Richard Clemens Jr. was doing more than just acting when he modeled for Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting “The Runaway” in 1958.
To hear his friends and family tell it, he lived the life of the helpful state trooper who set aside his own life to reach out to others.
“A lot of people were painted by Norman Rockwell, but there weren’t a lot of people who really lived” the scene in which they posed, said Clemens’ daughter Ann Rocha of Clifton Park.
Clemens, who lived near Rockwell in Stockbridge, Mass., when he was chosen to pose for “The Runaway,” died Sunday at age 83 after a short illness, said daughter Mary Blaauboer of Clifton Park. The New York City native had lived in Clifton Park since 1984, when he moved to the area as a retired Massachusetts state trooper for a security job at General Electric in Schenectady.
“It’s been incredible, the outpouring of warmth and love,” Blaauboer said.
In the painting, which like many of Rockwell’s illustrations appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, the trooper and a young boy sit side by side on diner stools, the trooper leaning in toward the boy, whose stick-tied bundle rests on the floor. The merest hint of a smile plays at the corner of the trooper’s mouth, and a cigarette-smoking diner employee also smiles as he leans on the counter and gazes at the boy.
The two adults seem to understand the child’s feelings that led him to run away, and they want to help, said Jeremy Clowe, manager of media services at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. “They might have been in that position.”
“The Runaway” is still one of Rockwell’s most popular paintings, Clowe said. The original is currently on tour in a traveling exhibition on Cape Cod.
The painting is meaningful to police officers and military personnel, and appears on the wall in every police station, said retired Massachusetts state Trooper Tom McNulty, who never worked with Clemens but met him more than 10 years ago.
“If you ask, it’s there,” he said. “Even when you travel around the world, you’ll find it frequently.”
Clemens was a road trooper and then became an investigator. He retired in 1975 as a staff sergeant and started working for GE in Pittsfield before taking a job in Schenectady.
Clemens often appeared in recent years at the museum, which hosts many of Rockwell’s models for special events, and Clemens usually volunteered as a team with Ed Locke, who posed as the 8-year-old runaway boy in the painting.
Though the two were about 20 years apart in age and didn’t really get to know each other until years after the painting was made, they had developed a comic chemistry that left museum visitors and workers smiling, Clowe said.
“They were almost like a comedy team,” he said.
“You almost didn’t expect that the day would come that the duo would be separated like that,” Clowe said of Clemens’ death. “I never pictured him ill.”
Clowe videotapes oral histories of Rockwell’s models and interviewed Clemens and Locke a few years ago, so a record of the duo remains for posterity.
Clemens also modeled for Rockwell in 1961 wearing his winter Massachusetts state police uniform, for a portrait the department used for its official Christmas card. Clemens’ wife, Judy, told The Gazette in 2006 that the department was still using the card; McNulty said Tuesday it has since stopped using it.
But McNulty still sends out a print of the painting for his own personal Christmas cards. He met Clemens after crafting a 3-D model of the diner to use as a backdrop for posing for pictures.
“My mission was to get him to pose with his grandchildren at the diner,” McNulty said. After some persuading, Clemens made the trip with his three grandchildren in tow.
McNulty said Clemens was a humble man who didn’t talk much about himself, but instead focused on the person in front of him.
“Once you’ve met him and he says his famous hello, you think you’re the only person that’s his friend,” McNulty said.
Rockwell used local models for most of his illustrations, paying them for their time and hiring local photographers to take photos from which he would paint, Clowe said. It wasn’t surprising that Rockwell chose a real state trooper as his model, he said.
“He wanted to instill his pictures with a sort of soul of realism.”
Clemens got paid $10 for the job, he told The Gazette in 2006.
Rockwell did change some things when he made his paintings, however. Clemens and Locke posed in a Howard Johnson’s restaurant, but Rockwell changed the diner to make it look more rural. He also replaced the original fresh-faced young worker behind the counter with an older man to contrast the ages between the men and the boy.
Like many in his generation, Clemens lived a hard-fought life.
His father was “out of the picture” by the time Clemens was 2, Rocha said. As a child of 7, he found male role models in a fire station near his home.
“Those guys kind of took him under their wing,” she said. “He saw how people responded when you tried to help them.”
Clemens dropped out of high school to join the Marines at age 17, serving a stint in World War II before returning to finish school. He later served in the Korean Conflict, Rocha said.
Though the picture of the diner scene always hung in the family home, Clemens didn’t become famous as the model until his two daughters were teenagers, around the time of Rockwell’s death in 1978.
But he seemed larger than life before that, Rocha said.
“He was always an icon to us.” Clemens was the main state trooper in Berkshire County, where they lived, so even a casual weekend outing could mean meeting someone her father had encountered on the job.
“Even people he had arrested had a respect for the way they had been treated by him.”
He also saw famous people as just regular people.
He once sat and chatted with President John F. Kennedy at a lunch counter, Rocha noted.
“That sort of thing just never turned my dad’s head,” she said.