David Crisp: Remembering Roger Clawson

Clawson

Roger Clawson, 1942-2015

In his 1944 story about the death of Capt. Henry T. Waskow, probably the most famous piece of war correspondence since Thucydides, Ernie Pyle described a soldier who looked at the body of the fallen officer and said, “God damn it to hell anyway” before walking off into the darkness.

I first read that line when I was barely a teenager, and I used it at times of tragedy and loss for decades before I realized where I had stolen it. It came to mind again this weekend, when my wife and I returned from an emergency trip to Texas to bury her mother only to learn that longtime reporter and Outpost columnist Roger Clawson had died. (An obituary is below this column.)

The news was hardly a surprise. Roger, 73, had not written for us for more than a year. We had never given up hope that the column, which we had published for 15 years, would someday return, but it had become increasingly clear that wasn’t going to happen. I had cobbled together some of his final columns from bits and pieces, hoping to staple them into something passably usable.

Roger had been an early adopter of technology—he once boasted that his first computer was made of pig iron—but simply saving and transmitting columns became increasingly difficult. His responses to inquiries about his health went from noncommittal to downright discouraging.

We were hardly best friends, but we had shared some adventures over the years. I had twice gone to sweat lodges with Roger, and I canoed the Yellowstone River with him. One memorable bicycle trip to the Pryor Mountains turned into an all-night excursion that left me convinced the only way we would get one member of the party home would be to cut him into pieces and carry him.

In recent times, adventures dwindled to the occasional weekly meeting of the Geriatric Writers Kaffeeklatsch, where Roger’s wit and encyclopedic knowledge of Montana – he wrote a textbook on Montana history—still often surfaced.

But it is for his writing that he will be remembered. Roger never cared much for spelling, but he was the most gifted natural writer I have ever known. For years I have used his columns in my journalism classes to illustrate the power of strong verbs to prod a sleepy story to life.

What follows are bits and pieces I remember him saying and writing over the years. They are mostly paraphrases, recorded here the way they stick in my mind. You could look them up.

Roger, describing a walk on a frosty sidewalk one New Year’s Eve: Suddenly the earth tilted 180 degrees on its axis and hit me in the back of the head.

Roger describing efforts to keep Yellowstone National Park safe for both bears and humans: Having failed to train the humans, park rangers attempted to train the bears.

Roger committing capitalism at a weekly newspaper he and Gary Svee founded in Bridger: It took us 10 days to finish the first issue. It occurred to us that if we were going to be a weekly, we were going to have to pick up the pace a little.

Roger describing the first canoe he ever saw, one he built himself while growing up in Custer: It looked like a canoe built by somebody who had never seen a canoe.

And, in the best piece of business advice I ever received, Roger once told me, “You can get more work done in 80 hours than you can in 40, but you can’t get twice as much done.”

Like any good journalist, he made his share of well earned enemies. In his very first Outpost column, he attacked a local politician so viciously that the man’s wife called to ask if they had a subscription. If they did, she said, she wanted to cancel it.

Roger began a 2013 column this way: “Max Lenington is a racist jerk. He is also the Yellowstone County assessor, treasurer and superintendent of schools.”

He ended the column this way: “The proper venue for this judgment is the polls. If he is beaten in 2014, he deserves it. If he wins, we deserve him.”

Occasionally a reader would ask why he would run a column by a man with such disagreeable opinions. I would answer, “Why would you want to agree with him? He’s barely even sane.”

In fact, his often chaotic personal life seemed to fuel his creative juices. When a particularly brilliant Clawson column would cross my desk, I would sometimes say, “Things must be going bad for Roger. This is good stuff.”

Now things have gone as bad as they get. Journalism both breeds and rewards skepticism. It is hard to accept with unquestioning faith the Divine Beyond after spending a lifetime just trying to get the facts.

But there ought to be at least a snug sleeping bag somewhere in the outlying precincts of Heaven for Roger Clawson. He was one of the good ones, and now he is gone.

God damn it to hell anyway.

OBITUARY:

Roger Wayne Clawson was born in Hardin on Aug. 6, 1942, the seventh child of Clara and Harry Clawson.  He grew up in Custer, graduating from Custer High in 1960. Roger was a National Merit Scholar and attended the University of Montana and Eastern Montana College before graduating from Northern State University (Aberdeen, S.D.) with a bachelor’s degree in English and a teaching certificate.

But Roger’s true love was words. He learned to read at the age of 4 and loved books all his life.  His first reporting job was with the Rocket Miner in Rock Springs, Wyo. He owned a weekly paper in Bridger with his friend, Gary Svee.  He also worked in Albuquerque, N.M., in Peoria Ill., and finally signed on at the Billings Gazette, where he wrote two columns a week and eventually became city editor.  Roger and Svee won the prestigious Alicia Patterson award in Journalism for their coverage of coal development in Eastern Montana.  Roger wrote a weekly column for the Billings Outpost until shortly before his death.

After leaving the Gazette, Roger formed his own publishing company, The Prose Works. With watercolorist Bernadine Fox, he produced a history of Pompeys Pillar as well as “Yellowstone Reflections,” an illustrated essay on canoeing the Yellowstone River.  He also wrote a high school textbook of Montana history, illustrated by John Potter.

God gave Roger itchy feet.  After high school, he spent time in France, where he ran out of Francs in Marseille.  One of his aunts wired him the money to get home.  He later made many trips to Mexico and Central America, canoed the Amazon, climbed Machu Pichu, sailed to the Galapagos Islands and explored the Arctic.  He was also an avid birder.  Roger was also a 21-year member of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Roger passed away on Oct. 4 at age 73 of multiple organ failure.  He was preceded in death by his son, Wayne, by his parents, his six siblings, Margaret and Mitchell Clawson, Maxine Bochy, Joy Daem, Kenneth Clawson, and Carroll Gene (Mike) Clawson. He is survived by his son Slade, his friends Sharie Pyke, Harry Moccasin and Fred LaBeau, numerous nieces and nephews.

Roger was adopted into the Crow tribe by Lorraine Real Bird Moccasin. Besides his brother Harry, who was with him to the end, his Moccasin brothers and sisters include Nellevette Moccasin, Wayne Moccasin, Veda Rock Above, Joyce Moccasin, Helen Crooked Arm, Loretta Johnson, Lana Moccasin and Connie Moccasin, as well as grandchildren Chelsea Taylor, Marcellas Brown and Joshua Jones, all children of Amy Jones, his Crow daughter. Roger’s sole surviving aunt and uncle of the Real Bird family are sister and brother, Margo and Chuck Real Bird. Roger was a member of the Whistling Water Clan and a Newly Made Lodge kid. His Crow name was “Bachee Baahchii Lash,” “A Man of Good Fortune.”

Rite of Christian Burial will be on Tuesday, Oct. 13 at noon at St. Luke Episcopal Church, Second Avenue North and North 33rd Street, with lunch to follow. In lieu of flowers, please make a donation to the Yellowstone Audubon Society or charity of your choice.

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