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The Best of Sherlock Holmes
A eulogy by Paul Churchill for his missing friend
25 October 2004
Si requiris monumentum, circumspice.
If you seek a monument, look about you.
Only once or twice perhaps in a lifetime do we meet a person whom we admire deeply and who has a life-changing impact on us. For me, Steve Clarkson was such a man. He was my friend of 17 or so years and a mentor in my acquiring a knowledge of Sherlock Holmes. Others know him as a father, a husband, a grandfather, an author, or a co-worker, but it is through our shared interest in Sherlock Holmes that I know him best, and that viewpoint must guide these final words about my friend on the day his mortal body is laid to rest.
Steve got interested in Sherlock Holmes through the influence of his father, Paul Clarkson, co-founder of The Six Napoleons of Baltimore, a holder of the coveted Two-Shilling award, the highest honor bestowed by the Baker Street Irregulars, the BSI. Steve himself held the office of Gasogene in that scion society and was awarded his shilling at a fairly young age.
One of Steve's early contributions to the Sherlockian milieu was his establishment of The Board School Beacons as a correspondence society for young Sherlockians, especially those in areas away from centers of Holmesian scholarship. That effort netted several future luminaries into the fold: Chris Redmond, Kate Karlson, Susan Dahlinger, et al. Of the twenty or so members, as many as five have gone on to receive their shillings.
In 1988 I met Steve through his step-daughter who was my student at the time, a perceptive young lady who deduced from the deerstalker I was wearing on Halloween that I was a Sherlock Holmes fan! I told her I was interested in forming a group of like-minded people, a group which could meet around a table and share in our mutual interest. She put me and my colleague Rod McCaslin in touch with Steve so that we could follow through on that dream. The meeting led to the establishment of a scion society originally called "The Agency", but which later became Watson's Tin Box, named after the well-worn and battered receptacle somewhere in the vaults of Cox and Company Bank in Charing Cross which contained the unpublished manuscripts of the Sherlock Holmes adventures. That group today is flourishing, due in no small way to the original guidance which Steve provided.
He later served as Gasogene IV, like a President, and was for over five years the quizmaster, taking the title of Torquemada, the legendary, or should I say notorious, Inquisitor of the lamentable era called "The Spanish Inquisition." Those quizzes, sixty on the individual stories, and five yearly examinations were then published as The Sherlockian Star Chamber by the Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, a work which I was proud to illustrate.
Several years ago Steve was asked by Les Moskowitz, a fellow Tin Boxer, to act as moderator of The Hounds of the Internet, a Sherlockian chat list, and he performed this job admirably for one run through the stories, the Canon, at the rate of one story a week. Later Steve was asked to take over as List-Owner of the Hounds, a task he zealously executed until his recent medical difficulties. I leave it to you to read for yourself some of the deluge of postings following his demise, postings which reveal the depth and breadth of his impact on Sherlockians around the world.
Back in the 60's Steve began to work with his friend and colleague Bill Fleishauer on a project of indexing by page number topics in the Canon, such as mentions of hansom cabs, the contents of 221B, weapons used in the stories, names of characters, and so forth. They came up with some 184 topics and sub-topics and listed them on 3X5 cards. Unfortunately Bill died as they came nearly to the end of the project, an event which devastated Steve and caused him to lay the project aside for thirty years. His interest was renewed after he got involved in Watson's Tin Box, and I was fortunate enough to help him index two of the last stories. Then he got a computer and the task was made a lot easier. Still later he hit upon the idea of indexing the information not only to the Doubleday edition's pages but also to the Murray, the Heritage, the Oxford and the Baring-Gould Annotated editions. It was published as The Canonical Compendium. It is an awesome work that I believe will be regarded with increasing respect over the coming years for the way it will help current and future scholars in their quests for details to support their research. I believe it is a seminal work, equal to and in many ways superior to all other previously published reference books. Just as the Annotated Sherlock Holmes provided a way to remove the blinders for new readers, the Compendium opens up a wide vista for experienced readers who need an efficient way to locate specific information.
Steve has had several articles published in The Baker Street Journal, including in the most recent issue an article relating the handwriting styles of then two halves of Ellery Queen to the similarity of styles of the Cunninghams in "The Adventure of the Reigate Squires."
Last year Steve Rothman, editor of The Baker Street Journal, asked our Steve to edit the Christmas issue of the Journal. The issue dealt with the emergence of young Sherlockian scholars in the 1970's, a topic for which he was eminently qualified from his role as mentor to The Board School Beacons. The Christmas issue is a stunningly well written and well edited work. It was definitely a labor of love for Steve, as it allowed him the opportunity to get back in touch with several of the young people, no longer quite so young, with whom he had had contact so many years ago. His love shows through in the contributions of those widely scattered scholars, and the BSI is indeed fortunate to have had Steve at the helm.
Those are part of the curriculum vitae of Steve Clarkson. It falls to me now to relate some personal recollections about my friend.
Steve was invested in the Baker Street Irregulars as "Morse Hudson," a shopkeeper mentioned in "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons." Once Steve found a book containing cartoons of many Sherlockian characters, but there was none of his BSI namesake. He wrote to the illustrator and asked what pecuniary inducement it would take to get him to do a rendering of Morse Hudson. The illustrator provided, at no cost whatsoever, a wonderful sketch of the irascible Kennington Road dealer in pictures and statuary. Steve used the image on his personal stationery and showed it off whenever he could.
Steve was an avid collector of many things: coins and weapons to name a couple, but his greatest interest was in the collecting of first magazine appearances of Doyle's works, Sherlockian and non-Sherlockian. It is a curious coincidence that the last Holmes magazine he needed to complete that portion of his collection was given to him gratis by a gentleman whom he had befriended on the Hounds List and whom Steve had assisted in some enquiry. That magazine contained "The Adventure of the Dying Detective." How ironic that it was Steve who was really dying at the time, although he did not know it!
I shall miss being invited over to Steve's digs for dinner. He made a wonderful shrimp salad, a scrumptious beef stew, spaghetti sauce that would delight any chef, and he even got me to taste, and then actually enjoy, corned beef and cabbage!
Sherlockians are by their very nature weird. I say that because it is true of every Holmesian I have ever encountered, and it is certainly true of myself. But Steve was even a bit weirder than most. I mean, what would induce a grown man to construct a model of the Reichenbach Falls of Switzerland in his back yard, equip it with a working pump to circulate the water, and furnish it with flora to scale? I wonder whether that project was the final problem that made him decide it was time to move away to find that cabin in the woods that had been on his mind for decades.
Steve was addicted to many things, although he had long since given up smoking and drinking in favor of a healthier life style. Not so eBay! He was hooked on that phenomenon, as am I from time to time. He had a daily routine of searching the site for things Sherlockian, and he often forwarded to me certain listings of items which he thought I would like to acquire for my Canonical evidence boxes. Our collections have become extensive and our wallets considerably thinner thereby!
There is a tendency when a person passes away to make the person into a saint. That has certainly been true when I think of the way in which some people have tried to turn my deceased wife into the Blessed Virgin Mary. But the Blessed Virgin Mary couldn't heave a toy xylophone at me as my Jo once did, and Steve would be the first to admit that he was no saint! But he was an honourable man, a man of conviction, and a man who inspired others to their better natures. He had a temper and did not suffer fools gladly. He was at his worst around people who preen themselves or put on airs because of their money, or possessions, or knowledge or contacts. I admired him and he still guides me.
Steve flirted with every woman he ever met! He was not, however, a womanizer. He was himself a whole-hearted admirer of womanhood, and he had always championed their inclusion in Sherlockian society. It has always amazed me that even his ex-wives and girlfriends still love him! I don't get it! Truly baffling!
I used to worry about Steve after he left Maryland (and its outrageous taxes: Steve often referred to our State as The People's Republic of Maryland) and went to live on his mountain in West Virginia. I pictured him as living the life of a hermit, albeit the fact that he was in daily contact with hundreds of people worldwide through the Hounds of the Internet. Still, he was far away, some 90 miles or so, and our weekly breakfasts at The Trolley Stop in Ellicott City had fallen to a monthly or semi-monthly trip to visit Audrey and Adam at our favorite haunt. He still made it to Watson's Tin Box, at least until his final months when the hernia pain got too much for him. I went to see him at his cabin three times I think. My last visit there included a wonderful rest while I watched him feed the deer which abound in the area. They would wait for him to scatter seed corn and then cautiously come in to feed. It was neat to see my friend in this rural setting. But I still worried about his becoming a hermit. It wasn't until the viewing yesterday that I realized that he was not at all devoid of human company. Two beautiful ladies came to pay their last respects Sunday evening. They are owners of the Warm Springs (WV) Restaurant, Susan and Susie. They regaled several of us with stories of Steve. Susan said, "I know you! You're Paul! I knew every time Steve came down to see you!" He ate at their place often, once a day usually, and sometimes more. He had his standard order of three pancakes and FOUR strips of extra crisp bacon, not the THREE strips that are on the menu. All the waitresses knew him. The cook knew him and said hello. Steve would see Susan with her hair pulled back and pinned, and flour all over her, and he'd say, "Good morning, gorgeous! You look beautiful!" He would stop by to tell them when he was coming down to Maryland, and he would check in with them to say he had returned safely. They will miss him greatly. They asked for a copy of the postings to the Hounds and said they'd get the pages laminated and keep them in the restaurant. He wasn't the hermit I had imagined him to be.
That hernia was caused by the colon cancer that was insidiously, relentlessly working its evil. He wasn't able to keep down his food or his medicine. He lost so much weight that he hadn't a belt in the house to hold his pants up, so he told me by phone. He had taken to wearing suspenders. He checked himself into the county hospital. That night the nurse called me to say they were unequipped to handle the case and were sending Steve to the Winchester Virginia Medical Center, some fifty miles away. I went to see him and got to meet his younger son Ken, a strapping giant of a man who called his dad "Shorty"! Things did not look good. They had discovered the colon cancer and were starting Steve on chemotherapy since he was in no condition to withstand surgery. I brought along many copies of Irene's Cabinet, a publication put out by Watson's Tin Box under the editorship of Beth Austin, to which Steve had been a contributor. I got him to sign all the copies, the only signatures we hadn't been able to get. I saw him again the following week, but things had already deteriorated significantly. Then, last Monday, I paid my final visit. I arrived at noon and found a sign on his door that instructed visitors to see the nurse first. I did so, and she went in to see Steve. He asked me to come back in an hour because he needed his rest. The morphine was allowing him to be relatively pain free, but he was not able to sleep soundly. I came back later and was admitted to his room. He said to the nurse, "This is Paul Churchill. He's my best friend!" I needed very much to hear that. During his few waking moments of that half-hour visit, I told him that Watson's Tin Box had decided unanimously to name the first prize in its essay writing contest for 7th graders the Clarkson Award. He was visibly surprised and pleased to hear the news. I am glad I went that day. The following afternoon I received a telephone call from Ken, and he told me that his dad had lapsed into a coma earlier in the morning and had passed away at four o'clock.
There is a card provided by the Witzke Funeral Home, and on it is a poem that Steve liked and which the family asked to have inscribed. It is called "Indian Prayer" and it goes as follows:
Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glint on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you wake in morning hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there. I did not die.
Steve and I had many discussions about religion and faith and the afterlife. His faith was unconventional but profound. I gave up religion for Lent. I would like to think that there is a place beyond the Reichenbach, so to speak, a place where Steve has already gotten the autographs of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson and Sir Arthur on his Compendium, and that he is now privileged to peer into that old battered tin dispatch box to see first-hand the unpublished manuscripts that scholars have longed to view. But in a sense it does not matter whether there is a place beyond. In fact he still lives on in the people with whom he came in contact, in you and in me and in the thousands of people around the world who met him and knew him, in person or on the net or in his books. He has changed us and will continue to live on in us. Si requiris monumentum, circumspice: If you seek a monument, look about you. WE are the monument, the legacy which he has left behind, and we will remember him.
Rest in peace, my friend.
See Steve Clarkson: His Writings for more about him.