A Loving Tribute to “The Greatest Man Ever”

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His name was Emmett Clay and, by all accounts, he was a remarkable man. Despite his small stature he made a huge impact on the lives of those he loved and to hear his grandchildren tell it, he completely embodied the definition of a perfect parent and ultimate father figure—so everyone, adoringly, called him Poppa.

He was my great grandfather, and his grandchildren (my dad, his identical twin brother Richard, my Aunt Audrey, and Uncle CJ) whom he raised still speak of him (often times ad nauseam) with godly reverence, undiminished adoration and abiding love.

Obsessed with the natural beauty and elegance of my great grandmother known as Gram, Poppa married her, just after the turn of the century. Unfortunately for Pop, Gram’s obsession was not with him but with God (she dedicated every unclaimed minute to his service and praise) thus, the three of them had a very tumultuous relationship that was far more than unconventional for the times. Despite all this, their union produced four girls and two boys whom they adored.

Poppa lived in town in a boarding house and Gram lived on the farm with the kids, but they never ever divorced. They never lived together properly, but they never divorced. Each and every morning (before the sun was up) Poppa came to the farm, did the morning chores, had breakfast with the family and saw the kids off to school. Afterwards, he went to work and Gram went to church.

Every evening (following a hard day’s labor as a stone mason), Poppa returned to the farm for evening chores, to have dinner with the family and get the kids into bed. He then went back to town to the boarding house, and Gram went back to church.

For my father, Pop’s commitment to his family was a phenomenal illustration of what a man does and how a man sacrifices for his kids, grandkids and beyond. This was the example that my dad was raised with, thus influencing his own approach to parenting and what it means to be a good man, husband, father, friend and provider. It most assuredly explains why my dad feels it’s so important to love the Lord, support a church, tithe, and be active in his lodge.

For my cousins and me, all these many years have transformed Emmett Clay’s life into fables that became our family lore, sense of pride and cherished bedtime stories. Poppa’s superlative early example shaped our families very perception of what a husband and father could and should be.

Our Father, Our Heroes:

My parents, now 82 and 83, fight constantly about my father’s inability in social settings to speak of anything or anyone else but Poppa Clay. It makes my mother absolutely crazy and furious and Daddy just can’t understand why. He always responds with the same… “Hey what can I tell ya, he was the greatest man that ever lived, and oh how he took care of us kids, oh my God, he loved us kids. He was there EVERY MORNING and came back EVERY NIGHT!  Do you hear me, EVERY MORNING and EVERY NIGHT!  He was crazy `bout us kids, and Gram too, Gram too. Hey what can I tell ya, he was the greatest man ever. There wasn’t anything that he wouldn’t do and didn’t do for us, ever!  Oh my God, how Poppa loved his kids.”

Unlike my mother, when Daddy goes on and on and on about Pop Clay I let him, because I know exactly how he feels. See, I know what it is to admire a man so completely. I understand how it feels to respect a man that whole-heartedly. I get how much pride he feels to have been raised by a man of such noble character and God fearing ways. I realize the sacrifice and strength it took to give us such a beautiful life. And I am completely and unabashedly aware of what it is to LOVE, ADORE and APPRECIATE a man with that much integrity. I’m also smart enough to know and mature enough to admit, that 35 years or so from now, when I’m much older yet only slightly grayer, I’ll be the one blathering on incessantly, telling my wonderful stories over and over and over again, only I won’t be talking about Emmett Clay, my Great Grand Daddy, I’ll be talking about Roosevelt Samuel, my Daddy!

So this Father’s Day, let the cherished memory of Emmett Clay serve as a shining example of all of the many righteous, dignified, decent, God-fearing men of color whose main mission in life was and is to support, teach, uplift, inspire, encourage and love children in need of love.

E. Dawn Samuel is a veteran pop culture journalist, host of Around Town & Virtual Fieldtrip on PBS, freelance writer, dramatic actress and Emmy award-winning producer.

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