Keylon Williams Clarke, 90, beloved husband, brother, father, grandfather, pilot, and teacher died peacefully in his sleep on June 28, 2014, at Burton Health Care, in Burton, Ohio. Keylon was born in Hiram, Ohio, on August 24, 1923, the sixth child of Dr. Elbert H. Clarke, Professor of Mathematics at Hiram College, and Frances Inez Williams Clarke. Keylon started on his first cross-country trip a little before he turned two, riding on his mother's lap with the whole family in a Model T Ford. At sixteen, he and a fellow Hiram High School student, Warren Cline, set out to hitchhike to California. He left Hiram with $20 in his pocket. His mother and Warren's mother imagined that the two young men would turn around shortly after reaching Garrettsville; but they traveled all the way across the country, seeing the Grand Canyon, visiting Clarke relatives in Los Angeles, and climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Keylon was a varsity athlete at Hiram High School, a member of the 6-man football team, the basketball team, and the track & field team. He was elected President of the Hiram High School Class of 1941.
Keylon enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942, and was called for active duty in February 1943. He served as First Pilot of a B17 Flying Fortress with the 749th Squadron, 457th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force, based in Glatton, England. His plane was hit by flak on his fourth mission, flying in tight formation over Magdeburg, Germany on September 28, 1944. While two of the plane's engines were on fire, Lt. Clarke kept flying so that his men could bail out. Radioman William Dethloff later wrote to him, "Thank God we had a pilot who kept flying the plane so that we could live!" Navigator Lt. Walter Sundling had been badly injured by flak that struck the plane; several crewmen had taken his parachute off and were attempting to give him first aid. The men had learned during flight training that in case of a bad engine fire, they had thirty-nine seconds before the plane blew up. Lt. Clarke ordered the men to put Lt. Sundling's parachute back on him, and "Throw him out of the plane. His only hope is on the ground." While Lt. Clarke kept flying, seven of the eight other crewmen parachuted safely to the ground. Then the B17 exploded, and Lt. Clarke lost consciousness briefly. When he came to, he was pressed against the windshield, and the plane was in a tailspin toward the ground. He had begun a difficult exit when the plane exploded for a second time, and he found himself in the air. He opened his parachute and landed in a field, essentially uninjured.
Along with six of his crewmen, Lt. Clarke was taken Prisoner of War by German soldiers; his Co-Pilot died while evading capture. Lt. Clarke and his bombardier, Lt. Robert Smith, carried the badly injured Lt. Sundling through the train station in Frankfurt, before they were separated. Lt. Sundling was sent to a POW hospital, while Lieutenants Clarke and Smith were sent to Stalag Luft I near Barth, Germany. The advancing Russian Army liberated the men from the POW camp in early May 1945. All seven men who had survived when the plane was shot down lived for many years afterward; and over the years, they held multiple reunions at their homes across the U.S.
After the war, Keylon married Mary Jane Helfer, daughter of the Rev. and Mrs. Frederick W. Helfer. He returned to Hiram College, graduated with a B.A. in History in 1948, and completed an M.A. in American History at Western Reserve University in 1952. Keylon taught Democracy and Business Law at Green High School in Summit County and led senior class trips to Washington, DC, for many years. He later taught American Government at Hoover High School in North Canton, Ohio. He staged a mock trial annually in his classes, and his students presented clever skits connected with election law. He took a sincere interest in each of his students, and was committed to the ideals of democracy. One of his former students wrote that he "was the kindest sweetest teacher I ever had and the dearest man. I have specific memories of things he said in government class--and I truly adored him. His integrity and desire to help others was a great example for all." Another former student characterized him as a life-long role model, and a third wrote that he "was one of the sweetest, kindest, most humble men I have ever met. He made a difference in this world and WILL be missed."
Keylon and Mary Jane had a love-filled marriage for forty-nine years, until Mary Jane's death in 1996. They lived in North Canton, Ohio, for most of that time. Keylon was a Sunday School Teacher and Elder of the Community Christian Church there. Keylon and Mary Jane had two children, Katharine and Frederick. While the children were growing up, Keylon made weekly trips to the North Canton Public Library and returned with arm loads of books, since all of the family members were avid readers. He once estimated that he had checked out 10,000 books from the library while he lived in North Canton. Keylon and Mary Jane welcomed three grandchildren, Laurel, Miriam, and Andrew.
In September 1997, Keylon married Vesta Ryder, and a second love-filled marriage began, lasting nearly seventeen years. Keylon and Vesta had known each other since childhood. With this marriage, Keylon returned to Hiram and gained an extended family, with two stepsons, a stepdaughter, eight step-grandchildren, and four step-great-grandchildren. Keylon and Vesta enjoyed many trips together, traveling to China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, the Falkland Islands, and most of the European countries.
Keylon was predeceased by his sister Anne Elizabeth (an Army nurse who died in Burma in April 1944 while rescuing a fellow nurse) and sister Phoebe, and by brothers Scott, David, and Thomas. He is survived by his wife Vesta; by his daughter Katharine Clarke Hunt and her spouse Paul of Okemos, Michigan; by his son the Rev. Frederick Clarke of Goldsboro, North Carolina; by his grandchildren, Laurel Hunt, Miriam Clarke Fletcher and her spouse Daniel, and Andrew Clarke; by his three stepchildren, Jack Groselle, Robert Groselle, and Nancy Groselle Crowley; by eight step-grandchildren, John, Jason, Beth, Ryan, Kelsey, Michael, Geoffrey, and Logan; by four step-great-grandchildren; by his sister-in law and brother-in-law, Katharine Helfer Hess and Charles Stevens Hess of Stoughton, Wisconsin; and by ten nieces and nephews, and their spouses.
The family will have a private burial service at Fairview Cemetery in Hiram, Ohio. They will hold a Celebration of his Life at 11 a.m. on Monday, August 11, 2014, at the Hiram Christian Church, 6868 Wakefield Road (Rt. 82), in Hiram, with the Rev. Roger McKinney presiding, followed by a ceremony with military honors at the cemetery. In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to Hiram College or to Hiram Christian Church, P.O. Box 937, Hiram, OH 44234.
Arrangements were entrusted to Mallory-DeHaven-Carlson Funeral Home, Garrettsville, OH 44231.