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Friends, relatives bid farewell to ‘heart and soul’ of Gary

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Updated: July 15, 2013 6:50PM



The hands-on campaigner. The civil rights activist. The dapper dresser. The diligent giver. The “cool” dad. The substitute Sunday school teacher.

Memories of former Gary mayor Rudy Clay ran the gamut from hilarious to emotional Wednesday at his funeral service, but his love for people — whether his family or constituents — and his faith were the two guiding lights in his life.

Clay was 77 when he died on June 4 after a long battle with prostate cancer.

More than 350 people packed the Genesis Convention Center for the more than three-hour service. Floral arrangements spanned the length of the room, which was no surprise to friends who noted his love of colorful flowers to decorate his office.

Prior to the start of the service, the Genesis Convention Center was abuzz with conversation, laughter, hugs and handshakes as well-known speakers, such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Judge Greg Mathis, arrived.

Pallbearers from the Lake County Sheriff’s Department, and Gary Police and Fire Departments saluted Clay’s casket, then a large contingent of friends and family entered the ballroom to the sound of the Gary Community Choir singing “God Is.”

Clay’s son, Rudy Clay Jr., said it’s been a rough few days since his father’s death, but he’s trying to remember the good times.

“All of my friends loved him and I was so proud of my dad because he was so cool,” Clay said. “He had a red and white limousine.”

Clay said his dad married the love of his life — Christine — and that love was still visible at his parents’ 50th anniversary party.

“He just loved his family, and his last few days he just wanted his family,” Clay said.

Clay’s political acumen was shared by an experienced team he kept around him for decades, including Roosevelt Powell, John McCloud and Tom Yancy.

Powell said it was tough keeping up with Clay’s boundless energy, but they will miss the challenge.

“Goodbye, my friend,” Powell said. “I hope to see you again, but not too soon I hope.”

McCloud said it was difficult to capture all that needed to be said about his friend.

“How do you say goodbye to someone you really, really love?” McCloud said.

Jackson met Clay in the mid-1960s when he and others were working to elect the city’s first black mayor.

“Whites didn’t want a black mayor, but Rudy chose the right side of history,” Jackson said. “He is the heart and soul of a place called Gary, Indiana.”

Mathis credited his rise as a judge on television to the efforts of Clay and those of his generation.

“There’s nothing really special with me, but what is special is his generation fought and sacrificed for me,” Mathis said. “He invited me to a youth and education event. It was filmed and Rudy was spotted in a preamble of my show. Between that and those sideburns that would become world famous. People would ask who that was and I’d say, ‘That’s my man, Rudy Clay.’ ”

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson noted the many projects Clay launched to help the residents of Gary — from paying for wheelchair ramps out of his own pocket to buying Christmas presents for the “kids that Santa forgot.” Freeman-Wilson said she and Clay were opponents twice, but there was never any competition between them.

“It occurred to me that we were never competing because I understood while I was in elementary school that Mayor Rudy Clay was breaking down barriers in the insurance industry, and while I was thinking about what I wanted to do, Mayor Rudy Clay was blazing a trail so I could be whoever I wanted,” she said.

State Sen. Earline Rogers has known Clay since childhood when they both lived near 26th Avenue and Polk Street, where she occasionally had to dodge rocks thrown by the boys on the way to the grocery.

“He was a sharp dresser whose presence was always felt when he visited the statehouse,” Rogers said. “When I introduced him to Gov. Mitch Daniels, I wondered how are they going to get along. They interacted like old friends with the governor commenting on Rudy’s monogrammed cuffs and he presented Rudy with an Indiana tie. It was the beginning of a relationship that helped Gary through tough times.

“If you didn’t like Rudy, then something was wrong with you.”

One of Clay’s most notable appearances happened on CNN on primary election night in 2008, when Hammond Mayor and Hillary Clinton supporter Thomas McDermott Jr. argued that the Lake County votes were coming in too slowly.

“I got a call from the Obama campaign’s state chair wondering what Rudy is doing,” Rogers said. “I called Rudy in Crown Point and his reply was I’m waiting for Gary’s votes because I want to give Barack Obama Indiana.”

Lake County Commissioner Roosevelt Allen Jr. said he’s known Clay since childhood, when he helped insure his family’s business — Guy & Allen Funeral Directors. Through the years, Allen saw Clay in Washington, D.C., fighting for the poor and marveled at his stamina when campaigning.

“It was the most difficult election of my life,” Allen said. “I was much younger and thought I could wear him down, but he had overwhelming energy. So no one was happier than I was when Rudy decided he wanted to be mayor.”

Clay spent nearly 30 years of his political career in Lake County government, as a commissioner, recorder and councilman. His wife, Christine, has been director of the weights and measures department for 20 years.



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