When hard work is a joy
Willie Clemmons might not have been the oldest retiree honored by the Los Angeles Unified School District last week, or the one with the most longevity. But he was certainly the only one who worked two full-time jobs. For more than 50 years. And is still holding on to one of them.
Clemmons, 84, retired from the school system last fall after 53 years in its purchasing department. He got a standing ovation at the district’s annual tea for retirees last Wednesday. But he cut the celebrating short so he could dash home, change out of his suit and punch the clock at the post office in Southeast Los Angeles, where he’s been employed for 56 years.
He doesn’t miss work, and he won’t be late. For years, Clemmons had perfect attendance at both jobs; days at the school district office near downtown and nights at the post office at Central and Gage avenues. If he was lucky, he’d sleep four hours a night. His work day started at 7:30 a.m. — after he dropped his children off at school — and didn’t end until almost 2 in the morning. Weekends were for yard work, church and family outings.
I get tired just thinking about it.
But Clemmons doesn’t look like a man run ragged. He’s dapper and trim and energetic; a man not prone to introspection, not convinced that what he did was anything special.
“I don’t mind working,” he told me, when I asked what took him so long to retire. “I like my work.” Never mind that neither of his jobs involved anything more glamorous than sorting and filing.
He did it because he had three daughters, and he wanted his wife to be able to stay home and raise them. And because he felt that what he did at work was important — making sure letters got to the right addresses and children got the crayons their teachers ordered.
“It’s not just filing, you know,” he said. “It’s making sure you know where everything goes.”
Clemmons grew up in Rome, Ga., and aimed to be a doctor when he enrolled, pre-med, in Morehouse College in 1944. But one year later he was drafted, and by the time he left the Army, he had lost his passion for college. He visited an older brother in Los Angeles and snagged a job at the Long Beach Naval shipyard.
Then his mother’s death drew him back to Georgia, and he got reacquainted with his pretty neighbor next door. “When Irene walked into the living room, something attracted me to her, and I’ve been liking her ever since,” he told me.
The attraction? He smiled and shrugged. “I guess they call it love.”
He married Irene and, after another Army stint, they moved to Los Angeles and he went to work for the post office. They had three children in four years, and Irene began gently nagging him. “I needed a second job, to make more money,” he said. “So I took the test for the school district” and was hired in 1957 as a temporary assistant. The job became permanent the next year, and Clemmons wound up working back-to-back shifts.
That story feels familiar to me. My father was one of those old-school men, working six days a week at his barbershop and nights as a guard at a public school. He hailed from Georgia, as Clemmons did. The dream of working-class families like mine was rooted in gauzy middle-class visions: a nice house in a good neighborhood, a mom making cookies in the afternoon, a family vacation every June.
Clemmons’ jobs carried his family from a South-Central Los Angeles apartment to an elegant home in Windsor Hills, decorated lovingly by Irene with plush furniture, flowers and religious mementoes. She packed her husband’s lunch every morning with the dinner he’d missed the night before. On weekends he took her out to eat or to visit friends for Bible study.
His daughters didn’t think much about missing their dad. “He was the provider, and we understood that,” said the eldest, 59-year-old Mitzi Broussard. “Looking back, I’m so proud of him. I don’t know anybody in this lifetime who worked as long as he has at two jobs. All because he loved my mother, and wanted her to have the freedom she did.”
Clemmons doesn’t seem to have any regrets about not being more of a hands-on dad. And he can’t remember ever waking up and not wanting to go to work that day.
He followed the example set by his own dad, who “worked every day, building hand-trucks for local businesses,” he said. “He got paid by the piece … 25 cents. If he didn’t work, we didn’t eat.”
I asked Clemmons if he had any hobbies; it took him a long time to think of any. He enjoys keeping up his yard, and still uses a push mower to keep the lawn trimmed. “I tried to play a little golf, but I wasn’t good at it.”
What he was good at was his job, and he took pride in doing it well. “When the auditors came out and they needed something, they would come to me to find it,” he said. His boss used to brag that Clemmons could track down anything in 10 minutes; if he couldn’t find it, it didn’t exist.
But things have changed in 50 years, and Clemmons hasn’t made his peace with it.
“It doesn’t feel like you’re doing the work when you just look it up on the computer” instead of fishing through the file cabinet for an order form. And email messages aren’t the same as talking with someone on the phone, hearing relief in the voice of someone you’ve helped find a missing requisition. “Somebody might want to give you a compliment.... I felt appreciated back then.”
His young co-workers “don’t work like we used to,” he said. “You have too many people goofing off. They don’t take any initiative.” He seems puzzled that they don’t get the satisfaction he did funneling school supplies to little kids.
If he has one regret — and he does — about working so hard for so many years, it’s that he didn’t get to spend more time with his wife, Irene. She died of ovarian cancer last year, two weeks before her 83rd birthday. His school district friends chipped in to give him a gift certificate for a cruise. But he doesn’t have anyone to spend it with.
“I just wish she was here now,” Clemmons said. “Everything would mean more, so much more.”
His friends tease him, he said, asking him, “What are you still working for?”
He might retire from the post office before he turns 85 next year.
But until then he has a job to do. There are broken parcels to repair, and odd-shaped letters to sort, because they don’t fit today’s modern machines.
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