Ben Clewell took the stage in front of his family members, friends and his father’s colleagues and former students. He took the stage after sitting and listening to people describe the impact his father has made in their lives. He took the stage after watching a video presentation honoring the memories his father left behind. He took the stage and took a deep breath before speaking, attempting to hold back his own tears.
Ben Clewell took the stage to speak and honor the life his father left behind. On April 12, a memorial was held in the auditorium of Browning Hall for David Clewell.
David Clewell passed away on Feb. 15, 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the university’s English department never got a chance to hold a proper memorial for him until now. Chair of the English Department and Director of Creative Writing Murray Farish admitted holding a memorial 2 years later might feel weird. This was necessary, however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Let’s all agree that a lot of things about the last two years have been absurd,” Farish said. “One of the only things that wasn’t absurd was our genuine desire – of the English department, the university and David’s family’s desire – to do this thing for David together and to do it safely.”
Along with being a creative writing instructor at Webster University, David Clewell was also Missouri poet laureate from 2010 until 2012. He has over 50 works of literature appearing in various publications. He also published 10 of his own collections of poetry.
Chancellor Beth Stroble recalled her first time communicating with David. She said it was through an email she sent him during her first year at Webster in 2010. She sent him an email congratulating David Clewell on being named Missouri’s poet laureate.
The title, Missouri poet laureate, is appointed to a poet by the Missouri government with the expectation to perform poems at special events and occasions. During his time as poet laureate, Clewell traveled all over Missouri reading poems at various events, schools and prisons.
Clewell once said he was born to be an artist. Along with writing poetry, Clewell also played the trumpet and had a love for jazz. Around the same time he started playing the trumpet, Clewell was also spending a lot of time in his local bookstore. He spent so much time there, the store clerk decided to hire him. Clewell eventually was working up to 40 hours a week while in high school. He once told a reporter from Geosi Reads how his love for poetry formed at a young age.
“Shortly after the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, Bob Stephens read every word of Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’ out loud to his 8 a.m. freshman English class at Highland Park High School,” Clewell said in the article. “He honestly believed that words, used well, had the power to change lives. Small wonder, then, that he was the first person to show me poems I actually cared about in mine.”
Clewell received various awards for his work such as the Polka Poetry Prize for his title, “Now We’re Getting Somewhere”. Other prize winning titles include “Blessings in Disguise”, which won the National Poetry Series.
Webster University President Julian Schuster also recalled his first time meeting David Clewell in August of 2010. He said it was at a faculty dinner and he was sitting at a table with Clewell.
“David was not a poet,” Schuster said. “He was the poet. David’s poems are striking in their use of direct language and imagery and full of a passionate, but intellectually subtle, moral fervor. His work will live on in multiple volumes of poetry, in the writing styles of the thousands of students who passed through his classroom and in the memories of his tens of thousands of fans who felt a personal connection to his powerful words and cadence.”
Even though it has been 2 years since he lost his father, Ben Clewell said it has felt a lot shorter but also a lot longer. He said he has been looking over his father’s work a lot recently and there are many beautiful pieces reminding him of his father.
One piece in particular ,read during the memorial, came from David’s collection called Blessings in Disguise. “As far as the eye can see” was a poem David wrote talking about his father.
The poem reminded Ben Clewell what it was like growing up having David as his father. Ben was reminded of how they used to fish and how his father could sit for 12 hours just waiting for a bite. Ben remembered how his father would find himself “off the earth” deep in books and articles about space exploration and quantum theory.
“Everything was [immersive], everything was beautiful,” Ben Clewell said. “He would plant down in his affectionately named ‘dream chair ’ over in the living room and would sit and everything that he would work on was astounding. Sentences, a couple of lines or a stanza for 24 hours . . . 48 hours. Taking all of that attention and all that love for the world that he was in and the people he got to spend his life with and bringing it to us in a way that will stay with us forever. I could not be more grateful to have had this man as my father.”
During David Clewell’s time at Webster, he created the Webster University Visiting Writers Series. He conducted this series until he passed. Now the University will rename it to the David Clewell Visiting Writers Series. You can make donations to this series at https://webstergives.webster.edu/project/31284/wall.
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Kaelin Triggs (he/him) is the sports editor for the Journal. He is a journalism major pursuing a career in sports writing. He also runs for Webster's track and cross country team, and he enjoys playing piano and hanging out with friends and family.