A Life: John A. Clements, 1930-2014; ‘He Prided Himself on Making Things Better’
John Clements works his sugaring operation at his property in Croydon, where he and his wife lived the last 12 years. Clements, 83, died in April. He served on the Board of SelectmenÊand though heÊhad an impressive career in the field of transportation as an engineer in both North and South America, his wife Hannah said her husband was just as happy working with his hands in the outdoors.
John Clements cuts wood on his property in Croydon, where he and his wifeÊlived the last 12 years. Clements, 83, died in April. He served on the Board of Selectmen and though had an impressive career in the field of transportation as an engineer in both North and South America, his wife Hannah said her husband was just as happy working with his hands in the outdoors.
Croydon — It seems that there was precious little that John Clements couldn’t do, or didn’t do, in his 83 years.
Educated as a mechanical engineer, Clements’ work took him to places all over North and South America, in the field of transportation.
But his professional resume — which included serving as commissioner of transportation under three New Hampshire governors, management of the environmental impact statement of Boston’s Big Dig tunnel project, involvement in the construction of Interstate 93 through Franconia Notch in the White Mountains and president of the Northeast Association of State Highway Officials and Chairman of the National Rail Conference — only scratches the surface of Clements’ accomplishments and interests.
Keeping busy defined Clements, whether at work or home. He was passionate about working around the house or on the boats he and his wife lived on for 18 years. He was equally capable working with his hands or his mind and seemed to find everyone and everything interesting.
“He was a real do-it-yourselfer,” said his wife of 44 years, Hannah. “He loved manual, physical labor. He could do plumbing and electrical stuff, that is what he loved to do and he taught the kids. He prided himself on making things better.”
Clements, who died in April after a long battle with cancer, lived in Croydon that last 12 years and served on the Board of Selectmen, as he had done in Peterborough, N.H. Though his accomplishments in both the public and private sector as well his volunteering are extensive, those who knew him closely said his sense of humor, kind and thoughtful manner and show of respect for everyone he encountered are what they remember most.
“He was one of the greatest men I have ever met,” said Croydon’s Town Clerk and Tax Collector Charlene Little. “He was such a kind man. He was a great father figure to just about anyone and he always made you feel very comfortable.”
Both Little and Selectman James Harding said Clements was extremely knowledgeable and used his engineering and professional background to help Croydon.
“He did a great job as selectman and was overqualified (for the position),” said Harding. “He knew a lot of people in state and federal government but never bragged about it. He was just a very nice man, to everyone.”
Whether it was a small road repair in Croydon or the controversial construction of a four-lane interstate highway through Franconia Notch, Clements brought more than engineering aptitude to the table, said his friend and colleague, Will Abbott.
“It was hard to say ‘no’ to John. He was very persuasive,” said Abbott, vice president of policy and land management with the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.
Abbott was working for U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Clements was commissioner of the state Department of Transportation around the time in the early 1980s when the federal government proposed cutting Interstate 93 through Franconia Notch, to replace the two-lane Route 3.
“He was a large part of why an agreement was reached,” said Abbott about the controversy that went to court because of opposition by several groups, including the Appalachian Mountain Club. “He got all the conflicting parties together.”
Abbott said Clements, ever the diplomat, succeeded in getting an agreement where others probably would have failed.
“He was a great problem solver but could also solve the human problem. There was a lot of emotion in that issue,” Abbott said. “He shepherded the project through and then stayed there to supervise it. I think a lot of people were happy John stayed on.”
When a plan emerged to improve the (Franconia Notch) parkway about four years ago, with the proposed installment of “jersey (concrete) barriers,” Abbott said he called Clements and asked him to come in to explain the original agreement and act as mediator to find common ground for all sides.
Relying on his knowledge of new technology and diplomatic skills, Clements helped craft a solution that was “less intrusive” with more muted colors, Abbott said.
“The park still looks like a park. I think John understood what is unique and special about Franconia Notch State Park. He had a good understanding of New Hampshire heritage and really cared about the state.” The American Forestry Association gave Clements a certificate of special appreciation for his contributions locating I-93 through the state park and White Mountain National Forest.
Hannah said her husband “enjoyed talking to people and solving problems.”
Listening was one of his strengths, said Little, Croydon’s town clerk.
“He was one of those people who always took the time to listen and he always took the time to fully understand something before making a decision,” Little said.
Clements was born in April, 1930 in Hyannis, Mass., and received his engineering degree from Yale. He served in the Navy’s explosive ordinance division during the Korean war.
Greg Speier worked under Clements in the Federal Highway Administration. Together they helped set up an international technology transfer network called the Pan American Institute of Highways, Speier said in an email from Santiago, Chile.
“To say that John was respected by all is an understatement,” Speier wrote. “He was honored and welcomed at every event that we attended. John endeared himself with all, regardless of national origin, political beliefs or inclination and we often had to deal with the entire spectrum, with technicians to Ministers of transportation and public works from Nicaragua to Uruguay, from Mexico to Argentina and the entire Caribbean.”
Speier said that under Clements, the technology transfer network eventually grew to 90 centers in more than 30 countries and resulted in the export of U.S. technology, expertise and standards to the region.
Speier said his colleague and friend was a strong supporter of the United States’ influence but “without ever being arrogant.” Like Abbott, Speier said Clements was personable and genuine, something that people immediately recognized.
“John had presence, when he walked into a room all took notice. When he led a meeting he did it with a warm embracing style that kept all involved,” Speier wrote. “But he never required a front seat. I never saw John angry, never heard him utter a cuss word, and never heard anyone say anything but positive about him.”
Having grown up on Cape Cod where he worked on fishing boats while in college, Clements had an affinity for the water. Beginning in the 1970s, the Clements lived on boats for 18 years. The first was a 96-foot Canadian scallop dragger they brought down from Canada and then a motorsailer that they sailed to Annapolis, Md., when Clements worked down there.
“He did all the renovations on them,” Hannah said.
Clements was a Rotarian, a licensed private pilot, a member of the U.S. Navy Washington Memorial, chairman of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire for three years in the 1970s and for a short period was co-chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.
At home, after retirement, he kept a simple lifestyle and took to wearing his formal dress shirts while outside working.
“The mailman asked me one day, why does your husband wear dress shirts while he is mowing the lawn,” Hannah Clements said. “I told him he just likes to wear them out. He was very frugal.”
Fellow Selectman Harding spent time with Clements at his home, helping with his sugaring operation.
“He knew how to do just about anything,” said Harding.
In the private sector, Clements, who is survived by a son and a daughter and three stepsons, worked at Sturm Ruger and New Hampshire Ball Bearings in Peterborough and later formed his own consulting firm, New Hampshire Engineering Corporation.
Cancer first struck Clements 15 years ago, but his wife said it did not slow her husband down much or affect his positive outlook.
“All the time he had cancer he did not dwell on it,” she said. “He put it out of his mind until it came around again, that is when he would deal with it.”
Harding and others said Clements was indeed brilliant but he was also modest.
“With all he knew, he never made you think he knew more than you did,” said Harding.
Patrick O’Grady can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.