It is with tremendous sadness we share news that the NIRSA family lost one of its giants on Friday, June 9, with the passing of Jesse A. “Tony” Clements. Tony was 68 years old and had bravely been battling brain cancer. For 45 years, Tony was an active member of the Association and a visionary leader in the field of collegiate recreation.
Through his volunteer service, he inspired countless campus recreation professionals and students from across North America, especially in NIRSA’s Region III—home of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Tony dedicated 37 professional years (and one year as a student employee) to a career in campus recreation at his alma mater, where he was renowned for humor, positivity, and his service to the campus and to the broader Urbana-Champaign community.
A NIRSA original
Tony’s imprint on NIRSA can been seen across many facets of the Association and his legacy will no doubt be enduring. He contributed to the Association’s governance structure, elections processes, strategic plans, and financial vision; he was also a pioneer in developing relevant educational content for emerging professionals. Alongside his close friend Jeff Vessely, Tony was among the handful of leaders who were instrumental to the development and implementation of the NIRSA School of Collegiate Recreation, and—in addition to many keynote speeches and emcee appearances—he delivered more than 50 presentations at NIRSA conferences. As recently as Just a few short years ago, Tony delighted NIRSA Annual Conference attendees new and old with his wit, his perspective, and not just his ability to communicate a good story, but also how those stories carried a bigger meaning and fostered a brighter outlook.
“Tony was a creative and ambitious thinker, but he was also very thoughtful about the process and timing needed to make his ideas a reality,” recalls NIRSA Past President Maureen “Moe” McGonagle, Director of Campus Recreation for Centers at DePaul University. Moe was an undergraduate and graduate student under Tony’s mentorship at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in the 1980’s and nearly two decades later worked with Tony as a colleague on NIRSA’s governance commission. “His messages were often delivered humorously,” she says, “but the contents of his contributions were incredibly insightful and innovative.”
Although he was born in the segregated southern city of Raleigh, North Carolina, Tony expressed during a 2009 interview with the Gazette News about his retirement that he was probably destined for Urbana-Champaign and the UI from a very early age since both of his parents had earned Master’s degrees from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He ended up following in the footsteps of his father—a celebrated high school basketball player from Champaign—to play for the freshman UI men’s basketball team.
Humble about his own athletic accomplishments, Tony frequently downplayed just how gifted of an athlete he truly was. But his athletic acumen allowed him to transition from playing freshmen basketball to playing football for the Fighting Illini in his final three years as an undergraduate student.
He received his bachelor’s degree (1971) and master’s degree (1972) in recreation and park administration, where he was the first African American graduate student in the program. And Tony’s legacy as a trailblazer didn’t stop there. In 1996, upon conferring NIRSA’s highest distinction—the NIRSA Honor Award—on Tony, founding NIRSA member Horace Moody Sr. remarked that Tony’s “academic attainment laid the foundation for a list of distinguished professional experiences at the University of Illinois.”
Upon graduation, Tony joined the staff of the Division of Campus Recreation at the University of Illinois, where he became the first assistant director, first associate director, and first director in the University of Illinois Campus Recreation Division; at only 30 years old, he was promoted to role of Director of the Division in 1979, a position he held until retiring in January of 2009.
During his tenure as director, he helped develop what was, and continues to be today, widely regarded as one of the most innovative and successful campus recreation programs in the United States. Another student who was inspired in the 1980s by Tony’s leadership at the University of Illinois is Dr. Sarah Hardin, Associate Director of Campus Recreation for Centers at DePaul University. “As I became a more seasoned professional, I was impressed by Tony’s ability to reinvent himself and UI Campus Recreation,” she says.
Tony was always pushing the envelope and modeling NIRSA’s value of leadership. “Into the 2000s, when other directors might have coasted,” Sarah adds, “it seemed that he hit a renaissance period. And he pulled a lot of other directors along with him!”
This platform is insufficient to detail all of Tony’s local accolades and achievements—but here is a shortlist of some of his most celebrated contributions to the Urbana-Champaign community:
- Tony was the official scorer for men’s Illinois basketball for 35 years, and recently was inducted into the Illinois Basketball Coaches’ Association’s Hall of Fame as a Friend of Basketball
- He was an outstanding stand-up comedian (watch him in 2008 at his annual comedy show and fundraiser the Clements’ Comedy Café) and an accomplished performer—he had appeared as a contestant on Showtime’s “Funniest Man in America;” Tony has also performed with comedian Sinbad; emceed shows with Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin; been the opening act for Jerry Butler and Ray Charles; and in 1998 Tony was the warm-up act when President Clinton and Vice President Gore visited the University of Illinois
- Tony was heavily involved with the United Way: in addition to spearheading the popular annual Stuff the Bus community food drive, Tony also served as past Board Chair and at one time served as interim President & CEO of United Way of Champaign County—thoughtful reflections from United Way President & CEO Sue Grey can be found on the United Way of Champaign County website
- One of Tony’s interests that had a huge impact on the community were his contributions as a local radio personality: a number of broadcasters, pundits, and sports personalities who knew Tony from the local AM radio station NewsTalk 1400 WDWS have recorded memorial podcasts about Tony which are available for free download
- As an administrator, Tony oversaw the renovation of Campus Recreation Center-East (CRCE) and the renovation of the IntraMural Physical Education Building (IMPE) that created the Activities and Recreation Center (ARC), where the 150-seat auditorium is named after him
- Tony was named the 2003 recipient of the Monsignor Edward J. Duncan Service Award, presented annually to a University of Illinois “football letterman” who has displayed exemplary dedication to his community, state, and country
“Tony was one in a million. He was funny, very social, and a friend to so many both in campus and the community,” recalls colleague Robyn Deterding, Director of Campus Recreation at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His leadership style facilitated growth in students and emerging professionals: “He allowed me and many others to take an idea and run with it, sharing advice and letting us take risks,” says Robyn. “If you failed, you learned and moved on. He was an unbelievable storyteller and shared his comedy through everyday activities.”
In the words of local newspaper reporter Christine Des Garennes who attempted to summarize Tony’s illustrious career: “Comedian? Check. Public speaking? Check. Radio personality? Check. Sports prognosticator? Check. Basketball scorer? Check. Campus administrator? Check.”
A giant in the field of collegiate recreation
The Association can never adequately pay tribute to a man who contributed such considerable talents so selflessly and so frequently. Emails from dozens of his colleagues—many of whom are also Past Presidents of NIRSA—poured into NIRSA Headquarters, each detailing memories of Tony. And NIRSA Past President Stan Shingles, Associate Vice President at Central Michigan University, noticed one word in particular cropping up again and again: “After reading the many notes of reflection about Tony, the word giant seems to be a word most of us have used. But we are not only talking about a ‘giant’ of a man, but an even bigger ‘giant’ in the profession!”
During the four-and-a-half decades that spanned his active membership in NIRSA, Tony made thousands of connections, forged hundreds of incredibly meaningful friendships, served in scores of designated leadership positions and countless unofficial ones, hosted NIRSA Championship Series tournaments, and was decorated with dozens of NIRSA awards and accolades.
Jan Gong—retired Senior Associate Vice Chancellor from the University of California, Davis, and a NIRSA Past President and Honor Award recipient and who served with Tony on numerous NIRSA Boards and committees—explains, “Tony was always a person of enormous substance and thoughtfulness. Whether his leadership lessons were artfully cloaked in a humorous anecdote or a personal reflection, they were always profound, always on-point, and always supported by an unyielding ‘do-the right-thing’ set of values.”
Tony served as President of NIRSA in 1989—the first African American to serve in that role since founding member Ross E. Townes completed his term as President in 1956—and in 1996 he was distinguished above his peers when he was conferred with the Association’s highest accolade, the NIRSA Honor Award.
His service on committees, work teams, task forces, and commissions reached almost every corner of the Association: he served on or chaired committees related to the Annual Conference Program, NIRSA’s elections process review, finance, nominations and appointments, NIRSA’s history, governance transition, the Honor Award selection, among many others. He served multiple terms on the NIRSA Board of Directors, and a three-year term on the NSC Board of Directors. Tony was a Faculty member of the inaugural NIRSA School and frequently presented at NIRSA’s Annual Conference and regional conferences, where his sessions and keynote remarks regularly attracted standing-room-only-sized crowds.
“In my 76 years, I have never had another friend who combined the wit, the pure class, the ability to find good in everything, the sense of justice and fairness in making all professional decisions, and the ability to make each person seem special,” says Director Emeritus of Central Michigan University Recreation and NIRSA Past President and Honor Award recipient Tom Jones. “I stood in awe of him for many years—in my mind, he was a giant!”
A legacy of family and community
Tony is survived by his companion, Debbie Shilts; his sister Deborah Blanks, nephew Geraud Blanks and great-niece Karma Blanks; stepmother, Lois Clements; aunt, Cornelia Jane Jackson Liggins; and uncle, Robert Jackson.
He was devoted to his relationships with family, friends, and community; he was heavily involved in a variety of philanthropic efforts. Since 2001, Tony had emceed, hosted, or been part of planning for fundraising events grossing over five million dollars on behalf of local, state, and national charities.
You can honor Tony’s legacy by making a charitable gift in his memory. Memorials may be made to the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club, Carle Center for Philanthropy for Neuroscience Research, the University of Illinois Foundation for the Clements Fund at the Division of Campus Recreation, or the NIRSA Foundation’s Tony Clements Heritage Scholarship.
“We all know Tony’s legacy will be with us forever,” says NIRSA Past President Sid Gonsoulin, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Southern Mississippi. He had “a gift for making us smile, for going the extra mile, for caring how others feel, for being big and warm and real, for knowing just what to say, not only funny stuff, for lighting up the room or the stage, for cheering dreams from the start and helping us catch them as well, for living with so much heart!”
A visitation will be held on Thursday, June 15 from 4:00pm-8:00pm local time at the Owens Funeral Home in Champaign. The funeral service will begin at 11:00am on Friday, June 16 at the Stone Creek Church in Urbana. The burial will take place at Roselawn Cemetery in Champaign, following the funeral service.
A reception for friends and family is being planned for after the burial, with the location still to be determined. Online condolences may be shared with the family at www.owensfuneralhomes.com. Illinois Campus Recreation has also shared a photo album with pictures of Tony on their Facebook page—colleagues have also been sharing stories there.