(Trice Edney Wire) – It was the perfect plan. After living in his native Cincinnati, Ohio for all of their 22 years of marriage, Sylvia and Jim Clingman were preparing to move to another state and start a new life.
Mrs. Clingman, a neonatal intensive care nurse manager, had accepted a new job at the Greenville Memorial Hospital in Greenville, S.C., one of the nation’s best cities for retirees, according to AARP. In the comfort of their new home in a beautiful quiet subdivision, Jim would continue writing his national “Blackonomics” column for weekly Black newspapers and serve as a consultant to his clients while also enjoying bicycling, one of his favorite pass times, along the rolling hills of Greenville.
Kiah, their only child, was independent and away at college most of the time. The popular student leader and graduating senior at Howard University was focused on her career in advertising and marketing.
“My goal was that we would enjoy a place where I’d anticipated, number one, starting a new life,” recalls Mrs. Clingman. “A warmer place, where I would take up some cycling with him, where we would start our cycling together. Where we would grow old and start our downhill retirement at least enjoy being here together.”
Having met Jim, who is 19 years older, more than two decades ago at a reception in her native city of Chicago, Sylvia was smitten by this distinguished gentleman. Even now, she seems to blush when she speaks of how debonair he is in a suit. “Jim is the only man to me who looks just fabulous and handsome in a suit. No one can wear a suit like Jim.”
Though they only spoke a few minutes at that event where they met, he was obviously equally impressed. A few weeks later, he called her at the hospital where she worked and the rest is history. They married on Dec. 15, 1991, and were now preparing to start a new season in their lives.
But, that dream took a sudden and traumatic turn 18 months ago when Jim Clingman was diagnosed with ALS, so-called “Lou Gehrig’s disease”. It is the neurological illness in which the normal prognosis is that the patient gradually becomes paralyzed and then dies within two to five years, although some have lived much longer and some patients have even seen their symptoms stop, according to the ALS Association.
While Mrs. Clingman had moved ahead to start the new job as her husband prepared to join her, his weakened left foot and calf continued to grow worse despite surgery and batteries of tests. Finally, there came the devastating diagnosis August 23, 2013.
“We put her on speaker phone,” he recalls. “She just lost it. I immediately got in the car and drove down there and just spent a couple of days so we could both be together and just accept it.”
“Accept it?” How does one “accept” a prognosis like that of ALS? According to Jim Clingman, “First you cry.” But, then what?
Contemplating the question, he speaks slowly, thoughtfully, a man who has never even spent a night in a hospital, now trying to wrap his mind around what has become the spiritual test of his lifetime. Miraculously, he has found blessings, even in the midst of this tragedy.
“It’s a day to day thing. I have to put it like that,” he explains. “I try to look at the positives like the fact that it started in my foot instead of in my face. It can start in arms, hands, etc. The doctor told me that, ‘If there’s anything good about this it’s where it started in you because it started in your foot and has to work its way up.'”
Jim’s faith in God’s will for his life has been his rock. “If I didn’t have that Hazel, I’d be a wreck. I know it…If it weren’t for that, I’d be a basket case.”
It also helps that he is not physically alone in this journey. In addition to Sylvia, Kiah and extended family members, the popular columnist, speaker and author of four books has scores of friends and thousands of fans. They include His lifelong pastor and his new pastor in Greenville. Both marvel at how Jim Clingman is handling this.
“I remember when Jim decided to give his life to God. It was on a Mother’s Day,” recalls Richard A. Rose, Sr., then pastor of Gray Road Church of Christ in Cincinnati. “He came down that aisle at church and never looked back,” Rose recalls that moment 17 years ago. “He became a teacher, he even delivered sermons in my absence. Wherever he was needed, he was ready. There was no job too big or too small. So, he’s the leader in that family when it comes down to the faith. His faith will help Sylvia and help Kiah.”
While leaning on God for his future, the blessing is also in the life that he has lived and continues to live, says Rev. Rose. “Everybody in Cincinnati knew who Jim Clingman was. He did so much for so many people. And, so when the doctor’s first told him that he had ALS, it kind of set him back a little bit…But, God is greater than any doctor, than any degrees, and if it is not his will to deliver you from it, he will give you the strength to take you through it.”
Now attending Grace View Church of Christ in Anderson, S.C., Clingman has remained steadfast in service.
“He’s not wavered in his faith at all,” says Grace View pastor, Bryan Jones. Clingman even preached at his church earlier this year.
Seated in the pulpit, he encouraged the congregation with the message titled, “Tickets Please”. From Hebrews 9:10, it was about “how Christ died once for all. Everybody has a free ticket,” Clingman recounts.
“There’s been some challenging times in which I would see him high and see him low,” says Jones. He calls Clingman his “hero” because of his thoughts of others in the midst of his own trials. “Every time I saw him have a weak moment, it was never because of his own personal illness or health. Any time he’s ever been down, it’s always because of the pain he has because of his family having to deal with it. Not himself.”
A major part of that pain has been his concern for their beloved Kiah. Always a daddy’s girl, she too was naturally devastated by the diagnosis.
“My Dad actually tried to hide it from me for a while,” Kiah recalls. She was about to leave for London for an educational endeavor in the fall of 2013 when she found out from a relative who mistakenly let it slip out during Thanksgiving break.
“I didn’t want to go anymore,” she recalls. “After I read the diagnosis two to five years to live immediately what was going through my mind was he’s had these symptoms for two years now so how long does he have left? That was the only thing on my mind.”
Fast forward through the tears, her parents convinced her to go to London. Eighteen months since the diagnosis, his faith has indeed encouraged the entire family.
“I guess my Dad has actually been the reason I’ve been able to keep going, keep fighting, his resilience, his drive,” says Kiah. “My Mom and I have no choice but to be strong for him and sometimes it feels like we have ALS. But, his drive to keep going every day is what keeps us going.”
Like her father, Kiah is also a fighter. When the Veteran’s Administration turned him down for assistance, she persisted, searching the Internet and making phone calls until she found someone who would listen.
Finally, Clingman, a veteran of the U. S. Navy, was informed that he would receive full benefits. That moment was part of an answer to his prayers that his wife would never be saddled with debt because of his illness. His other greatest concern is still in the works.
Now, his heart’s desire is to “Get Kiah off into her adult life and to be there when she graduates” Saturday, May 9, 2015. “I’m praying that my strength lasts at least until then because I don’t want to be there so debilitated that the focus is on me rather than her and her achievements. Then, I want to see her on firm footing as she moves into adulthood.”
Meanwhile, America is to hear much more from Jim Clingman. He has just completed his fifth book, “Black Dollars Matter! – Teach Your Dollars How to Make More Sense.” And he continues to write his Black press column, “Blackonomics”, which he also posts on his website, Blackonomics.com.
No matter what the doctors say, this family still has hope. “The doctor gave me a death sentence, but God has already given me a ‘Life Sentence,’ and enternal life sentence,” Clingman said.
“I never refer to it as false hope because God can do anything,” says Rose. “There is hope, the hope in God. Any hope that you have is not in science, but in God.”