.

His kids would rail: A boyfriend cheated. Someone cut me off in traffic.

He would listen, without giving advice. Then, he'd look at the child calmly and speak in a smooth, radio voice.

"Life works in strange ways, my dear."

* * *

He grew up in a little slice of America. Except it was Panama.

Mr. Clemmons' grandfather helped build the Panama Canal, and the family stayed for generations. Mr. Clemmons' father became chief of civil affairs in the Canal Zone, a small reservation controlled by the United States.

He explored Panama and was exposed to poverty from a young age. But in the Canal Zone, everyone was middle class and even.

"No one was worried about who had the better pair of Levis, because we all shopped in the commissary," said his brother, Jay Clemmons, 68. "There was a lot of friendship and a lot of sharing, and everyone looked out for each other."

There was mischief, too. As teens, Mr. Clemmons and friends piled into a car and drove past military police, one boy's ketchup-smeared arm hanging out of the trunk. The police made them stand in the road with their hands on their heads.

Years later, he went to Canal Zone reunions to relive it all.

* * *

He had great business success, to be sure.

He co-founded a data processing service and was chief financial officer of a company that helped finance groundwater cleaning. He was on the board of Jani-King, a cleaning franchise company, and was working to develop a Colombian mining company.

He helped bring the Tampa Bay Research Institute to St. Petersburg. He raised money for cancer research and a local free clinic.

But his talent was people, and cutting through bureaucracy. He had a way of energizing others and seeing projects through to the end.

"He saw opportunity in a lot of places," said his wife, Joan Clemmons, 67. "And he liked the challenge if a snag would come up."

Mr. Clemmons was 6 feet 5 with a boyish face and dark hair. He loved Panamanian music and was a smooth dancer. He could wax on about anything from architecture to politics to history.

His wife, a former short-order cook, would move fast. He would slow down, add capers, add special touches, open the cabernet.

For three years, he dealt with congestive heart failure. When people asked how he felt, he'd say, "I'm fine," and flip the focus. He planned to visit Mayo Clinic for help in January. But on Christmas Eve, Mr. Clemmons died. He was 67.

Even now, his family has a certain calm.

"I am so blessed that I have this sadness," Mrs. Clemmons said. "It means that I was able to experience a deep love."

* * *

Mr. Clemmons had three children.

Christine is 39. She has his focus and sense of invention. As a child, she'd sit still for five hours working on a puzzle.

Michael is 36. He's low-key and measured, like his dad. Once, when his mother panicked after losing a document on the computer, he pulled her onto his lap like a child and soothed her.

Elizabeth is 32. She is natural, quick-thinking and centered. She can read people. Friends come to her to feel better about themselves.

When they hug their mother, she says, it feels exactly like Mr. Clemmons - warm and enveloping, with no space between.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or 727 893-8857.


F. Stuart Clemmons

Born: June 20, 1940.

Died: Dec. 24, 2007.

Survivors: wife, Joan; children, Christine, Michael, and Elizabeth; brother, Jay Clemmons.

Brett Funeral Home.

Services: Celebration of life 3-7 p.m. today at the Hurricane, 807 Gulf Way.