Clarence Jones: Mr. Radio

Chapter 1

Clarence Jones stared at the latest letter from the United States. The letter painted a dire financial picture. The economic depression was continuing to deepen, and many people who had promised Clarence and his family financial support were now struggling to put food on the table for their own families. In fact, during all of 1932 the Joneses had received only about five hundred dollars in support. It was not nearly enough to provide for the family and keep their ministry going.

Clarence and his wife, Katherine, had done their best to make the money go as far as possible. Clarence had taken two part-time jobs. The family had gone without some of the necessities they were used to and had planted a huge garden in their yard. From the garden Katherine canned numerous jars of produce. Sometimes that was all the family had to eat. But their best efforts were just not enough, and by mid-1933 Clarence received word that no more support would be coming from the United States for his family or the ministry.

This outcome stunned Clarence. He and his family had given up everything to serve on the mission field. Was it all for nothing? What more could he give? What had gone wrong? Had God really led him to the mission field, or had coming to it been a horrible mistake?

The turmoil Clarence felt about his family’s predicament was made all the worse when an electric bill for $6.15 arrived in the mail. Clarence had no money to pay the bill, and without electricity there could be no ministry.

Clarence could feel the knot of worry tightening in his stomach as he laid the bill on the table and stared at it. Would his whole ministry go under because he owed less than seven dollars? To Clarence this seemed likely to happen.

Not knowing what else to do, Clarence walked out to the toolshed at the back of the property. He sat down inside and poured out his heart in prayer. But even as he prayed, the doubts kept coming. Slowly, though, his mind drifted back to his earliest memories as a child. He recalled times when there was little to eat in the house and no money to buy anything. Somehow that had never seemed to dent his parents’ faith and trust in God. Now it was as if Clarence had come full circle. There was little food in the house for his family to eat and no money to buy more, let alone pay the electric bill. Clarence began to think about how his parents might have handled the situation. Those boyhood days in Chicago seemed such a long way away and a long time ago.

Chapter 2
A Member of the Band

Seven-year-old Clarence Jones peered down at the crib. Inside lay a tiny baby with a wrinkly face.

“What do you think of your little brother?” Emma Jones asked.

“Howard’s pretty small,” Clarence told his mother. He had waited a long time for a brother, but now he was not so sure that this tiny baby in the crib was the kind of brother he needed. Clarence was vaguely aware that there had been two other brothers before him, but they had both died as babies before he was born. It was something his mother did not like to talk about much, but Clarence had overheard her discussing the family tragedies with one of her friends.

From what Clarence had been able to piece together, both his parents had been Salvation Army officers in Duluth, Minnesota, at the time. Winters there were long and brutal, and the only way his parents could make money to buy food was to sell the Salvation Army’s magazine, The War Cry, for donations. Day after day, Clarence’s mother would bundle up first one baby and then the other and leave them to sleep in a washtub by the stove to keep warm while she went to sell The War Cry in local bars.

With no money for medicines and little for food, both babies had died from illness. As a result, Clarence was very grateful that his father had taken a job with a steady paycheck in Chicago before Clarence was born on December 15, 1900. However, he was not nearly as grateful for the type of job his father had taken. George Jones was a janitor in a three-story, redbrick apartment building on Chicago’s South Side. An apartment came with the job, but it was in the basement of the building and had tiny, rectangular windows too far up the wall for Clarence to see out. To make matters worse, the windows leaked when it rained, and during the harsh winters the snow piled up against them, blocking out the light for weeks at a time.

Clarence was old enough to realize that his father was not paid much money for his labor. His mother bought all of the family’s clothes from secondhand stores and meticulously patched and altered them until they were fit to wear. But there never seemed to be enough money to buy long pants for Clarence. Instead Clarence’s mother wrapped his legs in old newspapers and tied the papers in place with twine before sending her son off to school on winter mornings. Clarence, though, decided that he would rather freeze to death than look like a walking poster board for the Chicago Tribune. As a result, he always ripped the newspaper and twine off his legs as soon as he rounded the corner of the apartment building and was out of his mother’s sight.

Now, as he looked down at baby Howard, Clarence felt the very adult concern of how his parents were going to pay for a second child. But somehow, as the weeks and months rolled by, there always seemed to be just enough money for food and even an occasional ice cream.

Almost all of the Jones family activities revolved around the Salvation Army Corps, No. 1, on West Madison Street. Clarence knew that his parents had met when they were young Salvation Army cadets back in Duluth. Joining the Salvation Army had cost his father a lot, since his family had all but disowned him. Clarence had been introduced to Grandmother Jones twice in his life. She was aloof and proper and not a bit like his other grandmother, Bertha Detbrener. Grandma Bertha and Grandpa John gave Clarence something to look forward to every spring: as soon as school was out, Clarence’s mother took him and now his young brother Howard to visit them.

Grandma and Grandpa Detbrener lived beside Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. Getting to their house was a happy adventure from start to finish. From Chicago the family journeyed north by boat up Lake Michigan to Milwaukee, where they caught a train to Lake Winnebago. As the train rumbled along, Clarence would peer out the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of his grandfather, who was a flagman at a level crossing for the Sault Ste. Marie Railroad Line. His mother had told him that his grandfather had helped to build the railroad but in the process had lost a leg in a construction accident. As a result, the company had made him a flagman.

Summers in Wisconsin were a kaleidoscope of activities for Clarence. Grandpa John understood Clarence’s desire to make things, and together they made molds for a whole army of lead soldiers—cavalry and infantrymen, along with their tents and cannons. With the tiny lead figures, Grandpa John would act out war scenes while Clarence watched with rapt interest. Clarence knew that his grandfather, who had emigrated from Germany to Wisconsin, had been a soldier in the Prussian army.

When he was not making something, Clarence passed his time paddling on log rafts or fishing for bullhead in Lake Winnebago. Every lunchtime he had to remember to pick up a five-cent pail of beer from the local tavern and deliver it to his grandfather at work. The beer was thick German beer, and as Clarence carried it, he wondered how anyone could enjoy the taste of such a foul-smelling brew.

While summer was certainly the highlight of his year, Clarence did not mind some things about school. He was a natural athlete and played hockey and baseball with gusto. However, subjects like math and English bored him, and by the time he was fourteen, he’d had enough of school and constant study.

When he was twelve years old, Clarence found his passion—music and, in particular, the E-flat alto horn. Almost everyone in the Salvation Army played a musical instrument of some sort. Clarence’s mother played the guitar and tambourine, and his father played the cornet. It did not take Clarence, who had a natural ear for music, long to master the alto horn. Within a year Clarence could play every instrument except the tuba and could substitute for just about every member of the band.

Clarence had just one problem with being in a Salvation Army band. The Army was a religious group, and Clarence had little time for religion. It all seemed a little strange to him. He tried not to get too involved, but being a member of a Salvation Army band made this very difficult. Sometimes at open-air meetings the band would form a circle, and the director, normally Clarence’s father, would call for quick testimonies from band members. If no one responded, he would say, “Now then, we’ll start here and go right around the circle.” Clarence hated being cornered in this way, and when it came his turn to speak, he would always say something vague like, “Ditto to what the last person said,” or “That goes for me as well.”

Deep in his heart Clarence knew that he would have to resolve the issue of faith sometime, but for now he loved playing music, and he grew to hate school more with each passing day.

As his dislike of studying grew, Clarence began a campaign to get his parents to allow him to leave school. It took a year to finally convince them, and after completing two years of high school, he dropped out. He was fifteen years old and took a job at Montgomery Ward, wrapping and shipping tires. Demand for tires was high because the Great War in Europe was raging. Britain and France were fighting a determined German army, and for the first time in a war, both sides were using motorized vehicles.

This was the first time in his life that Clarence had money of his own to spend. His parents were doing better financially too. His father now worked for Western Electric, and the family had rented a second-floor duplex into which fresh air and sunlight streamed. Clarence thought the family’s new home was the height of luxury.

Clarence had his music and his job, and his parents had Howard’s education to concentrate on. Everything seemed to be going along well until Clarence became ill with tuberculosis. It was 1918, he was eighteen years old, and the war in Europe was still dragging on when he found himself laid up in bed for six months—six long, boring months during which he had plenty of time to think about where his life was headed.

One day as Clarence was recuperating, Richard Oliver Sr. visited him. Richard had played in the Salvation Army band with Clarence and his father but was now the music director at Moody Church. The two of them talked for a while about Clarence’s illness and how Clarence was feeling. Then Richard looked Clarence in the eye and asked, “I know you play the alto horn, but why don’t you come and play the trombone in the band at Moody Church?”

Clarence thought about it for a while and then replied, “I’ll do that, as soon as I’m better.”

After several weeks, Clarence was feeling well enough to get out of bed and resume his life. Early one Sunday morning he set out for Moody Church and took his place in the band.

Moody Church, located near Chicago’s Lincoln Park, was an impressive sight from the outside, but what impressed Clarence more was the size of the church inside. The auditorium seated many hundreds of people, and as Clarence looked out from his place among the band members on stage, the sea of faces packed into the building seemed to go on and on until they disappeared into the gloom at the far reaches of the sanctuary.

As he joined in, Clarence was also impressed by the band. Not only did they play well together, but also, unlike the Salvation Army band, they did not play just hymns. The band at Moody Church also played “Stars and Stripes Forever” and other rousing marches composed by John Philip Sousa.

It was not just the music that impressed Clarence. When Paul Rader, pastor of the church, stood to preach, Clarence was spellbound. Not only was Paul a dynamic speaker, but his words seemed to speak directly to Clarence’s heart. Week after week Clarence attended Moody Church to play in the band and listen to the preaching of Paul Rader.