Cave of Candles
Notre Dame Legends and Lore / by Dorothy V. Corson

“Highland” Home of La Vega Clements, Owensboro, Kentucky

Memorabilia in an Old Attic Reveals Forgotten Lore of Notre Dame

In the attic of a stately old Southern mansion owned by The Honorable La Vega Clements remnants of the past lay buried in a huddled heap among other mementos from years gone by.

Over the years, a hole in an attic window had allowed pigeons to roost there and their droppings had rendered much memorabilia storied there useless. After years of being hidden away and forgotten, upon the last death in the family the old mansion was sold and any items in the attic worthy of saving were dispersed among family heirs. How any of these mementos survived perhaps some were in a battered old trunk is a little miracle, but some did, only to be stored away once again and forgotten for 88 years. Among them, an old scrapbook filled with worn and ragged newspaper clippings and the tale they had to tell about four adventuresome Notre Dame students, avid football fans, who walked to Chicago to see a Notre Dame football game.

Their story would not be here to tell were it not for a chance meeting during my research with, Margaret Moore, the granddaughter of La Vega Clements, whom I had known in high school many years ago. We had lost touch with each other for many years until we met by chance during my research on the Grotto. It was she, who was a realtor at the time, who told me of the “House with Three Flags” at the entrance to Notre Dame and how it had originally been built with a Grotto in the basement. The two of us were invited by the new owner, Notre Dame alumnus Col. Richard Lochner, to see the house he had renovated.

It was during that chance meeting with Margaret, that she learned of my interest in the legends and lore of Notre Dame. Interested, herself, she then told me about finding some old newspaper clippings her father had saved from an old scrapbook that was passed on to her. She said they were about her uncle, Gerald Clements, who like her own father, was also a Notre Dame alumnus. “I really got a kick out of them,” she said, “because I had never heard the story before.” She said it must have caused quite a stir because it was in all the local and the Chicago newspapers. She said her father must have found them in the attic of the “Highland” mansion of his father when it was being sold and kept them as a remembrance of his brother. She had only recently found out about them when they came into her possession when her father passed away. She showed them to me at that time and I made a mental note of them just in case somewhere down the line it might be another good story to add to the legends and lore of the campus.

The Honorable La Vega Clements, was a distinguished and gifted lawyer with his own law firm in Owensboro, Kentucky. He was also the Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus in Owensboro. In 1907 he purchased the “Highland” mansion for his wife, Mamee, and deeded it over to her, as her home always. It was built by the Distiller, Sylvester Monarch. La Vega furnished it lavishly with the finest china and furniture. The library eventually numbered about 500 volumes housed in glass and oak cases.

As the story goes, her grandfather told this story about how he got his name: “My grandfather, Charles O. Clements was with General Zachery Taylor in the Mexican War in 1845. He was present in one of the great battles in which the Mexican General La Vega, was captured. When I was born, he said that I reminded him very much of the old General, and hence he bestowed on me the name of La Vega.”

The above information and the lines that follow from their family genealogy, compiled and written by Elizabeth Clements Harmon, give a wonderful description of La Vega Clements. “It would be an understatement to say La Vega Clements was an out-going man. He was gregarious, people-loving, crowd-pleasing and immensely popular with all who knew him. He never knew a stranger! He was in great demand as a public speaker, as he was witty, urbane, learned, and an entertaining orator. It is difficult to give enough praise and description of his activities and worth -- he was truly ‘larger than life.’ Everything he did was big, grand, and generous.”

La Vega had nine children, three died at an early age. He sent all his children to prep schools and fine institutions of learning. His four sons all went to Notre Dame and two went on to practice with him in his law firm. This story is about one of those sons of Notre Dame who was a member of the adventuresome foursome who walked to Chicago.

Below is a photograph of them from among a collage of newspaper clippings that were in the forgotten scrapbook stored in the “Highland” mansion attic. Excerpts from numerous articles recount the highlights of their trip which appeared in many different local and Chicago newspapers.

Gerald Clements and Companions
Foot it From Notre Dame To Chicago
Trip of 102 miles Costs Four Young Knights Only 80 Cents

Gerald Clements was a senior in 1914 and his three companions were juniors when they made their famed trek to Chicago. The 1915 Yearbook was very impressive that year. And their trip was not forgotten. In The Dome beside his graduation picture is this description of Gerald Samuel Clements, L.L.B.

A full page in that 1915 Dome contained a reinactment photograph of “The Hikers” and a reappraisal by the famous foursome of:

That Famous “Hike” to “Chi”

Joseph Gargan and Gerald Clements in Sorin Hall

From September, 1913 through June 1915 Gerald resided in Sorin Hall in one of the tower rooms. His roommate was Joseph Gargan. Rose Kennedy, the mother of President John F. Kennedy, was his Aunt. When his mother died he and his sister were raised with the children of Joseph Kennedy. The following year, in 1916, Gerald’s three companions, Edward Marcus, Russell Downey and Wilmer Finch received their degrees and went on to careers in journalism and advertising.

In June of 1915, Gerald Clements graduated with honors in law from Notre Dame University, Valedictorian of his law class. He practiced law in the law firm his father had established which was renamed, Clements & Clements in honor of his eldest child. Gerald had practiced law for 2 years. He was described as a brilliant young lawyer.

In 1917, as soon as World War I was declared, “he exhibited a single minded determination to go to the Army.” Two children had died in infancy and another at four years old. His mother threatened to go to bed “and not get up” if he enlisted. But he had made up his mind, he did enlist in the Army. His mother was devastated but she did not carry out her threat. He was sent to Fort Benjamin Harrison for his basic training, and in September, 1918, he was sent to Camp Sherman at Chillicothe, Ohio where he received general training for overseas duty.

His father wrote to him on September 27, 1918 advising him that “The Spanish flu may hold our shipment of troops back. Don’t see any reports from your camp of any trouble. Hope it doesn’t strike Sherman.” A week later Gerald was stricken with the dreaded 1918 influenza epidemic that was sweeping the civilian and military population of the United States.

Elizabeth Harmon’s geneology describes his last days: A telegram from Camp Sherman informed his mother and father of his serious condition. “They left at once by train . . . Later, they would describe the rows upon rows of stricken soldiers, many dying. Gerald was sick only a few days. At times his fever was so high that he became delirious. In his delirium, he thought he had already gone to France. After their arrival, his mother and father were at his bedside constantly, and they were with him when he died.”

“His last words were: ‘To me, the war is over, and I am going home.’ In one week he would have been twenty-four years old! Ironically, the war really was over only a month later, when the Armistice was signed , November 11, 1918.”

There is yet another irony about the sad untimely death of Gerald Clements. It surfaced in the form of a thought-provoking “Food for Thought” essay he wrote about the war in 1915, before he graduated and returned home to begin his practice as a new lawyer in his father’s law firm.

“The black his mother put on for Gerald’s death and burial, was never laid aside. She wore only black from then, until she died. She made no exceptions for any occasion, including the weddings of her children and grandchildren. She was fifty years old when Gerald died; and she was utterly crushed by grief. For his father it was also a terrible blow. Gerald, his eldest son, had been his daily companion, his partner, and ‘crony’ to talk over everything with.”

When Gerald graduated from Notre Dame in 1915, his father formed the law firm of Clements & Clements. He never changed this designation though Gerald died in 1918. Later his son, Fred, joined the firm, after his graduation from Notre Dame in 1926. They practiced together until La Vega’s death in 1938.

His father’s unforgetable personality continued to guide the family. He died twenty years after Gerald’s death. He had just announced that he would be a candidate for Circuit Judge and had given a speech at the Knights of Columbus Home. After retiring early he was stricken with a heart attack and died before a priest or doctor could get there. He was 70 years old. Elizabeth Harmon describes an interesting story about her grandfather. Many years after his death she said she was visiting her Aunt Lucinda in a nursing home and an old lady came up to her and said about her Aunt Lucinda, “She looks like Mr. Veggie Clements, doesn’t she? When I was young, I used to see him walking down the street, swinging his cane, whistling, saluting ladies by tipping his straw hat and greeting men with a handshake and children with a smile. I thought he was a great man, a real gentleman. (He had been dead 47 years; but she hadn’t forgotten him.)”

Elizabeth writes, “He was ‘one of a kind,’ a legend. He was like a comet streaking across life and then gone. I will never forget him either. He taught me to love reading. He took me on his lap and told me stories, taught me the names of all the Indian tribes. He gave a wonder to all he told. He said, ‘If you read, worlds will be opened up to you.’ I was 9 years old when he died.”

Rev. John W. Cavanaugh, President of the University of Notre Dame paid this same kind of “unforgettable” tribute to Gerald Clements shortly after his death. His words also represent his profound respect for all the young men who gave their lives in service to their country since World War I -- the war to end all wars.

In Memoriam
Sergeant Gerald S. Clements
Died October 9, 1918

By the
President of the University of
Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana