This spring, The Rockford Squire reported that five historic people in the Rockford area were honored at Recognition Plaza at Peppler Park. The event is a newer tradition in its second year and organized by the Rockford Area Community Endowment (RACE). Each year, RACE will honor people from the City of Rockford and the townships of Algoma, Cannon, Courtland and Plainfield.
In addition to the gift of grants, recognizing the people who have contributed significantly to the history of the area is among the Endowment’s goals. When visiting the beautiful Peppler Park Recognition Plaza (on the west side of the dam), take the time to read the names on the bricks under your feet and in plaques on the columns in the park. The following is one more of the stories of this year’s honorees, with others to follow in future issues of the Squire.
Not long ago, renowned newsman Tom Brokaw wrote a book entitled “The Greatest Generation.” That book recognized the generation of Americans who were born in the early 1900s, survived two world wars and the most crippling economic depression in American history. Clarence Blakeslee exemplifies that generation and all that it stands for, as well as any American. The Rockford area was truly blessed by many of that greatest generation, and the history of this community will always be much more richly colored because of the lives of those people, not the least of which is our own Clarence Blakeslee, or as he has come to be known, Mr. Rockford.
Clarence was born in Grand Rapids in 1914. By 1918, his parents had divorced and he moved to Courtland Township for his first Rockford experience. He moved several times after that, including back to Grand Rapids and to Ionia, but in 1926 his mother—with a horse and wagon load of kids, furniture and a new husband—moved back to the Rockford area. It was a move that brought a lifetime of mutual love and respect between Clarence and his new home and neighbors of Rockford.
Clarence graduated from Rockford Senior High School in 1932 after a distinguished high school career that included varsity letters in track, football and basketball. The classroom was a success also and it was recognized by Clarence’s selection to the National Honor Society, an honor which he has prized his whole life. Clarence—or “Sonny,” as he was then known—also acted in three plays, showing his zest for seizing every opportunity to lead a full life and contribute to the community around him. All this was done as a child of the depression, as he suffered through poverty seldom experienced in America.
College without money was a challenge for anyone, but Clarence enrolled in Kalamazoo College and hitchhiked daily for most of term before the long trip and sometimes nonexistent time at home took their toll.
Not long after his short collegiate career, Clarence went to work at Wolverine Shoe Company, where he quickly established himself as a hard worker and a leader. While at Wolverine, he met Lois Cadey, whom he married in 1936 during the hottest summer in Rockford history. Lois changed her name to Blakeslee, but she made Sonny change his name to Clarence. Lois joined Clarence in a lifetime of service to Rockford and in particular convinced Clarence to return to Rockford after a short experiment at life in California. It was a nice place to visit, but Lois was coming home. Not surprisingly, they returned to Rockford and raised two sons, both sons also inheriting a love and commitment to the Rockford area.
World War II was waging and after a couple failed enlistments because of bad vision, Uncle Sam decided he needed Clarence. Few men in history have experienced the terror of war as Clarence did. He fought in the two most vicious battles in Europe: the Hurtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge.
Decorated for bravery, he returned to Rockford and added “expert storyteller” to his already impressive resume. Clarence’s war stories were vivid and accurate. After several years, he put them to pen and produced his own story of the war, which has been a bestseller in Rockford ever since. It is worth noting that all the proceeds from the sale of his book have been donated to the Rockford Area Historical Society and the Rockford Rotary Club.
In 1948, Clarence started his own business in Rockford, which still thrives today under the leadership of the oldest son, Rodd. That business, first as Rockford Sheet Metal and later as Blakeslee & Son Inc., quickly earned a reputation for quality, service, fair pricing and absolute honesty.
The story of his life would have been complete for most us, but not for Clarence. He and Lois were lifelong dedicated members of the First Baptist Church, where they strengthened a deep and committed faith. Clarence served 16 years as a Rockford City Council member, including several years as mayor. After city council, he served the area as its Kent County Commissioner for three terms.
Any project that improved Rockford from the 1950s through the later years of the 20th Century had Clarence’s name attached. He served as president of the Rockford Rotary Club and spent many years as one of its top fundraisers. He served as a charter member of this very Rockford Community Foundation. He was appointed by Governor William Milliken to the State Plumbing Board. He was a loyal member of the Kent County Republican Party and traveled nationally in an attempt to reelect Gerry Ford as President. Clarence was a founding member of the Rockford Area Historical Society, serving on its board for many years in just about every capacity.
Known as a friend to everyone he met, Clarence will always be remembered with a camera or two around his neck. A hobby grew into a mission in life. Clarence took your picture. There are a lot of reasons for taking pictures, and surely Clarence has added to the visual history of Rockford and many of its families, but there is a deeper reason that is at the heart of this man. When Clarence takes your picture, he is telling you that you are important; you are worth his time and memory. Always as he followed the stars at Rockford athletic events, he also took the pictures of the kids who followed the stars across the line. Clarence knew those kids wanted to be noticed and “Mr. Blakeslee” always had a picture for their efforts. His years of supporting Rockford athletics and his own athletic successes earned his selection to the Rockford High School Athletic Hall of Fame. The support Clarence gave to so many kids was no different than the pictures he took of each of you. You are a part of Rockford and you are important, and that is from a man who spent his whole life, so far, loving this community.