For Life

by | Jan 1, 2024 | 8 comments

  • Clarence with Bob in December.
  • “How fortunate I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” - Winnie the Pooh

Bob didn’t learn until he was 24 that he was a “homosexual.” In basic training, he had developed a crush on Gene, another serviceman. Although they kept in touch during their service, it was only after they were discharged that they had a short relationship. In that era, he would’ve been dishonorably discharged had the government found out he was gay.

Bob graduated from the University of Michigan School of Architecture and Design in 1956. He came to Fond du Lac to work for a buddy’s construction company. Then, in 1960, he served an apprenticeship with architect Herbert Fritz, at Hilltop, near Spring Green. He came to Madison on weekends to stay at Charles MacLeod’s, and to have a warm shower, an amenity not at Hilltop.

It was through Charlie that he met me, after I had refused to meet him four times. At the time, I was still at the UW and dating my landlord’s daughter. I had an interest in men, but did not consider myself a “homosexual.” When I met Bob, “BANG!” It was love at first sight!

Family Reactions 

Bob was 12 years older than I and, after a number of failed relationships, he was ready to settle down. On the other hand, I had just begun to “sow my wild oats.” Bob patiently forgave me when I had a fling, once in a while, and I was always honest enough to tell Bob all about it. Since I had invited Bob and Charlie to come to my hometown of Beloit for Sunday dinners, my father grew suspicious and asked my brother if he knew who these older men were. My brother told him that I was gay and to “never give me any trouble about it.”

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My father never did, and he learned to love Bob, having much in common with him. My mother, on the other hand, did not even know what a homosexual was, so I explained it to her. After that, every letter she wrote to me ended with: “Your father and I hope that, someday, the right girl will come along, and you two will give us grandchildren.” I could not stand this for more than about six letters, so I wrote to her, stating, “Mother, maybe the right girl will come along, someday, but until she does, let me live my life.” That ended that, and she learned to love Bob like a son. Even my grandmother loved Bob.

Bob had one sister, Jean. She knew Bob was gay, suspecting it when he ran to the mailbox every day to see if he had heard from his Army buddy, Gene. Bob’s father and other relatives seemed to like me, but it took about 10 years for Helen to learn to like me and realize that Bob and I were partners. After that she drove to art fairs where we were exhibiting to spend the weekend with us. By the time she was dying in 1994, she had even offered me the fourth plot in the family gravesite. I joked, making her laugh when I said, “Helen, you really want to spend eternity next to me?”

Working & Making It Work 

After two years of college, I began an apprenticeship at Fitch-Lawrence Funeral Home at 626 University Avenue. This made it very convenient for me to rendezvous with Bob. When Bob got his first commission to design a home for family friends in Bryan, Ohio (near Montpelier, his home town), he moved to Madison. He set up an office and maintained an independent home design service.

I finished my year’s apprenticeship and had to go to school in Milwaukee at the Wisconsin Institute of Mortuary Science. Leaving Bob was sheer agony. I made so many trips back to Madison that the other students thought I owned stock in the Badger Bus Company. Once a week, Bob would drive me out to the (two lane) Beltline Highway at 5:00 a.m., so I could ride back to Milwaukee with one of my instructors, who lived in Blanchardville.

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After graduating, I came back to work at Fitch-Lawrence, on call 24/7 with every third weekend off… big mistake! Charlie, who was assistant business manager of the UW Medical School, found me a job at the UW Hospital Rehabilitation Center as a Physical Therapy Aide. I loved the work, and the patients used me as a father confessor, so I even sat in on the staff meetings.

I was ready to go back to school to become a physical therapist when I received a call from a former teacher at the school in Milwaukee. She and her husband had bought a funeral home and furniture store in Oregon, and needed a licensed person to manage the funeral home. With only one funeral in four months, I ended up selling furniture (carpenters made both furniture and caskets, so they originally had the two businesses).

Not happy, in 1965, I opened a hobby ceramic shop in the Quonset hut on the back of the building at 1821 S. Park Street. I sold ceramic supplies, wholesale and retail, and had classes four nights a week. It became very successful, and I eventually ended up buying the entire property, which included a house on the back corner.

The Owlman 

Business was slow in the summertime, when ceramic teachers and students went on vacation. Bob and I started exhibiting at art fairs, selling my crude clay sculptures of just about every subject. Owls were “in” at the time, so I made some owls in stoneware and porcelain. They sold very quickly, so, of course, I made more owls. At the little New Glarus Art Fair, a man introduced himself as a freelance writer. He said he liked the owls and wondered if he could ask some questions and take a few photos. Of course! The Associated Press picked up the story, and very soon, people were only buying my owls and calling me “The Owlman.”

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In 1971, we were forced to give up the apartments, but we were well-reimbursed by the City/University, and the Fluno Center now stands on the property. Bob began looking for a house to buy and found one on Cedar Street, within easy walking distance of my Double C Ceramic Shop. As time went by, Bob made many design changes to the little house built in 1921, replacing the stucco with cedar siding, remodeling the kitchen and bath, and adding a two-story garden room onto the back. Part of the basement became Bob’s working office, and the plans for many new houses and remodelings were created in his thirty-four year career.

Eventually, I sold my ceramic business and then, in 1976, the entire Park Street property. I came home to work in a larger portion of the basement. The old cistern under the front porch became the kiln room, where an exhaust fan drew the smoke and fumes outside. Bob and I continued to exhibit at art fairs around the country, making friends with artists and patrons alike.

There came a time when I became tired of sticking “feathers” on clay owls. A friend suggested that I try carving soapstone. After a short demonstration, I went to Burnie’s Rock Shop and bought five pieces. I enjoyed the challenge and the finished pieces, so I took them to an art fair. My regular customers thought they were beautiful but “we still like the clay owls better.”

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Too bad. A year later I quit clay altogether and advanced to soapstone. I entered a larger piece in the international “Birds in Art” exhibition at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, and it was accepted. Since then, I have been in the exhibition 14 times with one of the pieces purchased for the museum’s permanent collection. Bob and I have enjoyed attending the openings, and meeting and befriending artists from around the world.

October 26, 2023 

Awakened by a loud thud, I reached over to feel Bob. “Bob, where are you?”

“On the floor,” was Bob’s response. Bob had fallen out of bed. I went around to see if I could help him get up, but we were both too weak. I called Gabe, a neighbor, at 3:00 a.m. He came right over and carefully lifted Bob onto the bed. Bob was in pain, but he could wiggle his toes.

In the morning, his pain was even worse, so I called 911. In a matter of minutes, the ambulance came, accompanied by a fire truck. The eight men in our tiny home decided the best way to get him out was in a sheet. He was taken to the VA Hospital and after examination, it was determined that he had fractured his hip. A “Hemi” hip replacement was performed and theoretically, if it weren’t for the pain, Bob could have walked immediately.

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As it was, within a week, the 94 year-old could walk about fifty feet, and everyone was encouraged by his progress. Then pneumonia hit, followed by c diff, and everything changed. Bob failed two “swallow” tests, and was aspirating his food. According to the doctor, he would continue to aspirate his food, get an infection in his lungs… and die.

December 9, 2023 

Bob has been in hospice care for thirty days now, and yesterday, the doctor, more or less, told him he was going to die. This was devastating news for Bob, although I had already heard this in my daily visits to the hospital. The doctor also let us know that it was time to “move on” to another facility. When I left Bob in the evening, he grabbed my hand and said, “If I don’t wake up some morning, just know that I love you with all my heart.” This is not how we expected our sixty-two years to end.

When we tell others, straight or gay, that we have been together for 62 years, they are astonished and always ask the same question: “How have you managed to stay together that long?” We explain that despite the ups and downs in our relationship, there is a burning love in our hearts that cannot be extinguished, whether we simply argue or, as we did in our younger days, actually tussle. That flame burns on.

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8 Comments

  1. I’ve known, and loved, you both for over 4 decades. The devotion you two have for each other has always been so strong. I’m so sorry that Bob is dying but he certainly knows how much you love him. You have both had such a wonderful life together and built so many amazing memories.

    Reply
  2. We love you Clarence and Bob!

    Reply
  3. Love this story about Amazing and Enduriing Love .
    Cindy

    Reply
  4. Love this story about Amazing and Enduriing Love .
    Cindy

    Reply
  5. Clarence, if it hadn’t been for my mother being an avid fan of your owls, I never would have met you. It’s been about 40 years, and it’s apparent that you and Bob were made for each other. Let’s keep holding the candle that Bob will improve being in his home environment. There’s no place like home and being with the one you love.

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  6. Clarence, if it weren’t for my mother being an avid fan of your owls, I never would have met you. It’s been about 40 years now, and it’s apparent that you and Bob were made for each other. Lets keep holding the candle that Bob will improve being in his home environment. There’s no place like home and being with the one you love.

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  7. Clarence (and Bob) were respected fellow exhibitors at many art shows we did together over many years. They were a perfect team and always supportive of others. Bob’s illness is sad and we send loving support to you both. With much love, Peggy and Michael

    Reply
  8. An inspiring couple. What a loving tribute. I’m feeling all the feelings.

    Reply

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