Clay Eugene Tucker
October 14, 1950 – March 23, 2013
“A man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his heart is a craftsman; but a man who works with his hands and his brains and his heart is an artist.” -Louis Nizer
“A great soul serves everyone all the time. A great soul never dies. It brings us together again and again.” – Maya Angelou
Clay Tucker was a carpenter and a craftsman. He built things; with his hands and his heart he moulded and shaped materials to serve a purpose. Whether he was installing a screen door for a single mother, resurrecting a barn that had narrowly escaped the destruction of a natural disaster, strengthening the bell tower of a local church or performing handyman duties for a widow who had lost her husband far too young; he took pride and great care in serving others. He went about his life and his work quietly and without fanfare. He overworked and undervalued his services. He did not value a quick buck or the newest material possessions. His values were rooted in hard work, perseverance, honesty, integrity and character. He was intelligent, stubborn, generous and funny. He could debate anyone on any topic at any time. He enjoyed a challenge; whether it was a complex angle on a gabled roof, an uneven floor or a poorly supported structure; he worked to solve problems diligently. He would scratch some lines on a piece of paper do a few quick calculations and get to work. My father was a carpenter’s carpenter, often lending advice and sharing his vast knowledge with others.
Clay Tucker valued function over form but had an eye for beauty. As I sat at his kitchen table yesterday morning I was admiring the trim around the bay windows in the front of his house. I had helped him many years ago, cut, plane, route, sand, stain and varnish the trim in his house. Every piece of oak that is so prominently displayed around his home was produced from raw wood by his and my hands. I remember the care with which he fashioned each piece of chair rail, window trim and mantel piece. I stared at this stunning display of craftsmanship and noticed how two adjoining pieces of trim had been cut from the same piece of oak. They are fixed to the wall at an angle to each other but the wood grain is perfectly aligned. From one piece to the next the lines of grain continued as if they had never been cut apart at all. I marvelled at the attention to detail and the vision he had to maintain such perfect symmetry. Also as I admired this incredible feature I noticed a shiny dot under the window sill. Upon further inspection I found that the nail holes had yet to be filled. This was my father; taking the time to install two pieces of trim so perfectly and yet more than a decade later the nail holes were waiting to be filled. You see, the trim could never be cut again, he had one chance to make it right, and it is absolutely perfect. However, the nail holes could wait; there is always time for filling nail holes. He would meticulously fit crown moulding around cabinets – perfectly matching the uneven contour of the ceiling and shaping the corners just right – in a customer’s kitchen, but there was always tomorrow for cleaning out the truck. He taught me to focus on what is important and do it well.
He lived this philosophy in all facets of his life. Eight years ago I met a girl from Kentucky. She was smart and beautiful and almost as stubborn as my dad. When she was graduating from college she found a job in Lincoln and wanted to move to Nebraska. I was in school and both of us had been divorced and money was certainly tight. My father offered to drive 900 miles each way pulling a trailer to tirelessly help load her up and bring her to Staplehurst. He worked for a week to remodel his rental home and generously offered it to her. She had a spark that reflected in me that my father recognized. He knew she was important and he knew that our relationship needed a good carpenter so he built it. He had one chance to make it right and he was perfect. A few years later we were back in Kentucky, married and he had helped us welcome a new child. He would make the trip to Kentucky at least once a year; many times sacrificing his normal vacation plans to spend a week with us. Again, I had a construction project that needed some help. Our one bathtub home was not suited to our seven person family and we desperately needed a shower in the master bath. Sarah and I had just started our careers and had the money to buy the material but couldn’t afford the labor. With five kids and full time jobs it was hard to find the time to do the work ourselves. So my dad built it. He again made the long journey and worked with me for a few days from sun up to sun down to get the job done. It was important and it was right. When he was done he spent a few days playing with grandkids; finding turtles, going to baseball games and blowing bubbles. Finally at the end of the week he packed up and returned to Nebraska, leaving nail holes for me to fill.
In this same way my father built friendships. He always told me he was lucky to work for his friends. Many of his customers didn’t start that way. He would be referred by another satisfied client and they would call him with a job to be done. They trusted him to do the work on a home that they worked so hard to own. It was their prized possession; a shelter for their families and a respite from the toils of everyday life. They would call my father to replace the roofs that kept them dry or install windows to keep out the cold. He would remodel the kitchen where they fed their children or add the extra square footage their growing family needed. His work would become their canvas for birthday parties, graduations and anniversaries. People would dance on the floor he installed, cry in the den he refinished and call their children in for supper from the deck he had constructed. I’ve even known of some wedding photos taken with his siding work as a backdrop. My father knew it was important, so he built it and it was right. So many of these first time customers would call him back to do the next job and the next. Each time, adding more space for them to fill with memories. No, many of his customers did not start out as friends but they always were by the time he was done. He enjoyed working for his friends, so when he started a job he also began working on a friendship and in the end; he built it.
He shared his love of travel and his love of the outdoors with us. We took trips every summer; money was tight but we always found time to spend a week at the Black Hills, fishing at Calamus or canoeing on the Niobrara. We would take weekend trips to Desoto Bend, Branched Oak or Johnson Lake. Camping and enjoying the outdoors and building memories that last a lifetime. There was even a summer where he wanted to tour Nebraska. We started out in Seward and travelled west; visiting Pioneer Village, Scottsbluff, Chimney Rock, Fort Robinson, Ash Falls and even Carhenge. This trip was conducted in a car that would overheat if driven too long. We toured the state with gallon jugs of water and stopped in every town we passed to explore while the engine cooled. It was important to him to instil a lifelong appreciation of our home state and he did. He wanted us to have a firm grasp on where we came from; the native fish, the common agricultural crops and the beauty of the land. Later after his children had grown he continued to travel. Taking mid-winter trips to Mexico and to Texas; even travelling to Tennessee to mix business with pleasure. He and Julie travelled alone; driving across Mexico to reach Puerto Vallerta. He was cautious but not fearful. He always said going to Puerto Vallerta by plane and saying you had seen Mexico was like flying to Los Angeles and saying you had seen the United States. He wanted the authentic version, it was important, so he did it right.
In the last few days I have heard the stories of my father’s generosity and I have told my own. I have overheard as people discussed his strengths and celebrated his life. It has been difficult to come to terms with the fact that he is truly gone. I witnessed first-hand his short and difficult battle with cancer. I attended the doctors’ appointments and knew what to expect and was grateful when he was finally able to rest peacefully. However, I have not been able to shake the overwhelming feeling that he is still present. I have struggled with why I would feel this way. I have come to realize that he is still with us in the things that he built. I look around this room and I see the kitchens that he remodelled, the rooms that he constructed, the cabinets that he crafted and the countertops he installed. Even more, I see the friends that he made, the lives that he touched, the acts of service he performed, the people he leaned on and those that leaned on him. I look at Julie, my brother and sisters, his friends and my family and admire his craftsmanship. My father built these things, because it was important and it was right and he did it perfectly.