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Johnny Vardeman: 68 years with cerebral palsy, he inspires others
Clint Strother

The best 10 years of his life were spent working at the Dixie-Hunt Hotel, 68-year-old Clint Strother of Gainesville says.

He was the elevator operator from 1972 to 1982, when the hotel closed. Clint was a familiar figure at the hotel, knowing most of the people who were in and out. He even loaned money to some of the permanent residents.

“I loved that hotel,” he said. “We packed them in” even during the hotel’s waning days. His boss was Allen Doveton, who also owned Millner’s and Burton’s on the downtown square. Doveton had Clint stay at the hotel during ice storms.

“He told me to keep the elevators running,” he said.

He also worked at the old Holiday Inn on what is now the western end of Jesse Jewell Parkway when it was owned by the McKibbon family. And he did yard work for John McKibbon’s M3 hotel accounting software firm.

“I was fortunate,” Clint said. “The McKibbons were good to me.”

Clint Strother realized when he was about 8 years old he had cerebral palsy.

“I went out in my backyard and cried on my dog,” he said. “I knew there was something wrong.”

School was difficult for him. He attended the old Candler Street Elementary for a while and a special class at the old Main Street School. “I couldn’t remember stuff at school,” he said.

He pretty much taught himself to read and write, struggling in class to grasp or retain important material.

Clint also went to what he calls CP (cerebral palsy) school in Atlanta for four years. But, there, he said, “People were mean to me because I had black friends. I was nice to black people.”

That was in the pre-desegregation era.

“I have sorrow,” he said. “But I never let my mother know about my hidden sorrow. I wanted to protect her.”

His mother was Frances McBrayer, a former Hall County administrator. He loved her as well as his grandfather, Judge A.C. Wheeler. Both were leaders in the community. His uncle, former Mayor Charles Thurmond, also took up time with Clint, carrying him to numerous University of Georgia football games.

“My mother was kind to me, and I was good to her,” Clint said. “I always saw to it that she had a present on her birthday, for Mother’s Day and at Christmas.”

Clint was devastated when his mother died, close friend Rick Frommer says. It was the same year, 2003, that he wrote a book of poems, “Utopia,” and dedicated it to her, though he never showed it to her. Frommer and fellow workers at MP3 helped him put it together over two or three years. It sold well.

“I accomplished something,” Clint says proudly. “I love to create stuff.”

“That was hard,” he says of his mother’s death. “I had a breakdown, but I came back.”

Clint says he always bounces back from his down periods.

“I was ahead of Rocky Balboa,” he said, referring to the “Rocky” hero in the boxing movie series. “I have his spirit. That’s the kind of guy I am.”

Frommer said Clint’s colleagues always appreciated his positive attitude and toughness. “He has been an inspiration to me,” he said.

After Clint’s mother died, he moved from his home to Smoky Springs assisted living facility on South Enota Drive. Though raised a Baptist, he discovered St. Michael Catholic Church nearby and became interested in how members lived their faith. Clint said friends didn’t believe it was safe for him to walk to the church, but he did, sometimes just sitting inside looking at Jesus on the cross and crying.

He has since moved to Dogwood Forest assisted living community on Thompson Bridge Road, is unable to attend church services, but Catholics come to visit him.

“I don’t do either one (Baptist or Catholic) right, but I acknowledge Jesus and God,” he said. “I am strong physically and mentally.”

He has good friends wherever he lands. Once he lived in apartments across from Northeast Georgia Medical Center and attracted close friends there.

Frommer says when he would take Clint to the hospital, it would take them an hour to walk out of the parking lot because so many people would stop to talk to him on the way. The same with a buffet line in a restaurant.

“All the people knew Clint,” he said.

“I just enjoy people, their lives,” Clint said.

People-watching has been a favorite pastime. He used to hang out at the old Jerry Nix service station on E.E. Butler Parkway.

“I’d buy me a Coke and watch people come and go,” he said. “I love cars. Sometimes they would get so busy, they’d ask me to watch the store. That made me feel good.”

Again, against their advice, occasionally he’d walk across the busy street toward the downtown square.

Besides people, Clint loves baseball and follows it closely. “Baseball is art,” he said, “including the field and everything, the whole concept.”

Football is too fast and rough, he said. He also enjoys music and has seen the Beatles and Elvis Presley in concert. A big Elvis fan, he’s seen all his movies.

Though proudly displaying a letter he got from President Barack Obama, he is one of presidential candidate Donald Trump’s admirers. He spends much of his time watching news shows on television.

Clint uses a wheelchair in his present home, where he is just as popular as ever. He gets tired more easily, getting out of breath after talking a while. “But I want to be out with people,” he said.

“I wish I was normal so bad,” he said. “It hurts. I know what I’m missing. It hurts, it really hurts. It’s hell to be me. But I can’t give up. It’s not my way. I try to find newness in me.”

Clint once fell in love, but it didn’t last.

“I cried and cried for three days,” he said. “Being like me, I don’t have any love like ‘normal people.’ People don’t give me a chance.”

Then he turns philosophical and poetic at the same time: “That’s the way it goes; then it snows.”

Despite his disability and social challenges, Clint is content with life at Dogwood Forest. Three cousins help look after him.

He is happiest with ordinary things, a Coke, which he loves (“it relaxes the edges”), and a pack of cheese crackers. “I’m happy with the simple stuff,” he says.

Even with his old television, which he has to change channels by pushing the buttons with a pencil.

“I’m a wise man for my condition,” Clint said. “I try to be newer than I was the day before. God gave me something to survive this.”

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.

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