There are people we encounter in life who achieve notoriety and influence beyond what any reasonable person would expect. Clarence Miller, who passed away recently at the age of 64, was one of those people.
Clarence was a man with severe developmental disabilities who became a fixture in Colorado’s political life over a 25-year span. He was described by many people as our version of Forrest Gump as he managed to secure tickets and credentials to attend a plethora of high-profile events, including the pope’s visit to Colorado for World Youth Day in 1993, and to be photographed while he was there.
Clarence and I had a variety of memorable interactions. I don’t remember how it started, but while I was a state employee, Clarence once handed me a letter he’d received and asked me to help him understand it and what he should do. After that, every couple months, I’d get to work and find him waiting outside my office. We’d go inside, he’d hand me his most recent correspondence, and we’d work together to figure out the best way for him to respond.
Later, when Erica and Rebekah sold Girl Scout cookies at the Capitol. Clarence was their most enthusiastic customer. Because of his diabetes, we’d limit him to one box, and every time I’d see him beginning in September or October, he’d remind me that he was waiting to place his order in January and get his cookies in February.
My favorite memory of Clarence involved Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s visit to Denver in 2004. For years, Clarence had been a faithful Democrat, but as Republicans maintained a lock on the state legislature, Clarence proudly, and loudly, told all of us that he’d become a Republican. Kerry was to speak at the Greek Theatre in Civic Center and there were several tiers of tickets. Elbra Wedgeworth, who had been my colleague working for Mayor Wellington Webb, was president of the Denver City Council, and I asked her if she could get tickets for Alex, Rebekah and me. Much to our surprise and delight, the tickets she gave us put us in the most exclusive area, on the floor of the theater where we would be just feet away from the candidate. As we waited for Kerry to arrive, I looked up to see Clarence with the same exclusive ticket we’d procured. I told the girls to go tell Clarence that they thought he was a Republican. I watched them approach him and then saw them break into laughter and come back to me. When they got back, I asked what was so funny. They said that after they’d told Clarence they thought he was a Republican, he immediately responded, “Tell your Dad to shut up!”
Clarence Miller made the most of a very difficult life. He became the living embodiment of someone who overcame a disability to live both a fulfilling life and to influence others in important ways. His kindness to others made all who encountered him better people, and the visibility he displayed among important decision makers in his life likely did more to advance public policy for people with developmental disabilities than any advocate could achieve. Legislators delivered touching tributes when news of his passing was announced.
Everyone who knew Clarence Miller was touched by him, and his very existence made all of us both more aware of and more committed to serving the needs of the developmentally disabled in our state.
Goodbye, my friend; rest in peace.
Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.