Strawberries Optional

I have often thought that the imaginations of small-town kids must work better than those of big city kids, because small town kids must make up their own kind of fun in a place where there is nothing to do. Sometimes that homespun fun is purely innocent, sometimes it’s a little mischievous, but it always makes for a good laugh. 

Jay Sterling Clements grins from ear to ear when he reminisces about his Atlanta High School buddies who got the bright idea to go steal strawberries by the light of the moon. When nighttime rolled around, Jay Sterling and his friends snuck out to the strawberry patch on the outskirts of town and filled their hats with as many berries as they could, only using their sense of touch to pick the fruit. Sterling remembers it was very dark, but suspects that was half the fun. 

The teenagers made it safely back into Atlanta with their loot and gathered at a café that had recently begun to sell soft serve ice cream. Apparently, that was a big deal in the early 1950s. Sterling and his friends were so excited to fancy up their ice cream with their freshly picked strawberries. “Of all the strawberries we picked that night, it turned out there were only about three or four berries that were worth eating. We had picked rotten strawberries in the dark.” His eyes sparkling with memories from long ago, Clements laughs and says, “I don’t even like strawberries.”  

Clements was born on December 13, 1934, in Texarkana, Arkansas, but he likes to think of Atlanta, Texas as the place he entered the world. He was an only child raised by parents who taught him the value of a hard day’s work. As a small child, Jay Sterling went to work with his father and uncle who slaughtered hogs, packed the meat, and pedaled it to an abundance of mom-and-pop grocery stores around Atlanta. Around twelve years old, he remembers hauling hay and chopping cotton on the Clements’ family farm that was near Ida, Louisiana. Earning two dollars a day, Clements learned what it meant to work hard.

When Clements turned 16, his parents bought him a brand-new truck. That was a big deal back in the day because teenagers did not get brand new vehicles when they got their driver’s license. Feeling pretty good about himself, Clements thought his new wheels were going to be impressive in the eyes of his classmates. That feeling withered once he realized the new truck was intended to be 5:30 am transportation for the local folks who needed work. All Clements’ chauffeur services had to be completed before the school bell rang at 8:00 am. After school, he had to pick up all the workers from the farm and bring them back to Atlanta. So, the new pickup truck turned into yet another job and fortified his lifelong work ethic.

Clements graduated from Atlanta High School in 1953 and married his classmate Shirley McNeil the next year. For a split second, the couple tossed around the idea of buying a house and raising a family in Ida. However, the couple wanted to work and raise a family in their hometown of Atlanta, and that is just what they did. From 1955 to 1962, the Clements were blessed with four daughters and one son. To support their five children, Clements had a myriad of business ventures: selling cars, owning his own lumber yard, cattle ranching, and commercial land development. Some of those ventures worked well, while others did not. “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing anything,” he said. Always the visionary, he kept pursuing the next big business deal. 

In the early 1970s, International Paper Company began its operation between Atlanta and Texarkana. A lot of employees were transplants from other paper mills. Being the forward-thinking man he is, Clements knew the transplants would need housing, so he developed several neighborhoods in Atlanta. These neighborhoods brought many families to the small town, boosting its population and economy. From there, he bought land and established Pine Acres Shopping Center, a place Atlanta natives know well. Anticipating a commercial shift toward Highway 59, Clements built the Travel Inn and Restaurant and purchased a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, establishing them in prime locations. These business contributions, among many others, have been invaluable to the residents of Atlanta.

Today, at 87, Clements continues to do business in Atlanta. He has entrusted to family members his vision for the small town he loves so dearly. He owns many commercial and residential rental properties, and he still enjoys the construction side of new homes and businesses. However, he has traded his cattle for managing timber. “I like timber better,” he says. “Trees don’t have calves in the middle of the night.” 

Though he mourns the loss of his wife, who passed away in January after 67 years of marriage, he remains surrounded by the love and care of his children, who all still live in Atlanta. When balancing success in business and raising a family, Clements said, “the secret of it all is having a good partner, and I had the best.”

Knowing no other way, Clements still works every day. There are days he would rather sit at home and watch television, but he’s got “places to be and people to see.” When considering retirement, he immediately answers, “Never! Almost every man I’ve ever known who retired showed up at Hanner’s Funeral Home shortly thereafter. I’m not anywhere near ready for Hanner’s.” Clements remains as sharp as a tack and has vivid memories spanning eight decades. He is a staple in the community he helped build and his work ethic continues to be unmatched.

Someone once said, “Striving for success without hard work is like trying to harvest where you haven’t planted.” In the life of Jay Sterling Clements, hard work has definitely produced a bountiful harvest in both business and family. Mr. Clements’ is a life that has earned reward; may we suggest a well-deserved ice cream cone? … strawberries optional.


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