A Tribute To Professor Clonts


Some of the great names of Wake Forest College respond quickly to a word or a phrase: repeat the word or the phrase, and the image of the man is immediately conjured up, towering in the memory just as he once towered at the lectern. Say of Poteat the Younger that he had a "dramatic passion" and he leaps into the mind once more, in one of his magnificent rages, badgering the "biddy brains" and filling the well-remembered classrooms with such roars that the chalk vibrates. Speak of Pearson's cigarette, and the old-time student sits before him again, straining to catch every word of the thin, dry voice, the while mesmerized by that growing, clinging ash. If the trigger-word is saintliness or serene wisdom, the picture of Reid is immediately evoked, and once again the alumnus sits in awe, the hush of the Philosophy seminar broken only by that voice of infinite patience.

The personalities of others, while no less captivating, are more elusive. They cannot be pinned down in a word or a phrase because the impact is of a different kind. That is why to tell about Clonts I have to go back a lot of years to the war that took many of us away from the Old Campus in the first half of the Forties. If I said that we left college to go about the nation's business gladly I would misrepresent the facts, and Professor Clonts would not like that. He never believed in sugar-coating history. He could have taught the Confederacy without claiming "we was robbed."

Anyway, the year I have in mind was about 1944 and I was on a slow freighter dodging presents from German bombers on the Mediterranean in order to deliver some badly needed military supplies canned beer, I think it was to the Tunis PX on the North African coast. The thing to do in Tunis, besides get bombed, was to take an excursion to Carthage, a few kilometers to the east, and one day some of us went on a native bus that had miraculously escaped rust and the Germans and went out there. Well, Carthage was nothing, not even a decent ruin. Dry African dust was thick underfoot. Except for the urchins who traded Carthaginian coins for cigarettes, the place was dead, deserted, desolate, wasted, without legitimate claim to a gun-shy tourist's time.

It was not until several years and many thousand miles later that Carthage came alive for me, and it was reborn not on the parched African coast but in one of Professor Clonts's Ancient History classes. There, in the otherwise drowsy spring afternoons on the Old Campus, Carthage went through the agony of birth, expansion as a mercantile center and growth to maritime power: it fought in the Punic wars; it paraded with Hannibal and knew the living, breathing Caesars; it fell to Scipio Aemilianus and reappeared to live for eight more centuries before it was reduced to ashes by the Moslems.

That has been the gift of Forrest Clonts, a gift that has enriched students at Wake Forest for almost half a century: he could breathe life and spirit into the dry bones of history; he taught with an enthusiasm that was contagious; he communicated his own excitement and pride and curiosity; he made the process of learning an exuberant pilgrimage into the past. That is how I remembered him in two decades away from Wake Forest. It is how I found him when I returned.

When I saw him again for the first time, here in this new setting, I wanted to tell him how he had once rebuilt a city for me. He saw through my fumbling overtures, just as he had long before seen through my fumbling answers on test papers.

He looked out across the new grass, the cigar short in the familiar holder, and I suppose he was talking to all his old students and not just to me. "I love to teach," he said simply. "I am glad students have enjoyed my classes, but the great joy has been mine." There he was, still teaching; I shall remember those lines long after Professor Clonts retires this spring.

I shall not be alone in remembering. To satisfy the curiosity of those of us here who are among Professor Clonts's admirers, Grady Patterson checked carefully through almost half a century of class rolls in the Registrar's office. He came up with a figure which is almost staggering: in Professor Clonts's four and one-half decades at Wake Forest, 14,145 students have been enrolled in his courses! That is a lot of lives to touch in a career, and each of those students will have his own special memory of the gentle scholar of history.

Forrest William Clonts was born in Lakeland, Florida, on June 6, 1897, the son of Samuel Lindsay Asbury Clonts and Harriett Powell Clonts. After graduation from Lakeland High School in 1915, he enrolled at the University of Florida in the fall of 1916. He was not completely satisfied with student life there, and because he had heard about Wake Forest College from Floridians familiar with North Carolina, he transferred to Old Wake in the fall of l 917.

By that time the United States was already in World War I, and in January, 1918, at the end of his first sophomore semester, Clonts joined the Navy and was assigned to sea duty aboard a submarine chaser operating out of the Seventh Naval Base Headquarters at Key West. At one point he was granted shore leave long enough to take an ensign's examination. Of the 100 who took the test only thirteen passed, and Professor Clonts was one of them. Before commissions could be awarded, however, the Armistice was signed and Clonts was granted a request for discharge in order to return to his studies. He reentered Wake Forest in January, 1919, and was graduated from the College with the B.A degree in June, 1920.

That fall he did graduate work in history at Ohio State University, where he received the Master of Arts degree in 1921. He immediately accepted a Currier Fellowship for study at Yale University, and after a year there he joined the Wake Forest faculty as instructor of history in the Department of Social Sciences. Thus began a 45-year career only once interrupted: in 1924-1925 he spent another year at Yale under a University Fellowship.

Professor Clonts's first teaching assignment at Wake Forest was the freshman history course entitled "Modern Europe." In 1923 he introduced two new courses, "England Through the 18th Century" and "Medieval and Early Modern Europe," which have remained in the college curriculum ever since. In 1926, after his return to Wake Forest as an assistant professor, he offered another new course, "Ancient History." Over the years "Ancient History" and "English History," as taught in the Clonts style, became so popular that additional sections had to be offered.

In 1945 Clonts was promoted to associate professor, and in 1966 he was appointed to a full professorship. During the years 1952-1954 Professor Clonts was acting chairman of the Department of Social Sciences. In the history of the College only two persons had preceded him in that position, Dr. E. W. Sikes from 1897 to 1916, and Dr. C. C. Pearson (recalled by irreverent but nonetheless doting students as "Skinny") from 1917 to 1952.

Over the years Professor Clonts has enriched his pedagogical arsenal through extensive travel. In the summer of 1924 he crossed the Atlantic on a cattle boat; in l 936 he toured Russia and Eastern Europe; in 1962 and 1966 he visited England, Scotland and Wales, taking numbers of color pictures for use in the classroom. In contrast with the first crossing, the 1966 trip to Europe was made aboard the luxury liner SS France, with return on a B.O.A.C. jetliner. The pace of scholarship had vastly quickened.

One of Professor Clonts's principal extra-curricular activities at Wake Forest has been membership on the College Committee on Athletics. A member from 1932 to 1959, he was from 1944 onward Faculty Chairman of Athletics. He represented Wake Forest at meetings of the Southern Conference and the National Collegiate Athletic Association and was one of seven faculty representatives who in 1954 founded the Atlantic Coast Conference.

In his early years an active student of American history, Professor Clonts was invited by the North Carolina Historical Commission to serve as one of the original members of the committees which approves and writes inscriptions for the familiar North Carolina highway historical markers. With scholars from other leading history departments in the state he has been engaged in this work for thirty-two years, and there is hardly a back road in North Carolina that has not been graced by the unseen hand of Forrest Clonts.

In many other capacities Professor Clonts has served Wake Forest. For years he has been a member of the Board of Directors of the James W. Denmark Student Loan Fund, believed to be the oldest of its kind in America. While president of the board from 1954 to 1962, Professor Clonts wrote a history of the Fund, which was established in 1875. He also has served on the faculty committees on Scholarships, Fraternities and Social Affairs. Except for two years, he has served continuously since 1952 on the Faculty Executive Committee, and he has been particularly active in the library work of the College. Thousands of volumes have been purchased on his order, and he has served on the highly selected Rare Book Committee since its establishment in 1949.

In special recognition of Dr. Pearson's service to Wake Forest, Professor Clonts established and solicited contributions to the C. C. Pearson Memorial Fund. These contributions were used primarily to purchase reference books for the History Department's seminar room, an elegant nook now known as the Pearson Room.

Professor Clonts's professional associations tell something about him. He is a member of the American and Southern Historical Associations, the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association and the American Association of University Professors. At old Wake Forest he was president of the town Civic Club and for long years a member of the Diaconate of the Wake Forest Baptist Church.

But first and last, his home has been the classroom. I can remember another time, when I returned to Wake Forest after several years of newspapering, bringing back with me everything fit to know. Clonts, in his highly civilized fashion, clad in the light browns he has always favored, was lecturing about the old Roman tribunes, the protectors of the rights of the people. He came to the point where he asked, "And what, in our modern society, is the equivalent of the Roman tribune?"

The class sat dumb. Clonts pierced me, the puffed-up young journalist, with kind question in his eyes, and I shook my head in embarrassment.

Then some clown in the back row piped up, sotto voce, "The Chicago Tribune." The class laughed, and I was ashamed for our common stupidity. But not Clonts. His face became animated and he broke into the uproar with that urbane voice, "That's right."

What he taught me then was not of Rome, not of history, but of myself that the process of learning never stops, that a man comes to the threshold of knowledge only when he realizes how little he has acquired. That, somehow, is the whole point of education, to set the feet of the student on the road to learning. No one understands that principle better than Forrest Clonts.


Bynum Shaw, a native of Burlington, took all of Professor Clonts's courses during his undergraduate days at Wake Forest. While away from Wake Forest he spent four years as overseas correspondent and chief of the German Bureau of the Baltimore Sun before returning to Baltimore as editorial writer for the Sun. Since 1965 he has been a member of the Wake Forest faculty as Lecturer in Journalism. Shaw is the author of The Sound of Small Hammers, a novel published in 1962, and his second novel. The Sixth Column, will be published next winter by Delacorte.

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