The Way We Were : Sarah Towers Van Cleve & Dr. Robert Van Cleve

The Way We Were : Sarah Towers Van Cleve & Dr. Robert Van Cleve
Sarah Towers with her grandfather, Charles Robert Towers
Sarah and Robert Van Cleve

Sarah and Robert Van Cleve

“Growing up in Avondale was the most perfect childhood,” remarked Sarah Towers Van Cleve.  “I had cousins close by, a neighborhood full of kids; we walked to Fishweir Elementary School, waded in the creek and played everywhere. I had everything a child could want. I had loving parents, a nursemaid, Emma Gould, who was also the family cook, and Liza Scott, our housekeeper – I have to mention her or her angel will cry.”

Born November 9, 1932, Sarah was the baby of her family – 10 years younger than Elizabeth (Betty) Towers Miller, nine years younger than Charlie, and six years younger than Billy. She and brother Charlie were especially close. When she was born he informed his classmates, “God gave me a Christmas present – a baby sister!”

After graduating from Lee High School where she was a cheerleader, Sarah left for Duke University. “Daddy said to go to a coed school and stay in the South because that was what I was used to. So, I went there two year, then to Vassar. My sister went to Vassar and my brothers went to Princeton, like my father.”

Princeton played into Sarah’s life in unexpected ways and solidified her motto of Faith, Family and Future. “The first time I laid eyes on Bob [Van Cleve] was at Princeton. He was playing Ping-Pong,” said Sarah. “I had a date with another guy, but the next thing I knew Bob came up to Vassar with a date. A group of us went bowling; the losers had to buy the beers. My date had the car and we were all smashed in. We were driving to get the beer and this creature (she gestured at Bob) in the back seat said to me, “Hey, stop talking Southern.’ I threw a little pillow and hit him in the head.”

Bob laughed. “Right then I decided to come back to Vassar and date her. A friend, Art Canady, who was (later) a judge here in Jacksonville told me her nickname was Icebox Towers. I considered that a challenge,” he said.

Robert Van Cleve grew up near St. Louis, Missouri, where his father was editor of the Moberly Monitor-Index. Bob attended Andover, then Princeton, where fate, his prodigious Ping-Pong prowess and competitive spirit (the Sequence Board on his present gaming table has a sign which states “No matter who plays this game Bob Van Cleve is the winner!”) intervened to put Sarah in his sights. 

Sarah explained that she was crazy in love with someone else at that time, but Bob, a persistent and determined young medical student, would not be discouraged. He came to Jacksonville with a carful of boys for spring break and to visit with her cousin Bobby.

Sarah Towers as a debutante in 1953

Sarah Towers as a debutante in 1953

“I had a date to go sailing with my true love. It was so romantic; he brought champagne. But on the way home he was so rude to someone I saw a side of him I hadn’t seen before,” said Sarah. “The day before I was going to leave to go back to school I had a date with Bob, which I wanted to break so I could go see a dear friend, Herman Weibert, who had been sick. I asked Bob if he would mind stopping by so I could run in and talk to Uncle Herman. He agreed, then Uncle Herman asked me to go get Bob so he could meet him, and they sat around and spoke German for an hour. Uncle Herman was so happy, and I came out with a heart full of gratitude. When we got home, Bob tried to kiss me, but I told him I had someone else.”

Bob interjected, “I told her it doesn’t matter, I want you to kiss me.”

“So,” Sarah said, “I broke my rule and kissed the rascal right on the steps of this house.”

Bob agreed that he was not only determined but a very good kisser. He said, “I knew I was in love with her after the first date. I had never had a girlfriend but I knew she was the one.”

After college graduation Sarah went on her European tour as was fashionable in those days. Bob and friends met Sarah and her group in Paris.

“I got dates for his friends. We walked by the Seine all afternoon and night. We went to the Follies and I was so impressed because he looked at me instead of the naked women,” said Sarah, who confessed she did sneak some peeks at the dancers but mainly watched Bob gazing at her.

Sarah, who admired her Aunt Sis (Mary Agnes) Towers who was engaged to five men simultaneously, worked all over the world for Kodak and scandalized her father by getting a job as a Rockette while in college, planned to travel and “not get married so soon. But, by the time we were in Paris, Bob had changed my whole plans. He did that!” Following after Aunt Sis was not in the stars.

Sarah returned to teach at her old alma mater, Fishweir Elementary School. Bob and his family came down to meet her family. Sarah stayed after school to tutor a student in long division when Bob walked in and went to the chalkboard. On the first board he wrote WILL then went to the next one and wrote YOU. 

“I excused the student as he was writing MARRY ME? on the other board. Then he pulled out one of those carboard ring sizers from the jewelers to figure out what size ring to get me,” Sarah said.

Robert Van Cleve with his brother in Moberly, Missouri

Robert Van Cleve with his brother
in Moberly, Missouri

Bob explained that he had saved up $1,700 from jobs delivering mail, working for the railroad, and as a garbage collector. He and Sarah, who always see the fun in everything, laughed that he got to know people’s secrets (like how much liquor they drank) by picking up the garbage.

On July 9, 1955 with “about a dozen attendants each” they were wed at First Presbyterian Church, where their future children would be baptized and wed, and where they are now Elders.

“We had a reception at the Yacht Club; Bob got dunked in the pool in his rented tux and we went to Sea Island for our honeymoon as a present from my brother Charlie,” said Sarah. “We went back for our 60th anniversary but stayed in a less expensive hotel. I couldn’t have slept a wink knowing how much it cost.”

The next few years the young couple crisscrossed the country from Virginia to San Diego to New York (where Sarah completed her M.A. at Columbia University) to Barnes Hospital in St. Louis as Bob completed his residency and internship. “We had babies all over the place,” Sarah joked.   

Sarah bribed her father that they would return to Jacksonville if he would agree to take Wednesday afternoons off and play golf with Bob.

Sarah and Bob live in the gracious three-story house on Richmond Street built by her parents in 1949-1950. She said it’s a house filled with joyful memorabilia and quite a step up from the attic of her grandparents’ house at 305 E. Church Street.

“My parents didn’t have much money. This was back before lawyers made the kind of money they make now,” Sarah said. “That attic didn’t even have a bathroom and they had two children while living there. Daddy would buy a lot and build a house. They would go out in the woods and dig up trees to landscape it, then he would sell it. They completed this house the year I left for college.”

Sarah laughed at the irony of her parents living in the attic of her grandparents’ house and then she and Bob and their four children lived in her parents’ basement when they first came back to Jacksonville. After living near Boone Park, they moved back to Richmond Street in 1985 after Sarah’s parents passed on, but not in the basement this time.

Family and fun is important in the Van Cleve family. Sarah and Bob were mixed doubles champs at Boone Park and Timuquana Country Club. He even donned galoshes to play a Bobby Riggs-type match at the Yacht Club.

The children hosted football games every Sunday, had a pony named Buttons, a ferret, a pig, a skunk, a goat, a squirrel named Gollum, who ran from the bedpost to an outside tree on a rope and, of course, several generations of Boston Bull Terriers.

The entire family participated in fabulous  Halloween parties where over 100 children might show up to be terrorized. On Christmas they continue the tradition of staying in their pajamas all day, even wearing them to church if Christmas fell on a Sunday. New Year’s Day finds them reading last year’s resolutions aloud and having the group Yea or Nay each person’s success or failure. Another tradition included serving coffee cake on Christmas morning and writing a Happy Birthday note to Jesus on an index card, many of which Sarah has saved over the years. Riding in the back of a pick- up truck and voting on the best Christmas decorations then giving the winner a bottle of wine is another fun tradition.

A cardiologist, Bob chose Riverside Clinic to practice medicine, retiring in 2008. He volunteered and was a professor at Duval Medical Center, now Florida Health, and was professor at University of Florida.

Everyone in the Van Cleve family wears Christmas pajamas all day on Christmas Day.

Everyone in the Van Cleve family wears Christmas pajamas all day on Christmas Day.

“I wanted the best for my patients,” he said. “By limiting my practice each person got one hour of my time. I believe in treating people who cannot afford health care and teaching the next generation of doctors.”

The Van Cleves have served on numerous boards and received many accolades and awards for their contributions to the community. Sarah “The Literacy Lady” continues her work at Community Transitional Center to promote reading and literacy for inmates and is adamant about procuring an ordinance that part of the Sheriff’s job would be to ensure that illiterate inmates receive basic literacy training by trained inmates every day. That is the “award” she would most like to receive – a legacy of literacy to cut down on recidivism and change lives for the illiterate as well as the tutors.

Sarah is past president of Jacksonville Urban League, Historical Society, Learn to Read, the League of Women Voters, and Literacy Pros. Bob and Sarah are past King and Queen of Ye Mystic Revellers Ball, and several of their children and grandchildren have served as well. Both are active in their church and donate time serving food at the Sulzbacher Center, where Sarah is known as “The Sauce Lady.”

The Van Cleves are proud of their four highly accomplished children and 11 grand-children. Dr. Beth Weldon (Dr. Alan Weldon), Catherine Bauman (Greg Bauman), Sis Miller (Tib Miller) and Robert Van Cleve (Elizabeth Drew) have continued the sixth generation family traditions of serving and contributing to the Jacksonville community established by their grandparents and parents.

When asked how to maintain balance in a 62-year marriage, the Van Cleves agree that being fully committed is key.

“We had fights like everybody else but we enjoyed making up. Realize that it takes work. We took courses on how to have a better marriage through our church,” said Sarah.

They also mentioned writing love letters to each other. “Once a year we write one thing we wish the other person would do or not do – it’s the little irritating things that can build up. One time we kept a fortune cookie that said, ‘This cloud will pass.’ We passed that fortune back and forth for years. Of course, anger and frustration are like Jello. Don’t wait to settle things and or it will set.”


By Peggy Harrell Jennings
Resident Community News

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