For the past 17 years, the first face any terrified kid in trouble would see at the juvenile prosecutor’s office on Rock Hill’s Cherry Road was not a cop’s face.
The first voice on the other end of the telephone for a victim or worried parents was not a prosecutor.
The first contact was a grandmother with hidden pieces of homemade pound cake to be handed out like pirate treasure.
Then, if stern words were in order, she would dole out a warning about truancy and how all children could learn and prosper with hard work and by making good choices.
The voice and face were legend in the prosecutors’ office, and all of it came from a lady who didn’t even start the job until she had retired from a lifetime of work on her feet. The words came from a woman who never set foot in a courtroom and never prosecuted a single case.
“We always called Clara Feely ‘Ms. Clara’ because the whole world called her ‘Ms. Clara’ and that is what she liked,” said Ouida Dest, deputy solicitor over the juvenile office. “She did more than answer phones, greet people.
“She cared about every person she met.”
Ms. Clara would look at a child and tell that child that she might know the mother or the grandmother, and that trouble is not acceptable for children.
This lady who had run a school cafeteria for a generation until retiring, who started as a domestic worker as a child herself, who earned her high school diploma at age 46, would tell victims that people in that prosecutor’s office would help them – starting with her.
So when Ms Clara died after a short illness Saturday at age 82 – working almost right up to the very end – the office did not just lose a worker. It was a death in the family.
A staff meeting about pending cases turned into a tear-filled wake.
Ms. Clara’s desk remains unchanged, even after her death. The little Bible verses she used to get through each day – and help those in need of a lift – remain on the desk.
The office, busy, seems somehow empty without this lady who was famous for her cooking.
“A calm hand, a steadying force,” said Kevin Brackett, 16th Circuit solicitor. “She served as a constant reminder that in most cases, our job is to help kids get straightened out. Clara Feely had a wisdom from life that she shared with every employee, and everyone else, too.
“Ms. Clara – she knew.”
And Ms. Clara almost lost her job one time about eight years ago. The culprit was what is almost always behind potential job losses – red tape and bottom lines.
Ms. Clara came to the prosecutor’s office through an AARP program for retirees, and was so good she stayed on for years. But the money ran out, the program was not intended to last forever, so her position looked like it might be cut.
Prosecutors asked county leaders for enough money – a few thousand dollars – to make sure this position that is so much more than reception remained handled by a woman so much more than a receptionist.
Ms. Clara stayed eight more years. Only death kept her away from that desk.
“Uncountable” was the number of people Ms. Clara helped at that office, say prosecutors Dest and Brackett. Her impact on kids and curbing juvenile crime is measured on no statistical sheet, yet it is vast.
But work for Ms. Clara was no surprise, either. She came to the prosecutor’s office after almost 25 years cooking at, then running, the cafeteria at Rock Hill’s Ebenezer Avenue Elementary School, while raising seven kids with her late husband.
Uncountable children – back before bookkeepers ran cafeterias and school bureaucrats worried about how many lima beans each kid ate – had lunch because Ms. Clara fed every child whether the child had money or not.
And that school job came after years of other jobs, such as housecleaner and nanny.
“My mother, daughter of a sharecropper and one of 14 children, she worked her whole life and she never complained once,” said Clara Feely-Gray, a daughter who is a librarian at Sunset Park Elementary School.
“She worked during the day and went to school at night, and she earned a high school diploma so she could take the job to be in charge of the cafeteria.
“She inspired not just her own family, but every child she every met.”
Shaishas Footman found out that Ms. Clara died Wednesday. She remembered Ms. Clara because there is no way she could ever forget, even so many years later.
“I was in the fourth grade at Ebenezer Avenue school – I remember it like it was yesterday,” Footman recalled. “My mother always gave me money for lunch. One morning she was running late and I forgot my lunch money. I wasn’t going to be able to eat.”
Footman was at school, at the lunch table with her friends, when the legendary lunch lady spied the hungry little girl with braids in her hair.
“Ms. Clara brought me lunch, and she said no child in her school would ever not learn because there was nothing to eat,” Footman said. “I never forgot that day, when Ms. Clara showed me what it is to care about someone.”
Friday at Ms. Clara’s funeral, Dest and Brackett will speak.
These two people who speak publicly in courtrooms most every day of their work lives – before judges and juries, where keeping it together without emotion is a crucial part of the job – will try not to cry while speaking publicly about this woman whose wisdom came not from any school, but from her huge heart.
Chances are, both of these polished prosecutors, when speaking of this woman whose armaments were love and baked goods, just might fail to keep the tears from falling.