Tribute to Lee Clements | Not in Our Town

Tribute to Lee Clements

A drama teacher who overcame hate and spread love. 

By Barbara Williams and Lila Galindo

Lee Clements in 2006, overlooking one of his favorite spots. (Photo credit: Barbara Williams)

Perhaps one of the most heroic actions any of us can perform is to transform adversity into opportunity, especially when that act of alchemy ripples far beyond our own personal story. The Not In Our Town movement is built on thousands of such acts. We’d like to share just one of those here about two friends who found ways to overcome hate by spreading love.

Lee Clements, who was born in Texarkana, Arkansas on February 8, 1938, and died December 28, 2017 in San Jose, California, leaves a legacy that reaches far beyond his own life.

In 1962, a young man moved to San Jose to teach drama at Del Mar High School. This young man, a gay man, moved to California from Oklahoma, where he’d put himself through school to become a drama teacher. There he met Barbara Williams, a young mother and wife of a Del Mar High School English teacher. Barbara’s husband invited the young bachelor to dinner. That night began a deep friendship that lasted 55 years.

One night in the Summer of 1985 while visiting friends in San Diego, Lee was brutally gay bashed while walking on the cliffs above the beach. He was beaten with what police suspected were tire irons, thrown off the cliffs onto the rocks below, and left to die. By a huge stroke of luck, he was found alive the next morning by some joggers. With almost every bone in his body broken and his skull bashed in, he sustained severe brain damage and was never able to return to his full time teaching position at Menlo-Atherton High School. However, after working diligently with therapists, Lee learned to live with his injuries, volunteering with schools, community theatres, helping foreign speakers learn pronunciation of English, and also helping his long-time friend, Barbara with her theater productions at Newark Memorial High School in Newark, California.

Lee never felt the need to be a victim, and he always referred to the bashing simply as “The day they broke my head.” 

Some years later, in 2002, when Barbara saw the play The Laramie Project at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, she wanted to produce the play in Lee’s honor with her high school drama students at Newark Memorial High School in Newark, California. She immediately wrote Moises Kaufman and the authors asking for permission to produce the play, and they said yes.

Little did they know how relevant the story of Laramie would prove to be for their own town. 

Rehearsals began, and soon a hate group called the Westborough Baptist Church headed by Fred Phelps sent a fax to the school and the local newspaper stating that they planned to picket the performances.

A scene from the 2002 Newark Memorial High School production of The Laramie Project.

They had picketed Matthew Shepard’s funeral, but Matthew’s friends created the now famous “Angel Action.”  Volunteers dressed as angels with oversized wings stood in front of the hate-filled signs, blocking them from the vision of Matthew’s parents and loved ones.

Then suddenly, the students and community were faced with a violent act of hate that mirrored the tragedy being presented on stage.

Trans teen, Gwen Araujo, a 17 year old Newark student was brutally murdered by a local group of young men. The killing sent shockwaves across the entire country and drew attention to the pervasive violence against transgender people. Laramie Project playwright Moises Kaufman called Barbara, saying he and others were going to fly from New York City to support the high school production and lend their support because of the confluence with Gwen’s tragic death.

Barbara immediately called Lee to ask for his help. He rode the bus across the Dumbarton Bridge from Palo Alto to Newark almost every day to serve as consulting director on the play. Not In Our Town contacted Barbara as soon as they heard about Gwen’s murder, and the group attended and filmed rehearsals and performances.

Moises Kaufman and other authors of The Laramie Project did attend the opening night performance, and the Fred Phelps hate group did come and picket. But parents from the community dressed as angels and Newark had its own “Angel Action.” 

Moises was deeply moved by the high school actors and staging, and at a talk back after the show, he shared how important it was “to listen to teens tell us about hate…to talk to us about how we rise from the destruction of this.”

After the show was over, local residents formed Not In Newark, and Lee Clements joined with Barbara and many other community members to give trainings over the next few months to all the City’s workers, police, fire, and civic employees, and to appeal to the City Council and Mayor to make Newark a safe city for all its citizens. Each time he spoke, people listened, for he was a living example of the impact of a hate crime – and anti-hate crime legislation is needed. The story of Newark’s efforts to protect all its residents, and the role of the young people in The Laramie Project in that transformation, is told in the Not In Our Town - KQED documentary, “When Hate Happens Here.” You can view this story here.

A picture of Lee from the 1980. Photo credit: Richard Barry

Lee’s legacy moves forward in the thousands of students he influenced while he was a teacher, the parents who appreciated his teaching their children, and the hundreds of others he cared for after his terrible injuries. He never felt the need to be a victim, and he always referred to the bashing simply as “The day they broke my head.”

For the rest of his life, he volunteered with various organizations, continued to help Barbara, even after she retired from teaching and began directing with Community Theatres.

Lee continued helping others until he suffered a massive heart attack, and needed around the clock nursing care for the last several years of his life. Barbara, and his loving students and friends never forgot him, though, and visited him often at Empress Care Home in San Jose, taking him out to movies and lunches for as long as he was able. Last year, they threw him a big, surprise birthday party, and he was in seventh heaven. But this year his former students, his half-brother, Dale, and Barbara will come together on February 8 - what would have been Lee’s 80th birthday - to memorialize his life and celebrate his legacy.

They are asking that donations be made in Lee’s honor to NIOT in lieu of flowers. Lee would be very pleased.

To make a donation in Lee's honor, please click here. 

Please include a note celebrating Lee.


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