When Gail Clapper’s father was dying of cancer, he had a message for her: Don’t forget about the box in the attic.
So, after his death in 2015, Clapper opened the three-foot package that — until flying out to Denver, Colorado, to help care for him — she hadn’t known existed. The first thing she saw was a condolence note addressed to her grandmother after her grandfather’s death.
It was signed by Eleanor Roosevelt.
Her eyes go bright with excitement when she remembers her shock at finding it. Though the life and memory of her grandfather — the storied radio broadcaster and columnist Raymond Clapper — loomed over her childhood, she realized at that moment that she hadn’t truly understood the extent of his fame.
“I knew that he was important to journalism,” said Gail Clapper, who lives in Ballenger Creek. “I didn’t really know why.”
Clapper never met Raymond Clapper. He died before she was born, while covering the invasion of the Marshall Islands. He was aboard a U.S. Navy bomber that collided with another Navy airplane on Feb. 1, 1944.
But though Clapper has only gotten to know her grandfather through his speeches, letters and the writing of her grandmother — journalist Olive Ewing Clapper — she’s spent the past six years ensuring that his legacy is not sequestered to a dusty old box in her father’s attic.
For more than two years, Clapper sorted through and cataloged the many photos, letters and articles her grandmother collected after her husband’s death. Many of the items ultimately found a home in the Olive Ewing Clapper collection at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center, which became open to the public in 2021.
Her efforts came to a crescendo in December, when she worked with the National Press Club Journalism Institute and famed economic journalist Knight Kiplinger to host a celebration of her grandfather.
On Dec. 3, the day of the ceremony, Clapper smiled shyly at the audience of journalists, broadcasters and commentators sitting in front of her. As the last living member of the Clapper line, she told them, she sees it as her responsibility to enshrine her grandfather’s accomplishments in history.
“For me personally, tonight represents the culmination of a most significant milestone in my life,” she told the audience. “I feel like I am answering my calling, fulfilling my purpose, making a meaningful contribution to the family legacy and ensuring the preservation of significant items for posterity.”
On a recent morning, Clapper sat at the kitchen table of her meticulously decorated home, reminiscing over the past few years. A gray fluffy cat roamed through her living room, occasionally pausing at her feet.
It was a challenge, Clapper recalls, figuring out where she should donate the materials she discovered in her father’s attic. She knew they were much too valuable to keep to herself, but should they go to the Library of Congress, where there was already a collection of her grandfather’s papers, or to her grandmother’s collection at the University of Wyoming?
Then, there was the question of the statue. In the 1980s, after the death of her aunt, Clapper had inherited a small bronze casting of her grandfather sculpted by the artist Max Kalish. For years, she displayed it in a “very privileged spot” in her foyer. It was a great conversation piece, but she knew she wanted to share it with the public — and preserve it for future generations after her death.
Enter Knight Kiplinger. For months, Clapper “hemmed and hawed,” about reaching out to the acclaimed reporter and writer. She knew his father had a collection of similar Kalish sculptures on display at one of his businesses, but she didn’t want to bother someone so important. When she finally made the call, however, it wasn’t long before Kiplinger paid her a visit to see the statue for himself.
Kiplinger, whose grandfather commissioned the statue from Kalish shortly after Raymond Clapper’s death, explained that the casting Gail Clapper had was a duplicate, created for her grandmother. After some consideration, he suggested she donate it to the National Press Club Journalism Institute. Later, the Kiplinger Foundation paid for the construction of its exhibit, Clapper said.
Kiplinger also connected Clapper with Allan Stypeck, the president of the Washington, D.C., area’s largest used-and-rare bookstore, who took some of her items for consignment and helped her determine where to donate the others.
At the ceremony held earlier this month, Kiplinger declared the celebration more than “a nostalgia trip.” Instead, he encouraged those in attendance to consider the lessons of Raymond Clapper’s writings — especially his warnings about the fragility of democracy.
The late journalist, Kiplinger said, saw free speech as fundamental to democracy — and considered its biggest threat to be “the tendency of irate citizens to try to silence opposing points of view.”
He read a selection from Clapper’s writing:
“‘When the public no longer wants free discussion,’” he said, “‘when it no longer wants to hear what the other fellow has to say and simply throws tomatoes at him, then you are working into a state of mind, which points to the end not only of a free press but of all free institutions.’”
“‘Egg throwers make dictators,’” Kiplinger concluded, reading one of Clapper’s most famous quotes.
One night, when Gail Clapper was working on her speech for the ceremony, she walked outside to take a break and catch her breath. As she gazed up at the stars, she saw a comet streak across the night sky.
One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand. She traced its progress in the darkness.
“I just, I welled up with emotion,” she recalled. “And I thought, ‘OK, Clappers, I hear you. I see you.’ That to me was the inspiration — that was their spirits saying, ‘You’re on the right track, go with it. This is your time to shine.’”
So, starting at 11:30 at night, she wrote. By the time she’d finished editing, it was 11:30 the next morning.
When it came time to share her words with an audience earlier this month, she told them about the tote bag she still has, which is full of letters exchanged between her grandparents and their children. She cannot wait to read — or catalog — them.
“I figure that project should take at least another couple of years,” she said, smiling.