Jerry Davich. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 6, 2013 6:36AM
Rudy Clay stood on a makeshift stage in front of political officials, wannabes, and sycophants at the Patio restaurant in Merrillville.
During a political fundraiser in the fall of 2006, the former Gary mayor proudly proclaimed, “God is a Democrat.” And I’m convinced he truly believed it after shaking his hand for the first time that night.
Mr. Clay died Tuesday, one day after I wrote his name in my daily planner to meet with him again. On Monday, I was reminded of a previous meeting we had at my favorite pizza joint in Gary, where we shared lunch together. Lately, I’ve been curious for an update of his life since his high-profile public office days were behind him.
I was saddened to hear of Mr. Clay’s death, and mad at myself for not contacting him sooner.
“Time is so fleeting,” he told me wistfully that day, in December 2011.
Mr. Clay, who was 77, had been battling prostate cancer for more than a year, but the cause of death was not confirmed on Tuesday. Not that it matters now.
He certainly was quite the character, or the caricature, depending on your viewpoint, with his ever-present bodyguards and infamous Hummer city vehicle, his “MLK” cufflinks, his “CLAY” embroidered shirt sleeves, and his sharp-looking suits.
I often teased him about his skewed “Super Fly” public image, though he never took offense, even when I had him on my Lakeshore Public Radio show last year.
“Jerry still has steel dust in his veins,” he said in overly dramatic style for my radio show promo. Without me knowing it, he changed the original wording of the promo, asking him to joke that I was part of the city’s white flight yet I still call Gary home.
“Jerry, I can’t say that. You’re talking about Gary. It doesn’t look good,” he told me later.
To Mr. Clay, image was everything and perception was reality. Same went for his beloved city, where he was “proudly raised” by his two aunts. (He met his father only twice in his life, he once told me.)
His aunts demanded he attend church every Sunday, and Sunday school, too, and he didn’t let them down even seven decades later. He always brought up God, church, and belief for his city when we talked, including once in February 2007, just before he spoke at Gary’s 2007 State of the City Address at the Genesis Convention Center.
Inside the center’s spacious Indiana Room, every lunch table sparkled with well-dressed and well-fed city and county officials, leaders, preachers, teachers, movers and shakers. They came to hear Mr. Clay’s “three R’s” lesson plan for the 21st century — redevelopment, revitalization and rebirth.
But I was more interested in his chat and photo op with a group of young children from the Banneker Dance Troupe, who were there to perform.
“Keep doing your best and you’ll be the best,” he told one young girl before prancing along to do what he did best, talk up his city to anyone who would listen.
In early 2010, I received a short email from Mr. Clay: “Jerry, I would like to sit and talk with you one day on a few issues, if that is OK.” I thought it was a joke at first. We soon met at the former Dustie¹s Buffet in downtown Gary, across from the U.S. Steel Yard baseball stadium.
He showed up for our hourlong lunch with a city accountant and a police detective, whom I presumed was his bodyguard on that day.
He consistently praised the Steel City, its people, its glory days, and his goal to recapture those days. He also made a point to note that Gary has more churches than any other similarly sized city, and “the glory of Gary” will be reborn through those believers.
Mr. Clay, who became mayor in 2006, also consistently boasted a Jackson-themed entertainment venue/museum, a land-based casino, and other dreamy destination sites for Gary. None panned out that I’m aware of.
The 1953 Roosevelt High School graduate attended Indiana University in Bloomington for a year or so, and he first ran for public office in 1971, as a city councilman. But he lost because another candidate on the ballot had the same last name, he once told me.
“Ralph Clay,” he noted with a shrug. “He took my votes.”
Mr. Clay said he has never run unopposed in any election, and no other public official in the region, or the state has been elected to more public offices than him.
“It’s true, we looked it up,” he said proudly.
In April 2011, Mr. Clay shocked me (and you?) with his announcement that he was suspending his re-election bid. And that he had battled cancer for the past several months.
“I feel that God has already healed me, but I have to go through the process,” Mr. Clay told me after that press conference.
That news seemed to make him a more sympathetic figure to people, including his critics. Though he always seemed an easy target, and for good reason. He embodied Lake County politics, with all that this infamy implied.
“My wife has supported me 1,000 percent through the years, but there’s no way I’m running for public office again,” he told me in December 2011, taking a long sip from his hot tea.
“She tells me don’t even bring it to me. Be still. Be still!” he added with a chuckle.
When I last met with Mr. Clay, he was lively, loose-lipped, and light-hearted. He acted nothing like his more-serious public image during city press conferences and media photo ops. Several times he even giggled, telling me he loves fruit cocktail with chunky pineapples and shredded wheat on top.
“But don’t let ’em get soggy,” he warned.
He also hinted at his legacy, saying, “I think when the history books are written, my name will be in there for Gary, Indiana.”
No doubt about it, I replied. Now that he’s gone, we’ll find this out soon enough. In the meantime, I can only recall what his wife would often tell him.
Be still, Rudy, be still.
Connect with Jerry via email, at email@example.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.