by Nancy Cawley Zugschwert
At the ripe young age of 87, Bob Clemens still works 20 hours a week and thinks that life just keeps getting better. “This is the best time of my life,” he declared. He has built his life on principles that have guided him well in business and in ministry. And in his success he loves to bless others.
Clemens and his wife Mary Nell are connected to Northwestern because they love the Lord Jesus Christ and support the mission of the college. “My wife and I just think it’s a fabulous place,” Clemens said. “We like to give to Northwestern. We see those young people come out of Northwestern—boy, what a basis they have in God’s Word!”
Since 1930, Clemens has been a member of the same church in White Bear Lake, Minn., but didn’t become a believer until he was 51. “I knew a lot about Jesus,” he said, “but I didn’t know Him personally until 1975, when Mary Nell and I got married.” As a self-confessed workaholic who had experienced divorce, he knew his second marriage needed to be built on something solid and accepted Christ two weeks before their wedding.
Generosity born in lean times
For Clemens, giving is as natural as his ready smile and warm laugh. But the roots of his generous heart go back to his childhood.
“The Great Depression actually trained us,” he reflected. “Our parents don’t get enough credit because they were the ones who really suffered. As a kid, I don’t think I knew how much they worried whether we had enough to eat.
“When I was a youngster the only thing I’d have for lunch was a sandwich. My mother would fry a potato patty and put it on homemade bread with lard and salt on it and she would cut it in half. She would tell me, ‘The reason I cut it in half is if some other youngster [at school] doesn’t have a sandwich, you give them the other half.’”
Clemens deeply respects his mother, who passed away in 1974. “When you talk about generosity, she was the best. During the Depression, the last dime or quarter we had, she would put in the collection plate and say, ‘God will take care of us.’ She was an amazing woman, how she taught those lessons!”
Flying high during WWII
Just as World War II was pivotal in lifting the U.S. out of the Depression, it also lifted a naïve 18-year-old Clemens out of his world and transported him across the ocean. He graduated from high school in May 1942, entered the Army Air Force in November and earned his wings and commission as second lieutenant at 19. He flew in a B-17 Flying Fortress out of Italy and had flown 50 bombing missions over Europe by the time he was 20.
Career turning points
Clemens returned from the war and decided to work in the heating, sheet metal and air conditioning business with his dad, until his father died suddenly in 1949 at age 58. Clemens continued the business on his own for a few years but sold it in 1954. Three years later he began his 54-year career in insurance and financial services.
Much of the financial wisdom Clemens has shared with his clients over the years came from his father, who had only a third grade education. “When I was in business with my dad I would ask, ‘How do we know if we’re doing well financially?’” Clemens said.
His dad’s reply? “Son, it’s very simple: you’ve got to take in more than you pay out.”
Throughout his career, and especially in today’s volatile economy, Clemens has used this wisdom as his guide. “That’s what I try to get people to do as they look at their finances,” he explained. “The best tax shelter is to give some of your money away—it all belongs to God, anyway.”
Seeking joy, not happiness
Living a life of generosity and being optimistic seems to come naturally to Clemens, and he’s quick to share the reason: “Mary Nell and I don’t concentrate on being happy, we concentrate on having joy. Joy is Jesus first, others second and then we’re third.”