Remembering my namesake
Last month, when Father’s Day rolled around, I paused to think of my own dad and his influence on me. People often compliment me on my voice. Well, that is both a gift from God AND from my father, who had a deep baritone voice. Although he spent 32 years as a life insurance salesman, his great love was music and the delight of his life was leading the choir at my home church in Gastonia. He didn’t get paid, except $50 for each of the two revivals held at Flint-Groves Baptist Church when I was growing up. As a young man, he sang in a gospel quartet and he often took me to “singings” on Sunday afternoons.
Clitus Shelly Blackwell was born March 15, 1909. He was one of 11 children to Belton and Hester Dockery Blackwell. Always ambitious, Dad, with solid black wavy hair, was a bit of a ladies’ man. I can see why – he was Hollywood handsome. Because of pressing problems at home, and the need to help his family financially, Dad quit school at age 16. That was fairly common in 1925. The uncommon thing was that he returned to school four years later and graduated at age 21. That’s remarkable. There were only 11 grades in those days and Dad would have been four years older than other graduating seniors. That took lots of courage and I always commended him for doing that.
I never heard my father raise his voice – and he had plenty of reasons to do just that. He was, at times, tough on me. He would sit with me for hours with an old Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder, showing me how to pronounce and enunciate certain words. When I started preaching, he admonished me to always preach so the person on the back row could hear me.
Clitus was not a man who showed his emotions. Maybe that was his generation – The Greatest Generation. But, he completely broke down when I announced my Call to Ministry on Christmas Day (a Sunday) in 1966. The man was sobbing and it still chokes me up to this day when I think about it. (I also announced my engagement to Kathy Kanipe at the same church service, but, surely, his tears didn’t have anything to do with that!).
My father died a painful death in January 1988. He had only one major health problem and it was his downfall. He was an addicted chain smoker for over 60 years. He literally smoked himself to death. That’s what’s on the death certificate – emphysema due to smoking.
In 1981, Landrum, S.C. High School classmate Alma Daniel wrote my father a letter following a reunion (only a few people attended out of a graduating class of 32). I ran across that letter recently and want to share it for posterity’s sake.
Dear Clitus: I never knew whether you spelled your name with an "i" or an "e." Bet it makes no real difference.
Looking through my scrapbook and reading newspaper clippings, I find you entered into just about all the activities our school had to offer. And didn't we have a good school.
You were a class officer, member of The Palmetto Literary Society, The Dramatic Club, The Glee Club, The Basketball Team, and you walked away with all the superlatives. Wow! What a record! You must have loved school – maybe not school, but you must have loved EVERYBODY and everything connected with school life.
I shall always remember how much my Mother enjoyed hearing you and Mr. Howard sing together. She liked especially those good old hymns like "When They Ring Those Golden Bells for You and Me." Keep it up, and sing from now on out.
Wasn't it a nice gesture of pure friendship for Alice to have our class reunion at her home, and didn't we have fun. Hope we can continue these reunions. It seems we get "younger" each year, and have a better time than the year before.
Your Friend, Alma
p.s. Maybe you can get somebody to type all this information for you. I'm sure your son would love to know what his Dad did in high school. I know one thing – he had a good time!
Enclosed was an article from the Spartanburg Herald entitled “Landrum Boy Many-Sided.” It’s dated April 25, 1930: Versatile and many-sided is Clitus Blackwell of the Landrum High School senior class. When class statistics were made public recently, Clitus was listed with the following distinctions: most cheerful, handsomest, best sport, biggest sheik, most musical, most original. Clitus is also Treasurer of the Senior Class, and was one of 32 seniors from Spartanburg County who made a train trip to Washington, D.C. for a four-day tour of the city. Going with Clitus from Landrum were Rob Christopher, Floyd Daniel, Foy Gilbert, Mabel Kilpatrick, and Alma Daniel.
This letter is a rare find, giving me further insight into the remarkable man who was my father. Dad loved to sing, and I can only believe that he is following Alma’s advice in Heaven – namely, that he will sing “from now on out.”
My full name is Michael Clitus Blackwell. The older I get, the happier I am that my parents made my middle name the same as my father’s first name. I can only hope to be half the man he was.