The Way We Were: Clayton Ford Riley

The Way We Were: Clayton Ford Riley
The Riley Family: Scott, Jim, Jenifer, Clayton, Martha Love, Ford and Paul
Clayton Riley, distributor of Kirby vacuum cleaners
Clayton Riley, distributor of Kirby vacuum cleaners

“Youth is not a career,” declared 93-year-old Clayton Riley. “I’ve found that out.” 

But oh, what a career Riley has had! At the 100th World Conference of Kirby Vacuum Cleaners in 2015, where he was honored for his 50-plus years as a distributor, Riley was referred to “as a legend in his own right.” 

Riley, the youngest of seven children, was introduced to the vacuum cleaner business by his brother, Corwin, who was 19 years older and known as “The Dean of Kirby Distributors.” Clayton Riley sold his first vacuum cleaner in 1946, and Betsy Miller remembers sitting on her mother’s couch in 1958, watching Riley jump up and down on a hose, pour dirt on the floor and vacuum it up to demonstrate his machine’s capabilities. 

“Oh, Clayton was a showman. It was great. Of course, Mother bought the vacuum cleaner. I inherited it when Mother died, and I used it for about 12 years. When Julia Brundick Patterson got married, I had it all cleaned up and gave it to her for a housewarming gift. That vacuum has been running over 60 years!” Miller said.

Riley’s first office was two rooms over the Green Derby, where Blue Cross is now. “Taylor Hardwick’s office was there too. Then we moved to Melba Street, across from the Dreamette in Murray Hill. There’s a repair shop there now. I had 40 sales representatives, including Gilchrest Berg while he was going to Princeton, Tom Donahoo, Kent Schmidt, and Scott Sheftall,” Riley recalled.

Born Sept. 25, 1925, nine miles from Cleveland, Ohio in a little town called Hinkley, which he humorously related is famous because “every March 15th buzzards descend on the town like the swallows to Capistrano,” Riley was drafted while attending Ohio University. He attended radio school at the University of Chicago and amphibious training, then was to be deployed to Iroquois Point in Honolulu.  

“We were all outfitted to go to Japan, then the bomb went off and the war was over, but on the way over we ran into a minefield and two guys were blown off the boat,” he said. “When we arrived in Japan the people there were wonderful to servicemen. They invited us into their homes.” 

Clayton Riley on a tugboat in Japan in 1945
Clayton Riley on a tugboat in Japan in 1945

After graduating in 1950 from the College of Commerce at Ohio University where he was a member of Beta Theta Pi, Riley’s military career was recalled to active duty during the Korean War. He came by train to Jacksonville to be a radio operator at NAS Jax. He was invited to dinner by a local physician who then asked him to take the maid home and directed young Maureen O’Crowley to ride along with him. “She was pinned to someone else at Salem College. I had just bought a new car – a 1950 Roadmaster. I think that’s why Maureen liked me. Later, we played golf at NAS Jax, had a whirlwind courtship and married in 1951.” 

They had six children. Ford Riley (Elizabeth), Scott Riley (Missy), Paul Riley (Kelly), Jim Riley (Dana), Martha Love Rotella (Jay) and Jenifer Skinner (Chip). Maureen was an established artist and, along with Christine Schmidt, Eula Bull, Margaret Berg and Alice Ulmer, was instrumental in establishing the Village Gallery in Ortega, the forerunner of the Jacksonville Artists Guild. 

The family was well established in Jacksonville as members of Riverside Presbyterian Church, where Clayton sang in the choir and has served as a deacon, an elder and a trustee. Riley said, “The children were baptized there, grew up there. Jenifer and Chip and Jim and Dana were married there. Many of our grandchildren went to school there.” He finds it amusing that his growing family took up the entire fourth row.

Riley recently received a commemorative 50-year pin from RPC to add to his collection of numerous awards, certificates and plaques honoring his long-standing participation in groups throughout the city, including Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club, JU Council Order of the Dolphin, Board of Riverside Hospital and Presbyterian Apartments, Trustee of Bartram School, Gator Bowl Association, Ponte Vedra Club, River Club and Timuquana Country Club. He was also past king of Ye Mystic Revellers. His memberships, civic activities and awards fill an entire page and include mentoring at Central Riverside School as part of the P.A.L. program and volunteering for Meals on Wheels. 

 Jaguars owner Shad Khan with Clayton Riley
Jaguars owner Shad Khan with Clayton Riley

The energetic, exuberant, friendly, talkative and amusing Riley sprinkles his conversation with jokes, quotes, life lessons and is likely to burst into song at any moment. He remarked that being a Beta Theta Pi has been a “big part of my life” and frequently refers to other people as “he’s a Beta.” He tells of meeting Shad Khan and singing the Beta song with him the day before a big game. Coincidentally, Khan had worked for Scott-Fetzer Company, which had partnered with Jim Kirby to produce the first vacuum cleaner, and Khan and Riley at different times had the same boss.

“I grew up in the Depression. People didn’t have jobs, but my dad had a paint store and was a farmer in Parma, Ohio. I spent summers with my grandpa in the country working. He gave me a quarter at the end of the summer for bringing the cows home and cleaning stalls. I did that until I was 14, then I had a newspaper route and got a job at the Parma Country Club as a caddy. We got to play on Mondays when the course was closed, and I won the caddy championship. I was riding my bicycle home when I heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. So many dropped out of high school and enlisted,” he recalled.

From these humble beginnings Riley’s business acumen earned him numerous trips, two Cadillacs, a Lincoln Town Car and a Rolex watch, but, as he joked, “Not all at one time.” Now a “Distributor Emeritus,” Riley has been retired since 2000 but stays active as a motivational speaker, most recently giving a presentation at the Rotary Club. His philosophy of life and business is based on the Rotary Four-Way Test: 1) Is it the truth? 2) Is it fair to all concerned? 3) Will it build goodwill and better friendships? 4) Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Bibbie and Clayton Riley
Bibbie and Clayton Riley

Widowed in 1976, Clayt, as he is called, was introduced in 1981 to Mary Elizabeth (Bibbie) FitzGibbon who was also widowed, by Kate Schellenberg at a tennis match at San Jose Country Club. 

“That encouraged a date. We went to Bolles to watch football then went to San Jose Country Club for dinner. She was a tennis player and played golf. I had played golf with her husband but had never laid eyes on Bibbie until then,” he said. 

Eleven years his junior, Bibbie continues her active tennis life and attends St. Matthew’s Catholic Church. Riley said the difference in their religions has never been a problem. He mentioned that Bibbie was a star athlete winning Best Athlete in high school. “I didn’t want that,” laughed Bibbie. “I wanted to be voted the prettiest.” She joked that what she and Clayt had most in common when they eloped in 1982 was their combined 11 children. They now have 45 grandchildren and great-grands and more on the way. 

Riley’s golf game has been affected recently due to severe arthritis in his knee, “bone on bone,” as he describes it. He belonged to the “Throw Ups” golf group known for putting balls in a hat and throwing them into the air to find a partner. He said they persevere despite being down to about six original members and taking about four and half hours to play. 

Riley has charged through all sorts of pain and injuries from the almost incapacitating knee problems to a torn rotator cuff. He reveled in telling the story that the day before he was to have surgery, he played golf in the morning at Timuquana Country Club while walking with a cane, then played tennis in the afternoon with his surgeon’s wife. He came in seventh in the golf tournament and thereupon postponed his surgery indefinitely.  

The Rileys’ Ortega Forest home is decorated with paintings by his son, wildlife artist C. Ford Riley, artwork by his other offspring, historical documents and interesting memorabilia. Like any proud father, he is quick to share a letter he received from former First Lady Laura Bush when Ford’s painting was selected to be presented to the Bush family. Other notables include Steve Forbes, who sent him a necktie. 

He is proud of his children and grandchildren. “Jim is an attorney with Rogers Towers. Jenifer stays active at Bolles with her kids and grandchildren. They are all so talented,” he said. “Martha Love – she lives in Montana, Paul, and Ford are artists, and Scott represents Ford and Paul. They got all their talent from their mother. I can’t draw a circle. Bibbie’s kids are great, too. Laurie lives in Venice, Andy in Texas, David in Melbourne, Susan McCormack – she lives right down the street.” Sadly, Bibbie’s daughter, Jennifer Ingram, passed on recently. 

Riley’s many accomplishments and successes can be attributed to his work ethic and dynamic personality. Mention his name and the response is immediate. “Clayton Riley? Now he’s a great guy!” “Wonderful person. Witty, funny, generous.” “Boy, he can tell some great stories.” “Sweetest man.” 

Riley dedicated 58 years to Kirby Vacuum Cleaner Company and advised new dealers: “See lots of people and ask them to buy. Take care of your customers and get them to work for you. They will if they like you.” 

But who doesn’t like Clayt Riley, a self-professed social butterfly? Affable, gregarious, humorous, Riley ends conversations with “I’ll see you when the roads get better.”

By Peggy Harrell Jennings
Resident Community News

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