Feature Stories

Brigadier Clitheroe

If you are lucky, very lucky, one, maybe even two people have been paramount in shaping the better side of your life. For many of us that person is often one we looked up to during our impressionable growing up years. In our youth, life develops rapidly around us, and we don’t think at the moment of the lasting impressions these one or two people may be having on us. We sometimes don’t realize the impact until youth has long since passed us by. So it was for me with Brigadier Clitheroe.


I was in the 4th grade in 1950, attending the brand new Denali School. As a matter of fact it wasn’t even completed when we moved from the old Chugach School on 14th and E Street in early March. We moved a lot of our supplies, books, and other items from our old classroom using our own sleds, since it was only about four blocks from the old school to the new one. There were even a few dog teams pressed into service for this major move.

Soon it was spring and we were all outside at recess playing softball on the muddy playground. Not being as careful as I should have been, I swung the bat around my head and hit the catcher in the face. Fortunately, the fellow wasn’t hurt too badly, but since I was the one who hit him it fell upon me to walk him home early from school.

Little did I realize hitting Dave Clitheroe in the face that day would have a profound effect on my life, even over 60 years later. Dave’s mom and dad were the Salvation Army Officers in charge of the Anchorage Corps [the name for the Salvation Army Church.] Dave’s dad was Major Cyril “Jack” Clitheroe—some called him Major and many called him Jack, since he wasn’t fond of the name, Cyril. He began working on me right away. Soon I was attending Sunday school and church. Then, Cub Scouts, and at age 11, Boy Scouts. Major was beginning to leave a lasting imprint on my life.

But no mind, Major would find them something to eat, usually moose meat, a warm bed and hope for a better day.

Although it was never discussed, I believe Dave and I were secretly quite competitive, always vying for the next rank in Boy Scouts, and for the girls. We grew to be such close friends we had a bed at each other’s houses. I lived about four miles from school on the Old Seward Highway, and Dave and his parents lived in downtown Anchorage near the Corps. So I could stay with Dave and have fun going to the movies and attending church activities. He in turn would come out to my house and we would play in the woods and build forts.

In the 5th grade I started playing the trumpet. Dave had already been playing the cornet. He was then, and has always been a much better player than I. The Salvation Army was big into brass music so it was natural the two of us became active in the little band that would play at Sunday morning and evening services.

Without fail, at 6:00 pm, regardless of the weather, our little band would play at the “Open Air Services” on the corner of 4th and C Street—one of the major corners in downtown Anchorage, right in the midst of skid row with its watering holes in all directions. During the cold months we would have to keep our mouth pieces in our pockets, and even run alcohol (not the drinking kind) through the horns to keep them from freezing up. Even so, once in awhile a valve on our horn would stick and a sour note would prevail. We would play a few old time hymns, then Major Clitheroe would preach a salvation message. His voice was so strong you could hear it a block away. subscribe

Anyone standing around listening would be encouraged to walk back with us for the evening services. Sometimes I think they came with us just to come inside and get warm. There were times we had to help one of the bystanders since they were not always steady on their feet. It didn’t make any difference whether there were 20 in the Sunday evening meeting or just the band with Mrs. Clitheroe playing the piano—Major preached with all he had. Many times, while enjoying the nice warm building in their inebriated state, our wanted guests didn’t last in an awakened state for the whole message. But no mind, Major would find them something to eat, usually moose meat, a warm bed and hope for a better day.

Major “Jack” was deeply involved in the service clubs in town, but he had a special fondness for working with the local chapter of A.A.. When introduced at A.A. and the other clubs, he preferred to be called, “Jack.” Rank and position were not important to him—service and concern for the alcoholic was his life’s work.

On Saturday nights, Dave and I often hit the movies, and as we got older we would sometimes come in rather late. Either way, usually after we had gone to sleep, the Major would show up, open the door to our bedroom sanctuary, turn on the light, and present us with a midnight snack that would consist of Kipper Snacks, a moose meat sandwich, or some other unusual morsel. The gesture wasn’t always appreciated, especially when the clock was approaching 1 or 2 in the morning, but the thought and kindness was there just the same. This most often occurred after Major and Mrs. Clitheroe had returned from their Saturday night bar collections on 4th Avenue. The collection of money from bar patrons was a big help in funding the feeding and care for the folks that needed help later. I guess it could be argued, some were just prepaying their room and board.

As time went on, the Major was always trying to get me to lead a song service, read the scripture, or even preach at an evening service. He would always say, “You can do it my boy.” Occasionally, I would do it, but it was agony. Anyhow, there was never any criticism no matter how bad my presentation may have been. I later realized he wanted both David and me to become Salvation Army Officers. David became an officer, but I never did.

“You can do it my boy, and you will speak for me again.” I suddenly realized how right he had been.

In 1956, Major and Mrs. Clitheroe got their farewell orders to move from Anchorage to another assignment in Canada. It was a natural move for them since they were Canadian, and had been in Dawson Creek B.C. before being assigned to Anchorage.

After high school David and I remained in touch and visited each other occasionally over the next several years. In 1959, my wife, Sylvia, and I moved to Oregon to be with Sylvia’s parents until after our son, David, was born. Later, we moved to Ventura, California. Coincidentally, in the early sixties, Major Clitheroe, who by then had been promoted to the rank of Brigadier, was transferred to the Los Angeles area, where he was in charge of The Salvation Army Harbor Light program for alcoholics. Unfortunately, during his tenure there Mrs. Clitheroe passed away. Brigadier stayed on in that capacity until his retirement in the early 1970s.

In 1967, Sylvia and I moved back to Anchorage from California. I was in insurance management with The John Hancock Insurance Co. while Dave and his wife, Liz, had become Salvation Army Officers in Anchorage. Brigadier Clitheroe also felt led to return to Anchorage and become the “Army Chaplain.” The two of us again became fast friends. As chaplain, he was again in charge of the church portion of the Harbor Light program. He could never leave his calling to work with those on skid row. ucm-320-x-180-bear-1

One afternoon Brigadier Clitheroe called me and asked if I would speak at a Vesper Service at the men’s Social Service Center. I don’t remember why, but I couldn’t do it at that time. I explained, not for the first time, how I didn’t believe I was qualified to do such an important thing as to speak to these men about coming to the Lord. Once again he said, “You can do it my boy.” Yes, I knew he was right.

By now, even though Brigadier Clitheroe still had a bounce in his step and a strong voice, he was beginning to show signs of slowing down. A couple of weeks after he had asked me to speak he was sitting in a Sunday evening service, singing some of his favorite hymns, when one of the officers noticed he was not singing. It was then they realized he had quietly slipped away to be with the Lord. Even though we all knew the time was coming, the news shocked me, and for a while I was in denial.

It was the end of an era for a wonderful man, who, like many before him, had lived his life for others. He had served the Lord in the organization he loved, The Salvation Army. He had been my pastor, mentor, and friend when I was growing up and as an adult—always there, just checking in, or offering gentle council when I came to a fork in the road and needed help choosing the right way.

Dave asked me to give one of the eulogies at his father’s funeral. It was held at First Presbyterian Church in Anchorage. The large church was full with standing room only, and many had to stand outside. There were a number of Alaskan dignitaries and hundreds he had helped in so many ways during his time here on earth and especially those in Anchorage.

It was very difficult for me to be giving his eulogy. While I was speaking and looking down at him lying there peacefully in front of the lectern, I remembered how he had said to me the week before, “You can do it my boy, and you will speak for me again.” I suddenly realized how right he had been.

Indeed, I was most fortunate to have him with me to help guide my way through life. A

By Jack Gwaltney, author of Alaska Air Tales

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