The people of Hope are remembering long-time community leader Merrill Clouse as an icon in the history and development of Hope. Clouse died Thursday at this home at the age of 96. He passed away a year and three days after Norma, his wife of 74 years.
Ed Johnson, a member of the Town Council, said he and Merrill were part of the Breakfast Crew who would gather at the diner every morning to eat and talk.
"Merrill was always kind of the life of the party there," Johnson said. "He would always have jokes to tell. He would always have some little anecdote that would make you laugh. We would talk about old times."
Johnson remembers Clouse as a man who could clearly see the future.
"He was a good idea man and had the ways and means of figuring out a way to get the jobs done," Johnson said. "He meant a lot to Hope. He brought Hope along a good ways. Sometimes we are a little laid back in Hope and Merrill was one of those people that was out there struggling to get (the town) to the front. He was not a person to take a lot of glory. He was doing it for the good of Hope and the good of the community."
Johnson said that whenever there was a new idea or initiative for the community, everyone would say "Let's go ask Merrill and see what Merrill thinks." If Clouse was in favor, the idea would take off and be a success. If Clouse said "Boys, I don't know," the plan would frequently fall apart.
Tom Miller, a former school board member, recalls how instrumental Clouse was in making the Flat Rock-Hawcreek school building referendum a success. As the issue unfolded and debate raged in the community, he remembers Merrill and Norma driving by his workplace in their van, and stopping to chat about the initiative.
"He said 'We really need this school and this project. What can we do to help you with this?'" Miller recalls. "I said 'Well Merrill, probably the best thing you can do is to tell people that you support it and how important it is.' I thought that a man with his kind of reputation and everything, he would certainly have some influence on people that maybe didn't have a good understanding about it as well as he did."
"I certainly think that kind of support from people like that, made all of the difference in the world... The people of that age group were the most understanding of the importance of those kind of things and Merrill was no exception to that."
Town Council President Clyde Compton became choked up remembering Clouse and his influence on the community.
"He was an absolutely tremendous human being," Compton said. "He did everything that he could to progress the town, back in the days when he was able to."
Compton called Clouse one of the town's "founding fathers."
"You had to have founding fathers to get to the point that you are," Compton said. "He was one of the most tremendous founding fathers that we have had in this town. I am truly sad."
Michael Dean, CEO of Heritage of Hope, said he did not know Clouse well but had the opportunity to sit down with Clouse a few years ago to talk about Clouse's impact on the town.
"For everybody that has done anything in the town of Hope, he cast a great big shadow," Dean said. "A lot of people don't know just how integral he was. There were so many things that he started in Hope that are still going strong."
Among the initiatives Merrill and Norma Clouse helped to launch -- Heritage Days, the Hawcreek-Flat Rock Area Endowment, the Yellow Trail Museum, the Veterans Memorial in the Hope Moravian Cemetery and even the local school corporation, where Merrill served as the first board president. He helped found the Hope Volunteer Fire Department and served as chief for 26 years.
Susan Thayer-Fye remembers Clouse and her father, Tom Thayer, huddled together with others planning the first Heritage Days in 1967.
"If Hope had a mayor, it would have been him," she said. "He was the respected businessman in the community. He treated everybody well."
And she recalls the personal help that Clouse gave her.
"When I was applying for scholarships for college, you need to get some references from business people that will stand up for you," Thayer-Fye said. "Merrill was one of those people. He made some calls on my behalf and helped me get a scholarship for college. Everything he did, supported the community of Hope."
Bud Herron said his first job was as a bagger and carryout boy at Clouse's grocery. He called Merrill the best boss he ever had.
"Merrill and Norma were partners in what was arguably the most successful family business in the history of Hope," Herron said. "They were smart, innovative business people who built a small family grocery store into what could only be called a small town 'supermarket' with an attached slaughterhouse and a frozen food locker."
Herron said Clouse was known for his sense of humor and his practical jokes.
"He had the ability to use a smile and a funny story to defuse controversy and bring people together in a common purpose. His leadership was unique and effective."
And Herron said that leadership helped make the town succeed.
"Merrill Clouse was the gold standard of what it means to love and serve your community. From the time he left military service at the end of the Second World War until well into the 21st Century, he was at the center of nearly every effort to make Hope prosper."