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Clemente Will Touch Newark Kids…Tell Widow They'll Never Forget

Clemente Will Touch Newark Kids



May 11, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Star-Ledger. All rights reserved.

"He was so proud and an inspiration to all of us, and his memory means so very much to me and to baseball."

- Jose Olmeda, Newark Bears third baseman For more than three decades she has remained the messenger ... from the sports village in Puerto Rico to the World Series and Major League Baseball's Roberto Clemente Award ... from the Caribbean World Series to the ballpark in Santurce and the arena in San Juan that bear his name.

Vera Clemente is the keeper of a flame that draws its fiery passion from the marriage between his island and his game ... wherever it is played ... from Puerto Rican Winter Ball at Hiram Bithorn Stadium to the Korakuen Stadium in Tokyo and the Japanese Major League Baseball award that bears his name.

Today, she comes to Newark at the behest of Project Pride and the Newark Bears to spread a legacy that cries out for the retelling.

"Sometimes, when I am alone," she told me one day in San Juan as the 30th anniversary of her husband's death neared, "I remember him telling me, 'The thing is, Vera, I would like to be remembered one day as a man who gave all he had to give.'"

Then she paused, and speaking from the depth of a heart that has never ceased to love her childhood sweetheart, said, "My opinion is that he died the way he lived, helping on a mission that he imposed on himself. Nobody told him to go, but he did. That was Roberto."

Today she will be at Ridge School in the morning and Roberto Clemente School in the afternoon to spread a message that goes far beyond her husband's spectacular baseball legacy. Both schools have been heavily involved with Newark Project Pride, and its zeal for education will be echoed by her as it was by Roberto for as long as he lived.

Tomorrow night, she will be there when she, along with her husband's memory, are honored at Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium by the Newark Bears before their game against the Nashua Pride.

Clemente had died on a mercy mission to Nicaragua, on an overloaded plane in which he was bringing supplies to the victims of the most violent earthquake in the history of the Western Hemisphere.

When someone suggested that it was New Year's Eve and pointed out that the plane already had failed during two takeoffs, he told the guy on the phone just as he had told Vera:

"I have to go. Somebody has to see that they (the supplies) get into the right hands. If not me, then who will do it?"

The plane crashed that night in the wee hours of the first morning of 1973 into shark-infested waters off a place called Punte Maldonado. His body has never been recovered. This is as close as he will ever come to a burial plot.

Three decades later, they speak his name in Caguas and Ponce, in San Juan and Santurce ... everywhere the game is played on the island.

And they recall the incredible sadness from sandlot to stadium in which that island is still bathed at the memory of his loss.

In the wake of that tragedy, funds were allotted for the Roberto Clemente Sports Village, a place for the poor kids of San Juan and Santurce to play the beautiful game he learned to play, and to swim and to play basketball where otherwise there might not be the gifts of venue that we take for granted on the mainland.

He had dreamed about this village. It was his hope and his vision, even as he was pounding out his spectacular 3,000 major-league hits ... even as he became a superstar and a World Series hero. It was to be his ultimate gift to the children of his island in the sun ... the shining achievement at the end of a road that began as a shy kid at Julio Coronado School in Carolina, where a baseball entrepreneur named Pedron Zarilla discovered him and launched him on an incredible career in the old Sixto Escobar Stadium, were he made plays worthy of a DiMaggio, and took him to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

But Vera Clemente is here to spread his message about the children and their right to a childhood that encompasses but also transcends baseball. Ironically, it was the children ... not just of Puerto Rico ... not just of Pittsburgh where he made major-league history ... but everywhere ... who instinctively understood that message.

I began to understand this when I wrote and narrated a television special on his death. Sitting alone one day in the offices of the Pittsburgh Pirates, I was sifting through an incredible pile of mail - more than 500 pieces of it - that the Pirates had received upon his death.

The more I read, the more I was surprised to learn how many of them came from children; children of all ages, colors and backgrounds. It surprised me only because in an age where so many superstars live in a world of neon and nightlife, Clemente was different.

The children seemed to understand and approve, and the approval they expressed in these letters was also their personal ritual of mourning.

I remember one of those letters well. It was written by an 11-year-old girl from New Jersey with a Latino last name:

"Roberto Clemente was a Puerto Rican baseball star. He was very brave. He died in a plane crash. He only wanted to help people."

It was him ... simplicity ... direction ... the truth.

Not only will Vera Clemente express his message of love to the children. They will give her a stack of personal letters they have written to the children of the Clemente Sports Village.

Those children will answer them in return.

And Vera Clemente, feet planted firmly in her husband's footsteps, will be their bridge.

Newark Kids Tell Clemente's Widow They'll Never Forget



May 12, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Star-Ledger. All rights reserved.

Vera Clemente sat attentively yesterday in the Newark elementary school named after her late husband, Roberto Clemente, and watched as a group of students paid tribute to the baseball hall of famer.

"We will always remember Roberto Clemente, a National League baseball hero," 8-year-old Jaritza Ramos told her fellow students. "However, there is so much more to remember about this great man. He was a good family man who was kind in spirit and generous with his time and money. He was an outstanding humanitarian."

Jaritza urged, "We need to remember his words: 'Anytime you have an opportunity to make things better, and you don't, then you're wasting your time on this Earth.' He will always be a role model for us to follow."

Roberto Clemente came from a very humble and poor beginning, worked in sugar cane fields, and developed a growing love of competitive sports, especially softball and baseball, Vera Clemente said.

But he felt it was far more important to do something to help people. "The way he died is the way he lived," she said. "He was a good humanitarian."

Clemente visited the school and chatted with about 100 youngsters. Her appearance there was part of a two-day tribute to her husband in support of Newark's Project Pride, an annual sports scholarship effort.

More than 30 years after Clemente was killed in a plane crash, "it's unbelievable" that people around the world still revere and talk about the Puerto Rican-born Pittsburgh Pirate, his 18-year Major League Baseball career, and his humanitarian efforts, the 63-year-old widow told the youngsters.

"Every year, it's something (else)," said his widow, referring to honors and tributes that continue to be bestowed on her late husband, including school, post office, athletic center and sports stadium namings, and even a 1994 Liberian dollar coin bearing Clemente's likeness and name.

It was on New Year's Eve 1972 that the then-41-year-old Clemente died in a plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico.

The star batting champion - whose career included amassing 3,000 hits and being named the 1966 National League MVP and the 1971 World Series MVP - lost his life after boarding a flight that he chartered to personally deliver medical, food and clothing supplies to victims of a Nicaraguan earthquake.

The former Summer Street Elementary School was named after Roberto Clemente in 1973, a year after the baseball great was killed, school Principal Luis Lopez said.

Yesterday's visit to the school, which followed a 9 a.m. visit that Vera Clemente also made to the Ridge Street School, marked the first time that the sports hero's widow had ever visited either educational site.

Fourth-grader Devante Fennell said he was almost moved to tears yesterday as he listened to some of his classmates read a tribute poem. "I started to cry a little bit," he said.

In Spanish, a group of the school's youngsters then got up on school auditorium's stage and sang a moving tribute composed by music teacher Sonia Barrionuevo.

To the music accompaniment of Barrionuevo, the kids sang:

"Roberto Clemente, you are a very great star.

Roberto Clemente, we honor what you are.

We know you love baseball.

We know you love people, people great and small.

We'll try to honor all of the things you stand for.

To make you proud of us all."

Vera Clemente's eyes seemed to well with tears.

She said this will not be her last visit to the Roberto Clemente Elementary School. "You can be sure I'll be back to visit again soon," she said.

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