Things that people need

Written by Forrest Moyer on November 18, 2020

The following story about an important gift in 1995 to the Mennonite Historians of Eastern Pennsylvania was written by John L. Ruth and published in the MHEP Newsletter (July 1995).

Twenty-five years later, we continue to benefit from the generosity of Ernest and Lois Clemens, and many others who have supported MHEP over the decades. Will you consider a gift today toward the work of remembering Mennonite heritage and Anabaptist faith in this community?

Birds, trees, flowers, ferns, travel, geography and history.

This was a list of hobbies recently mentioned by an elderly member of the MHEP. And he left out an important one — music.

He also liked finance, and was a successful investor. “I didn’t buy and sell [stocks],” he said. ” I’d just buy, and lay them aside. I didn’t speculate.”

Ninety-five year old Ernest Rittenhouse Clemens shared this conservative philosophy with a happy group of staff and board members at The MeetingHouse [Mennonite Heritage Center] on April 25 [1995]. We were there to celebrate (and photograph) Ernest’s donation of stock in an amount sufficient to pay off the remaining amount of the debt on our wonderful headquarters-archive-­museum-meetinghouse.

“I liked to work with figures and deal with people,” Ernest went on. “That’s what it’s all about.” He was entertainingly modest about his investment success, reporting, “I bought mostly utilities and bank stocks.” A doctor in Lansdale, he said, had advised him early on, “People have to have utilities. Buy things that people need.”

That a conservative investor could understand that a facility and work like ours is something that “people need” is an inspiration to us all.

Ernest Clemens sharing memories of the manuscripts found in the archives of the Historical Library, April 25, 1995. MHEP Archives.

Librarian Joel Alderfer brought out of the Archives four bound manuscripts to put on the table where Ernest was sitting for our photograph. The oldest was a family ledger from the Jacob Clemens homestead next to the Salford Meetinghouse, placed by Ernest in our archives a few years ago. Beside it lay the first official minutes of Franconia Conference, kept by Ernest’s father J. C. Clemens beginning about 1909. Then there was the Treasurer’s record for the Franconia Mennonite Historical Society, of which Ernest was elected the first and permanent Treasurer in 1930. Finally came the Treasurer’s record book of the Franconia Mennonite Aid Plan, founded in 1937, kept, once again, by Ernest R. Clemens.

This was the background against which our President, Mary Jane Hershey, had broached to Ernest the suggestion that he might like to consider the possibility of making the major donation that would close out the indebtedness of our organization for its wonderful facility, built in 1990. Ernest needed only one night to “sleep over” this proposal; the next morning he called Mary Jane with the good news of his decision.

Ernest Clemens presenting his gift to MHEP Board President, Mary Jane Lederach Hershey. Photo courtesy of Jay Ruth.

There are so many poor investments around, Ernest remarked, “that sometimes it’s hard to find good places to give your money.”

And he went on, “If I’d have died at seventy-five I wouldn’t have been worth so much. When you depart, the only thing you can take with you is the clothes on your body.”

”When I came to Harleysville [National Bank] in 1942, the assets were $1,700,000. Today they are worth $800,000,000, with 15 offices.” [HNB was purchased by First Niagara Bank in 2009.] Remarkable enough, but hardly more so than the next statement of this veteran bank-cashier: “From 1919 to 1991 (72 years) I never missed a day at work or a meeting (while board member).”

For forty-two of those seventy-­two years the office of the Franconia Mennonite Aid Plan was in Ernest’s home on Derstine Avenue in Lansdale. Now, on land made available through the present generation of leadership of the Aid Plan, Ernest’s contribution will have a continuing legacy.

“God lengthened out my days,” Ernest mused, observing further that his stock-holdings were successful because “Everything went up in the last years.” Yes, observed his wife Lois (Gunden), but ”You had good judgment in investing.”

Ernest and Lois Clemens with Joel Alderfer in the MHEP Archives, April 25, 1995. Photo courtesy of Jay Ruth.

“The job isn’t very good,” Ernest was helpfully advised when he took his first banking position at Doylestown, “but it will have prestige.” “I didn’t care about the prestige,” he recalls.

Ernest has been a presence in our Mennonite historical work longer than any other living person — since 1930. Like the oaks he planted years ago on Derstine Avenue, which now provide shade and beauty as they tower over the house he lived in for so many years, Ernest’s gift that has helped to plant our MeetingHouse [Mennonite Heritage Center] will bring blessing to many a future member of his wider spiritual family, and those who visit its memory.

It was in the Plains congregation that Ernest’s well-known father was minister, and he himself a long-term song-leader. His brother James was Librarian at Goshen College, his son-­in-law a professor there, and his granddaughter Susan Fisher Miller has recently written an official history of the College.

“I’m wrapped up in Plains and Goshen,” Ernest smiled.

And, we would gratefully add, in the MHEP!

[Ernest R. Clemens passed away on 3 July 1997 at the age of 97.]

Commemorative fraktur for Ernest Clemens, by Roma Ruth, 1995.

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