In Memoriam: Clayton Ford Riley

Clayton Ford Riley
Clayton Ford Riley

Clayton Riley would have enjoyed the standing-room-only gathering of his family and friends at Riverside Presbyterian Church where he had been a faithful member for 70 years until his passing at age 98. His joyful presence was evident in the scripture, words of remembrance, prayers, songs and the sweet and humorous stories shared not only at the service by his son, Jim, but also afterward, as those who loved him gathered to visit and talk about the dear, charming, charismatic man who never met a stranger, loved everybody he met and was a “relentless encourager.” 

Rev. Dr. Brian Lays said Riley was “always asking, pursuing, singing really loudly and enthusiastically, praying and loving. He was an ambassador for faith, rooted and established in love.”

Riley grew up in Ohio as the youngest of seven children in a loud, boisterous family who loved to work. His first jobs were in sales: soap, his mother’s pies, chips at the fair, newspapers. After serving in the military during WWII and the Korean conflict, he graduated from Ohio University on the GI Bill.

With orders to report to NAS Jacksonville, Riley met Ed Morrow, who noticed Riley’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity ring and invited him to his parent’s house in Avondale where he met Morrow’s cousin, Maureen O’Crowley. It was love at first sight and they were married within a couple of weeks.

In 1951, Riley started Riley-Kirby Company whose distributorship sold over 100,000 vacuum cleaners in the greater Jacksonville area. This “greatest salesman of all time who could sell you a $1,000 vacuum cleaner in five minutes” said that things were easy to sell if you believed in them. He worked tirelessly, winning cars and luxury vacations for his achievements.

Riley, the “ultimate family man,” stayed busy with his children, church, numerous civic organizations, playing golf and tennis at Timuquana Country Club, riding his bicycle, and playing volleyball at the YMCA. The couple, along with their six children – Ford (Elizabeth), Scott (Missy), Martha Love Rotella (Jay), Jenifer Skinner (Chip), Paul (Kelly) and Jim (Dana) – made Ortega Forest their home until Maureen passed in 1978.

At his memorial service, Riley’s grandchildren remarked that he was always reaching out – writing letters, calling people on their birthdays and never missing an opportunity to tell people how important they were – and asked, “How did Grandpa have that much love to go around?”

Mary Elizabeth “Bibbie” Ingram with Clayton Riley
Mary Elizabeth “Bibbie” Ingram with Clayton Riley

That love extended to a young widower, Mary Elizabeth (Bibbie) Ingram, and her five children: David Ingram (Terry), Laurie Stottlemyer (Joe), Andy Ingram, Susan McCormack and Jennifer Tucker. He and Ingram enjoyed 40 years hosting Super Bowl parties, reunions at Crescent Beach, playing tennis, traveling and being with their extended “Norman Rockwell family” before Ingram and Tucker predeceased him.

Riley’s singing, laughing and joking was ever-present, his blue eyes twinkling with childlike enthusiasm, and embracing life with gusto and a big “Yahoo!”

Rev. Dr. Steve Goyer told a story of how Riley decided at the age of 85 that he wanted to sing a solo at church and invited everyone to come. Secretly, the pastor and choir director, Andrew Clarke, were hesitant but, since Riley was a devoted elder member and church deacon, they agreed to do so with trepidation and a lot of prayer. During the service, Riley stepped up to the microphone, with no notes, and nailed his rendition of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.”

It was that spirit and confidence that exemplified the legacy of Clayton Riley. His children, 26 beloved grandchildren, 27 great-grandchildren and the multitude of people who loved and were loved by Riley can join the heavenly chorus – which, no doubt, Riley is leading.

As he would say, “I’ll see you when the roads get better.”

By Peggy Harrell Jennings
Resident Community News

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