Friday, January 19, 2018

Clarence Phipps: A remarkable, life-changing man

Clarence Phipps passed from earth to heaven on December 29 and was remembered last Saturday in the town in which he’d been born and lived. The small Evangelical church being too small for the crowd, all had gathered in the Reed Point school gymnasium. There sat an 8-foot coffin, adorned with evergreen boughs and two long burlap ribbons, reminiscent of the wool bags used to hold Clarence’s annual wool clip each spring.
Neighbors and friends from nearby Columbus as well as Billings, Rapelje and Big Timber came to honor this special man. I had never met Clarence but have known of the family since I’d met two goats at the 4-H Fair in Columbus. Although I’d spoken to his wife Lynn on the phone and briefly to Emma, his daughter who’d raised the goats whom she had named Peabody and Floppy, I’d always wanted to meet the family.
As I listened to the women and men who had known him best and I thought “How special a man he was – husband, father, grandfather, hunter, fisherman, rancher, businessman, logger, wood mill owner and contributor to worthy causes wherever he found them.”
One man, barely able to contain his discomfort of public speaking, told of an old quarrel between his family and the Phipps family, but then admitted his respect and admiration for Clarence, considering him not just a friend but mentor.
Another told of his respect for Clarence as father and a “man’s man.” An adopted daughter recalled him treating all his children alike and remembered Clarence returning home from work and allowing the kids to search his lunchbox. They always found candy bars and wondered why he hadn’t eaten them. Years later they learned that he’d bought boxes of candy bars and left them in the pickup where the kids wouldn’t discover them until they showed up in his lunchbox.
Another daughter shared a memory of baking chocolate cakes for Clarence and a friend when they went fishing near the Fort Peck Reservoir. She remembered how both men returned praising her cakes, but discretely did not comment that she’d forgotten the sugar. Even a squirrel couldn’t gnaw through the cakes, but she was convinced they’d eaten and enjoyed them.
As the stories and memorial service ended, Clarence’s daughters and son rolled out the beautiful hand-made coffin of blue pine from logs Clarence had cut.
I’ve always loved small towns but never grown up in one as small as Reed Point, never known a community as close-knit. Afterward, mourners were invited to continue exchanging memories at Reed Point’s Watering Hole saloon – a “real Irish Wake,” they called it. Inside the saloon, a big wood stove burned with wood which someone told me had been cut and given by Clarence.
There are only a few who can claim to have changed my life, but Clarence may be one of them. It’s hard to go back to ignoring people’s needs in the face of so much generosity.

Dave Grimland
Columbus