Dr. Clement Price (1945-2014) — A Loss for Newark and for New Jersey

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I love Newark. For that, I — and thousands of others — will forever be indebted to Dr. Clement Price.

He came to Newark in 1968, like a fireman running into a burning building. He made Rutgers-Newark his home. He outworked and out-networked anyone who thought they could keep up with him. He taught history, wrote books, founded the Rutgers Institute on Race, Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience, created documentaries about Newark. He founded the Marion Thompson Wright Lecture Series and the Newark Black Film Festival. He met his wife, Mary Sue Price, the longtime Director of the Newark Museum. They said “no” to nothing, leading the charge to restore their adoptive hometown.

Clem died Wednesday, three days after suffering a stroke at a Rutgers event. He was 69. His sudden death is a loss for the city, for New Jersey, for open communication on race and diversity. His death is a blow for numerous charitable causes, far-reaching intellectualism, humility, and civility. He possessed an inexhaustible reservoir of infectious curiosity and enthusiasm. But he had a most precious gift; he listened and pulled you into his remarkable orbit.

I first met Clem in 2002, shortly after I was named Editor of New Jersey Monthly. He connected me to Newark, to the men and women around the state who had stories to share. A day removed from this tragic news, my brain is sorting through a swirl of moments, large and small — NJPAC galas, grabbing a beer at McGovern’s, lunch at Mixx 27, dinner at Casa Vasca, Marion Thompson Wright lectures, and post-film festival discussions. Every meeting, every phone call, began the same.

“How are you, friend?” He’d ask about my wife, Paula, and our boys, about our cabin in the Pennsylvania woods, not far from where he and Mary Sue would escape to whenever they needed to recharge their batteries. Hours later, we’d have covered Mary Sue, his family, race, politics, baseball, music, media, food, and, of course, Newark. It was a conversation no different from any other he had with his friends, but he was always presents, always learning about you, always teaching you something you needed to know.

Barbara Heisler first met Clem at Tony and Lorraine Gibbons’ house in the late ’90s, when Heisler was Executive Director of the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race. “We struck up a friendship. He became an advisor and a mentor, and later a contributor to the journal I published on community integration. He and I were c0-kenynote speakers at a Community Coalition event in 2009. I was the newbie on the block. Even though we were friends, I have always been awestruck by him. But he still wanted to hear what I had to say. I will never forget that,” says the longtime Maplewood resident.

Heisler served as the Executive Director of the South Orange/Maplewood Coalition on Race (CCR) from 1996-2000 and 2001-06. Today, she is Executive Director of GlassRoots, a Newark non-profit program dedicated to using glass-blowing as an artistic outlet for students; more than 14,000 students have gone through the program in 13 years.

“It’s funny,” Heisler says. ”Last night, when we heard the news, people wound up in my office. Ellen Brown [a program consultant with GlassRoots] and Erin Sweeney [Director of Strategic Initiatives at St. Benedict’s Prep] and I were just sharing stories about Clement. And what came through is how generous and genuine he was. Many people who have the stature of Dr. Clement Price — this is a man who was on President Obama’s transition team for the National Endowment for the Humanities— could be different for different people. But we all had the same exact experiences with him. He was true to himself, and true to everyone he met.”

Elizabeth Aaron, Maplewood resident and principal of Columbia High School, says she had “the great fortune” to meet Clem in the first class she took as she began work on her master’s degree in history at Rutgers-Newark.

“My life really changed that night,” she says. “He was one of the most brilliant people I have ever known. He taught me a million things — most importantly, though, was of the need for historians and history teachers to place the history of Africans in America, and African-Americans, at the center of the story. Otherwise, the story doesn’t really make sense.  I really haven’t read a book, or written a paper, or walked through a museum exhibit since that class in 1996 without saying or thinking, ‘What would Clem think about this?’. I had the great fortune to continue working with ever since that first class, and I know I am one of many for whom he had a huge impact on my teaching, and the work I have done ever since.”

Nancy Gagnier, the present CCR Executive Director, remains in shock. “Dr. Price was one of the kindest and most generous people I have ever worked with,” she says. “He was always willing to participate in our programs, speak at our events, or just answer questions when were grappling with some issue of race and diversity. He was scheduled to be the speaker at our upcoming 2015 MLK Observance. Everyone at the Coalition on Race mourns his loss.”

He is the connective tissue for thousands of students, historians, philanthropists, journalists, CEOs, and anyone else who valued helping Newark thrive. Walter Fields, a Maplewood resident and former political director of the New Jersey chapter of the NAACP, spoke reverentially of Price.

“His genius was in his eloquence; his ability to breathe life into history and share his gifts in a way that enriched our lives and made us all appreciate our connection to the past.”

Forty-six years after his arrival, Clem was excited about yet another job. The Rutgers Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor had been named Newark’s official City Historian, tasked with preparing for the 2016 celebration to mark the city’s 350th anniversary. Heisler says he had one character trait not generally associated with historians.

“Everything Clement did was about the future,” she says. “He was always brainstorming, striving to connect people, to make a difference. He never stopped looking forward, searching for ways to make things better.”

He was full of fun, full of fire, resolved to establish a new era of growth, in humans and in the city. I believe in the city, and the people he loved. He was a genteel man who taught just as much with his actions as he did in the lecture hall. I only got 12 years with him, but he always made me want to be better, to do more.

During the first NJPAC Gala, Clem got everyone to step outside the tent to watch fireworks explode over the Passaic River. As the colors reflected off his glasses, he shed a tear for this momentous occasion. He gave me a bear hug, kissed me on the check, and let out that cackle of a laugh. “It’s a great day for Newark, friend,” he beamed.

Now it is time for the thousands of people to each pick up a small piece of Clem’s chores — God knows, none of us could handle his workload on our own — and work for a brighter future. We owe him that much.


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