Barry Saunders

Saunders: Howard Clement was just the leader Durham needed

“He served as an elder in the village,” former City Councilman Farad Ali said when Howard Clement (pictured) stepped down in 2013. Here, he sits upon his 29th anniversary working for N.C. Mututal Life Insurance in 1990.
“He served as an elder in the village,” former City Councilman Farad Ali said when Howard Clement (pictured) stepped down in 2013. Here, he sits upon his 29th anniversary working for N.C. Mututal Life Insurance in 1990. News & Observer File Photo

Howard Clement was, simply, a great ambassador for Durham.

Clement died Wednesday, and boy, will Durham miss him.

Boy, will I miss him.

When I interviewed for a job at The News & Observer 23 years ago, the editors told me that if hired, I’d have to live in Durham. One’s first thought in a situation like that isn’t, “Cool. Where do I sign?”

It’s “What the hell is wrong with Durham if I have to live there?”

Turns out, nothing. They imposed that residency requirement because they wanted me to focus primarily on the Bull City initially and figured, correctly, that the best way to get to know a city was to live in it.

I love living in Durham, loved it even more before the city shut down all of the almost-legal vice joints. Another reason for my fondness for the city was Clement. In addition to being the best Bull City ambassador imaginable, he was also the coolest Republican I knew. That was my usual greeting when I’d see him at city council meetings or political functions around the city.

The first time I ran into Clement, though, I didn’t call him anything, but I did almost knock him down. It was on my first day in Durham after the interview, and I was loitering in a hotel lobby, trying to figure out where to go to learn about the city.

As one should always do in a new city, I asked the concierge, “Say, homes. In which direction is the worst part of the city?” I did that presumably so I could avoid that section, but in reality so I could go straight there: The bad part of town is invariably where the fun is.

While going out the door to get my rental car, I bumped into – literally – an impeccably clad, distinguished dude headed in to some political function.

Sorry, bro, I said, or something like that.

The man was, I later learned, Clement, and he was then, as he turned out to be every time we met, one of those hail-fellow-well-met-type dudes you often read about in old books. We may have chatted for a minute, possibly two, and nothing of great consequence was spoken.

I didn’t know he was a councilman and a link to Durham’s history, and he didn’t know I was a columnist. Even before knowing who he was, I was impressed by his friendliness and willingness to chat with a stranger who’d almost flattened him.

Months later, after I’d moved here and attended a council meeting, I saw him sitting up there and remembered him from the hotel lobby.

My buddy, TV sportscaster Dwayne Ballen, told me last week that Clement was also one of the first people he met when he moved to Durham and Clement was selling Durham. “He told me how much I was going to love downtown one day,” Ballen recalled. “At the time there were tumbleweeds blowing down Main Street after dark.”

Downtown Durham is robust now, thanks to the effort of leaders of vision, leaders like Clement.

N.C. House Democratic state Rep. Larry Hall said in a written statement that Clement “worked tirelessly to improve the lives of people. He not only bore witness to Durham’s history, he helped shape it.”

Yes, he did.

Clement was a joy to deal with personally and professionally, and one reason for that was his candor. When I’d call to ask about something happening in his adopted city, he could be breathtakingly frank. The most memorable instance of that occurred when the council voted to allow a Walmart at what is now New Hope Commons shopping center. International high-tech, high-paying companies were vying for the property, but Clement’s council cohorts and he voted to approve the property for a Walmart – a company that was going to pay modest wages, with many part-time employees.

Why the heck would y’all do that? I asked council members, including Clement.

They gave different reasons, none of which made sense, but only Clement broke it all the way down: An election was coming up, he explained, and the council members would now be able to boast that they’d brought in 400 or so jobs – even if they were modest-paying jobs.

Regardless of on which side of the political spectrum one falls, every elected official should strive for that kind of honesty and to be the kind of ambassador for their city or town that Clement was for Durham – the kind of ambassador that would make you want to live in a city even if you had to.