When Beryl Clemens speaks, politicians listen

  • Medill News Service
  • May 30, 2007 @ 6:15 AM
At 75, Beryl Clemens looks the part of a tiny, soft-cheeked grandmother, with cropped white hair and enormous plastic eyeglasses.

But when she speaks, her strong voice commands attention and her big, green-flecked brown eyes lock on yours in a way that says: I am not a little old lady.

And when Beryl Clemens speaks, politicians listen.

For 18 years, Clemens has been active in politics, including campaigning for 43rd Ward aldermanic candidates such as Vi Daley, appearing in campaign commercials for Gov. Rod Blagojevich and lobbying in Springfield for affordable prescriptions for seniors.

As president of Metro Seniors in Action, a 15,000-member organization that advocates on behalf of Chicago-area seniors, Clemens rallys senior citizens to demand more money for public transit and paratransit services in Chicago.  

Inside her one-bedroom apartment at the Chicago Housing Authority's Maria Diaz Martinez Apartments in Lincoln Park, the signs of her political involvement are everywhere.

On her bedroom wall is a photo of her with Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a framed invitation to the inauguration of former President Bill Clinton and a snapshot of her with Mayor Daley, taken at her induction into the Chicago Senior Citizens Hall of Fame. 

In the living room, a hutch she uses for books contains an old set of World Book Encyclopedias, a copy of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and a framed letter from U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, dated Jan. 21, 2003, thanking her for her efforts on behalf of his campaign. Handwritten near the body of the letter, he wrote, "I love you!"

On a recent afternoon, she served mandarin orange herbal tea in scalloped green and white cups and mini blueberry muffins on square pink paper napkins.

"I use sugar," she said, ripping open a paper sugar packet. "I am not sweet enough."

It's this slightly tart streak that makes her good at what she does.

She once physically cornered Barack Obama when he was a state senator to get him to work harder for a bill that would have expanded state aid to seniors.

"I had him up against a wall," she said, recalling the moment with a demonstration.

"'He said, 'I have to go, I have a meeting.there's no money'"

"I said, 'Well, what are you going to do to us?'"

Obama got her some more money.

Fellow Metro Seniors' board member Dr. Alfred Klinger says Clemens plays against type.

"Whatever frailty her age has imposed on her, she takes advantage of it," he said. "She confronts many of these people who need confronting and they're like, 'My gosh, am I really hearing this from this little, white-haired, weak, somewhat bent woman? Maybe I should open my ears up a little.'"

Remembering her adventures in politics, Clemens has a way of laughing as she talks, interrupting her own stories or finding humor at herself as she does when she recalls that she once voted for Richard Nixon because she was afraid of the Kennedys.

When asked what she thought her best trait was, she replied, "My hair."

When explained that the question was intended to understand her best personality trait, she chuckled into her teacup. 

"It is," she said, still laughing.

She was serious. In a photograph taken of her not long after she graduated from Northwestern University, she is the portrait of the 1950s beauty: Thick blonde hair pinned high above her long neck, arched eyebrows and a green silk dress with a deep V-neck, showing off her slender waist and deep suntan.

Like rays of sunshine slipping through the clouds, you catch glimpses of her youthful vitality the more time you spend with her. You can spot it in her pale pink fingernail polish, in the tiny silver watch ring she wears on her index finger and in the bright pink flip-flops that she wears around the house.

Her surprising gusto is also there in the way she trades slightly risque jokes with her friend Joe Gilmore, who lives downstairs. For his birthday, she gave him a card with a man peeping over a hedge that read, "If the neighbors aren't talking, you aren't trying hard enough."

Another expression of her sensuality is in the watercolors she painted that cover the walls of her apartment.

They depict flowers and fruits, landscapes of Ireland and Italy, and a purple butterfly alighted on a leaf. Some of the paintings are signed "Ishtar," after the ancient Babylonian goddess of fertility and love - the moniker she used before she improved enough to proudly sign her own name.  Her favorite painting is the one that hangs above the refrigerator, filled with bursts of red and pink.

"Everyone says they like the flowers," she said. "But they're not flowers. They're phallic symbols."

Beryl Clemens wasn't always so sure of herself. During her early life, she enjoyed vacations to Florida, bridge games with friends and shopping in the city.

"I was a different person then," she said. "I didn't even know how to get gas."

Her evolution began 18 years ago, when her husband was dying of cancer. His illness had drained the couple's savings and she needed to find an apartment with an elevator and safety bars in the tub to bring him home from the hospital. 

With the help of the help of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and Ald. Edwin Eisendrath (43rd), she found the place at the Martinez Apartments, but her husband never made it home.

Three days after she moved in, he died.

While she grieved for her husband and tried to figure out what to do next, she volunteered for Eisendrath as a way to repay his kindness. Her involvement grew from there.

She became the president of her building, started tutoring at a neighborhood school and became the head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Ladies Auxiliary.

She first got involved with Metro Seniors on a trip to Springfield 10 years ago to lobby for the renewal of bus passes for seniors. She was impressed, she says, by the impact the group's effort had on legislators and decided to join. In 2006, she became president of the board.

Even before she started working with the group, however, paratransit was an area of concern.  After moving to her building, she helped a neighbor get around by paratransit. One day, she says, a blind girl in her early 20s was taking the van to an exam to be certified to work as a computer operator. Although the girl repeatedly reminded the driver about the time of her test, he continued to pick up new riders instead of dropping her off.

"He didn't even try to get her there on time," Clemens said. "I was horrified."

Clemens says she went home and wrote to anyone she could think of to complain about the quality of paratransit.

Nearly two decades later, she says, the quality has not improved that much. After a heart attack in 2004, she says that she experienced the unreliability of the vanpool service first-hand. Riders must call to make a reservation 24 hours in advance but demand is so high, she says, that the schedule often fills up by as early as 6:15 am.

"It's a terrible service," she said.

Now, as the Regional Transportation Authority is asking for an additional $50 million a year to help pay for paratransit, Clemens has increased her efforts, including delivering signed petitions to the governor's office and joining transit advocates from around the region to lobby Springfield for more money.

"Seniors can't just sit at home," she said. "They need to see their children, their grandchildren. They have all sorts of things they need to do just like anybody else."

Working for change, Clemens says, is not something she does for power, but to repay a debt she feels for the blessings she has enjoyed.

"I was very fortunate in my life -- in every respect -- and there are people who suffer. The world needs people to care.

"There's too many people who say that someone else could do it. Sooner or later you have to do it."

She works most days, but during her free time, she hangs out with her friend Joe or relaxes with a copy of Vanity Fair. Sunday mornings are reserved for George Stephanopoulos.

Sitting with her legs crossed and her arm slug over the back of her chair, she trades gossip and teases her friend Joe.  He said says Clemens' generosity runs deep, but he knows enough not to cross her: "You should see her brass knuckles."

Still, her energy sometimes needs tempering.

"When she runs a meeting, she sometimes she gets so enthusiastic that she forgets that she is president and needs to sit back and let the other members speak," Dr. Klinger said. "I let her know that. and she'll shut up -- very reluctantly, but she will."

"She's a good example for older people who think that just because they're old and a little bit weak they can't do anything anymore," he added.

Clemens agreed that her age has little impact on how she lives her life.

"I'll never get old," she said. "I'll get older but I'll never get old. I don't believe in it."