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When Riley Clapp drew his last breath on August 6, 2012, my phone lines lit up and the emails came pouring in. We all knew Riley had been sick, and most of us had heard that he’d gone on hospice. But I suppose we all thought we’d see him one more time, that sly grin of his and that shock of white hair. Ah, the things we put off doing and then regret.

Riley was a pioneer in long term care, that old-fashioned type of guy who didn’t just provide long term care, he lived long term care. Riley’s funeral was beautiful — bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace,” his large family all holding hands, the NC long term care community in full attendance and, as Riley would have wanted it, everyone crying and laughing at the same time, as the minister gave a eulogy that was classic Riley Clapp.

As the preacher recounted the stories of Riley’s life, I laughed so hard that I forgot I was sitting in a church only a few feet from a legend’s casket. He told about Riley’s kids growing up in the nursing home, taking their after-school and summer naps on the beds with the residents, and then how the nephews and grandkids also hung out there with Grandpa, learning some important lessons, like what a Riley spanking felt like for the grandkid who took off when Riley turned his back and was spotted heading toward town on foot, until Riley caught up with him.

He also told about the morning the school principal noticed the school water tower had been painted. Riley pretty much knew who had done it, so he made them climb back up the tower and repaint it. I guess he figured the odds were pretty good that some of his brood were responsible. Riley was also apparently responsible for several power outages in town, and when the third blackout hit, one neighbor said to another, “Wonder which power pole Riley hit this time?”

The preacher also described a man of contradictions who, as the minister said, “was tight as a tick with his money,” but the first one to reach for his wallet for someone in need. Over the years, the story goes, Riley loaned five dollars to many a struggling neighbor, always requiring an IOU. If they came back a second time for more, Riley reminded them they hadn’t paid the last five dollars yet. So they’d tell him a sob story, he’d listen, take another IOU and hand ’em another five bucks. I doubt Riley ever got any of that money back, but then I don’t imagine he ever expected to.

I knew Riley from my many years working with the North Carolina Health Care Facilities Association. If he ever missed an annual or summer convention, I don’t remember it. I used to always marvel that he’d come and sit through every one of my lectures, no matter how boring, like an administrator in training soaking up new information. He’d always seek me out to tell me he enjoyed the presentation. We both knew that Riley Clapp had learned and forgotten more about long term care than I’ll ever know. But still, he came.

One summer at the convention, standing on that big windy hotel patio by the pool, I asked him, “Riley, what’s been the secret to your success? You’ve got a loving wife, great kids, a successful business and everybody loves you.” He looked at me and said, “Well, first, everybody doesn’t love me. But I guess you could say I’ve worked hard, played hard and loved big.” I never forgot those words and hope I never will.

Riley was also a big supporter of the work Carron Suddreth and I do in Nicaragua. One summer he grabbed me and said, “Son, I’m mighty proud of the work you are doing with the old folks in Nicaragua. That’s really something.” Then, in classic Riley fashion, he got that mischievous twinkle in his eye and said, “You must’ve done some bad stuff when you were younger to have to do all this now to make up for it.” We both laughed, but he sounded like a man who’d been there and understood youth, mistakes and our eternal quest for redemption.

Cheryl told me after Riley’s death that every time we’d send out a request for donations or supplies for Nicaragua, Riley would grab her and say, “Now Cheryl, what are we gonna send Ken?” Riley, you need to know that you’re still helping us out. At this summer’s convention, we had a little auction, hoping to raise a few thousand dollars for our new national elder care training center in Nicaragua, the first of its kind in Central America. When Cheryl heard about it, she and her cousin Denise Campbell pulled me aside and said, “We’d like to meet your entire event goal. Riley would have wanted that.” And they did.

I’m honored that Cheryl and her family have agreed to let us put Riley Clapp’s name on one of the treatment rooms at the new national training center to honor his and his family’s legacy and their generosity toward our project. His name will be up there with my daddy’s and many of my NC friends and clients.

When I decided to write this tribute to Riley, I struggled through many drafts, because, after all, what could I say that would be worthy of his life, which as he once told me, hadn’t been all good or all bad? As I write this, I still don’t know how to end it, other than to say that Riley was a man who always treated me with respect; he called me “son” when he talked to me, not like a father but like a mentor; he shared with me the wisdom of his mistakes, his successes and his years. He gave me two of the best pals a guy could ever have — his daughter Cheryl and his niece Denise; and, most of all, he was my friend. More than that, you cannot ask for on this earth, and I am blessed to have known him.

So in closing, I will remember and honor Riley Clapp by taking the best advice anyone ever gave me, straight from Riley’s mouth one summer afternoon standing by a pool: “Son, work hard, play hard and love big.”

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