Clemmons looks back on his music career and his groundbreaking role on ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.’
François Clemmons at his home in Vermont. (© Marni Willms)
Thousands of singing Amazonian women flew through the air, fighting a giant dragon. François Scarborough Clemmons battled alongside them. “I was the queen goddess, leading the charge,” he says.
The scene evoked opera—Wagner’s Das Rheingold, according to Clemmons. He would know. Though best remembered for his role as Officer Clemmons on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, the classically trained tenor sang with the Metropolitan Opera Studio for seven seasons, performed in Porgy and Bess some 300 times, and worked at Middlebury College, first as assistant choral director, then as its artist-in-residence for thirteen years.
But the Amazonian scene was no performance. It was the dream that delivered Clemmons from the fight of his life. The day after his Middlebury retirement concert in 2013, he collapsed, sicker than he knew with pleurisy, pneumonia, and failing kidneys. While warriors accompanied Clemmons from within, a steady stream of friends stopped by the hospital. “They kept vigil,” Clemmons says. “I was never alone.”
At 71, Clemmons exudes self-confidence. Sporting a deep pink shirt, khakis, and red suspenders, he retains his trademark flair with a collection of silver and turquoise rings, a single round turquoise earring, and six necklaces, half of them turquoise, too.
“François is himself,” says the Rev. Johanna Nichols, minister emerita of Champlain Valley UU Society (CVUUS), where Clemmons is a member. “And himself is a diva. And a very loving, accepting, commanding presence.” Clemmons’s accompanist and fellow CVUUS member Kate Gridley agrees: “François is not hiding who he is. He’s gay and he’s black.”
Those facts matter for a man born into a Southern Baptist family in the segregated South, who came of age during the Civil Rights Movement. Reading the Bible at church, encountering homophobia there, “I would ask questions . . . and people didn’t like it,” Clemmons says. Family offered little comfort; physically “brutal” describes his father and stepfather alike. “I understood that blood is not what makes someone love you,” Clemmons says.
Throughout childhood, Clemmons counted on one thing. “I kept singing, because it filled me with such joy,” he says. With his musical dexterity, Clemmons became his church’s choir director when he was about 10 years old—a challenge he relished. “I was a serious boy,” he recalls, laughing. The choir of adults responded to him. “That authority has carried over for the rest of my life,” Clemmons says.
Clemmons’s singing reaches utmost poignancy through spirituals. “When I sang a spiritual, my soul was transported,” he says. “I went very deep and I knew God.” As founder and director of the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble for about a decade starting around 1980, he urged ensemble members to do the same. “Don’t be afraid,” Clemmons encouraged, “take this journey with me.”
“There’s a kind of uniqueness to his talent that’s just magical,” says Middlebury College music professor Peter Hamlin, using a word that Clemmons also employs. “More than I care to let on, I have lived a magical life,” Clemmons says. Obedience—observing what the universe, God, spirit, or Lord (interchangeable terms for Clemmons) has in store and yielding to that—underpins his faith. “I feel that I am being taught by spirit,” he says.
Looming large in this cosmology is Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister who hosted Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood from 1968 to 2001. In 1968 Rogers asked Clemmons to join the cast as Officer Clemmons, a singing police officer. Clemmons agreed, and played the role for twenty-five years. Rogers quickly became Clemmons’s mentor, surrogate father, and lifelong friend. “I can’t even explain the depth of his embrace. It was so unlimited,” Clemmons explains. “And I always kept it in my heart.”
This certainty grew in part from an episode in 1969. Rogers, soaking his feet in a water-filled baby pool, invited Officer Clemmons to dip his feet into the water. As Clemmons did so, the camera panned in on the side-by-side contrasting feet. Rogers then offered to dry Clemmons’s feet with a towel. The statement reverberated as the Civil Rights Movement roiled around desegregating public swimming pools. A “very deliberate” man, Rogers clearly understood not only the scene’s social statement, Clemmons says, but also its theological implications. The two discussed how it recalled a Bible passage describing Jesus washing his disciple Peter’s feet.
“The significance of Fred doing that for a black gay man is not lost,” Clemmons says. “I felt unworthy, like Peter in the Bible. Why did he choose me?” Years later, the impact deepened when he and Rogers recreated the scene. “He chose me. And he chose me twice.” Clemmons felt—and still feels—anointed.
For years, Clemmons felt most at home, safe, and accepted in Rogers’s friendship. But the relationship had one key complication. Clemmons wanted to come out publicly, but Rogers said no. “It was not a personal statement of how he felt about me,” Clemmons says. “It had to do with the economics of the show.” The mixed message prompted Clemmons to marry a woman in 1968, “a necessary sacrifice,” he says. He divorced in 1974.
Living in New York, building his singing career, Clemmons encountered racism in the music world. He networked, auditioned, and worked, enjoying success as an opera singer. He toured at the helm of the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble, whose music transported him. Nonetheless, “I was so lonely I can’t even describe how lonely I was,” Clemmons says. “I was so tired.”
The ensemble’s performances at Middlebury College clinched him an offer to be the school’s artist-in-residence in 1997. When Clemmons moved to Vermont, “I think there were a lot of people who wanted him to tone down,” says Nichols. “And he did not.” Working with students, “the most fulfilling thing that happened was understanding how needy they were for me and how much I could give. I’m not lonely anymore,” he explains.
At Champlain Valley UU Society, Clemmons is “really part of the fabric of that congregation,” Nichols says. Clemmons has attended since his early Middlebury years. Today, he wishes his congregation would display a Black Lives Matter banner. He thinks the banner could draw attention to the region’s subtler race biases. He appreciates the UU passion for racial justice, but says, “UUs almost want to take over. This is an area where they don’t need to lead. They need to listen [and] follow well.”
Clemmons feels loved for who he is in Middlebury. “I love them to death,” Clemmons says of his fellow UUs. “They may not believe what I believe, but I feel deeply accepted.”
Gridley says the First Principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person, is “the entire trajectory of [Clemmons’s] own story.” Recently, he’s been exploring that story as he writes his memoir. Gridley tags along when Clemmons reads passages from the manuscript to audiences, accompanying him on the piano as he peppers readings with song.
The story of his 2013 collapse will surely feature in Clemmons’s memoir. The tale ends something like this: Lying in the hospital, Clemmons awoke with a start. He had slain the dragon. His voice filled the room for the first time in days. “I’m going to win! I’m going to win!” Clemmons shouted. He had almost died, but he hadn’t. He was filled with joy, ready to see his friends and heed his next calling.
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Heather Beasley Doyle is a reporter and editor at the Lexington Minuteman. Her work has appeared in Episcopal News Service, TheNation.com, Al Jazeera America, and other publications. She lives in the Boston area.
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