Editor’s note: The following memorial for Clarke Hess by Carolyn Wenger—currently museum curator and archivist at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, which she directed from 1976 to 2001—is excerpted from a tribute she gave at his funeral. Hess was heavily involved in Lancaster Mennonite history, with a special emphasis on material culture, as expressed in Mennonite Arts, published in 2002. He passed away from complications from ALS on November 7, 2018.
Carolyn C. Wenger
A bit over four years ago, as it became apparent that Clarke’s physical ability to participate in Historical Society activities was declining, I was asked by the board to write a tribute, which I read to him at a board dinner in his honor. A short time later (April 6, 2014) it was also read to him at our more public Annual Banquet. I want to share that, now, with you.
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While still in high school, Clarke was already researching in the Society library on a regular basis, having become passionate about history from his grade-school years on up. At a young age he developed an exceptional feel for what had enduring value. In 1981, as a twenty-six-year-old, he joined the LMHS board and served thirty years, until limited by new term rules. On board meeting nights his sunny-yellow Sting Ray sat in the parking lot, along with the more subdued colors and models of other, older board members. But that was OK. That was Clarke’s car.
In his gentle unassuming manner, he cultivated friendships and amazingly educated himself through association with a wide array of collectors, educators, and curators—always listening, learning, documenting objects, and winning people’s confidence. He even taught himself to read old German-script handwriting. He went far beyond what many historians have done with academic degrees.
He served on the Society’s Genealogy Committee for decades, helping to oversee the successful family history conference. For the annual fundraiser, the outdoor Bookworm Frolic, he and his family partnership at Hess Homebuilders and Precision Wall &Truss provided valued support in the form of loaned lumber and suggested the use of trestles instead of earlier hay bales for tables. Clarke provided the table layout for the event. He also wrote a variety of historical and genealogical articles for Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage.
Through his own contributions and personal contacts, he helped acquire some of the Society’s most valuable artifacts, which have been exhibited at the Society, loaned for other museum exhibits, pictured in books, and reproduced for sale. I specifically remember a Farmersville auction in the 1980s that we both attended. My heart was pounding as he sat beside me, encouraging me to keep bidding, knowing that we would have to solicit donations to cover the cost. Until that point I had never spent so much money at one time, that the Society or I did not have. Even though several board members were unhappy with me, time proved the purchases to be wise—in fact, a chance of a lifetime.
As chair of our Museum Committee, he gave valued leadership to collection-development and exhibit policies. He also led historical field trips for the Society and presented lectures or seminars as part of the educational program. He served on the Society’s 1992 Building Committee, when expansion became necessary, and as his pet project oversaw the documentation, moving, and installation of the nearby Landis Cabin log wall in our museum, along with reconstruction of the fireplace.
As the Society was still educating itself and its constituency about the educational role of a museum and had completed the initial process of restoring the 1719 Herr House, he joined its Administrative Committee and helped to develop that site and its policies. He also influenced the decision to correct the initial roof restoration to provide a front overhang to the house as it is now.
With his book, Mennonite Arts, his multiple liaisons with other area cultural institutions, and his photographic memory, he helped—more than any other one person—to educate the church and the public about Mennonite material culture. He restored his 1744 Hess ancestral homestead and made it into a first-rate Mennonite museum, which he willingly shared with friends and the public.
Among all of his activities and accomplishments outside the realm of the Society—and I certainly cannot name them all—were curating a historical exhibit comparing Mennonite arts in Ontario and Pennsylvania. He has been associated locally with the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County, Landis Valley Museum, the former Heritage Center, the Lancaster County Historical Society, and care of the historic Hans Hess Cemetery. He served as a board member of the Historical Society of the Cocalico Valley in Ephrata, where he curated an exhibit on, of all things, privy bags. He also actively helped to rescue and restore the Stoner House with the Manheim Township Historical Society. In addition, as a dealer in antiques and with Lee’s technical help, he wrote an internet blog on Mennonite material culture and events and maintained a website on Lititz area farmsteads.
Clarke, we love you and look forward to your continued involvement with us as you are able. As a brother in the Mennonite faith community, we recognize the unique place you have filled and continue to fill among us. We are deeply grateful that you have dedicated your years of study, collecting, documenting, and educating to raise historical awareness among the public, but especially among your Mennonite family—past, present, and future. Thank you!
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As a recipient of God’s love, Clarke reflected this love to others through unselfish sharing of his artifacts and their beauty with persons he knew to be related to the items, with visitors to his home, and with neighboring museums. For him, artifacts served as symbols beyond themselves of a larger reality of time, place, and context. They also connected him with an extended Mennonite family and faith tradition—a heritage past, present, and future.
As we wondered why in God’s providence ALS should be permitted to afflict such a caring, devoted, and knowledgeable individual, he nevertheless inspired visitors with his patient, uncomplaining acceptance of his lot and his always-cheerful disposition. This was his unfailing witness to us, his friends and family, as he lived out his faith.
Clarke followed his calling as long as he was able—to the final click of his computer mouse, and he left us on the most beautiful day of the year. Grateful that we had him as long as we did, and yet not wanting to prolong his struggle with the courageous process of living, we surrender him to God’s all-wise timing, knowing that a part of each of us dies with him in this life. Yet, we have the blessed hope that now his quests are fulfilled and that the veil of this life, through which we see darkly, has for him been removed so that all is now light, truth, and new life.