Carolyn Higgins — Contributing Writer
Polio – short for poliomyelitis, a contagious, crippling viral infection that wreaked havoc on lives in the United States in the early to mid-1900s, is all but forgotten in Macon County due to advances in knowledge, philanthropy and preventive care such as vaccines. Many people are unaware that Western North Carolina had the largest outbreak in the U.S., with Asheville and Hickory being hardest hit. That is not the case, however, with Milbern Clouse, who contracted the disease in 1948 when he was only four years old. This was just 27 years after Franklin D. Roosevelt contracted the disease in 1921 at age 39.
Adults and children were susceptible to polio, but due to the hundreds of children who were infected and crippled, it became known as infantile paralysis. The first to contract polio in Macon County and blessed to be a survivor, Clouse, a miracle child, went on to lead a life of service to family, church and community, becoming a top Wal-Mart producer for the Children’s Miracle Network.
“He has touched many lives and has inspired many like me,” said Carroll Poindexter. Poindexter, a family friend, church member and nursing home visitation partner with Clouse, is moved by someone who goes through so much, yet gives so much to uplift others. “I’ve known him for several years. He has been an inspiration to me in our work with the church and rest homes. He is an asset to the community and when you cross paths with him, you don’t forget him. When I’m down and out, all I have to do is talk to Milbern and he lifts me up.”
A familiar sight as a greeter at the Franklin Wal-Mart, he has reportedly made a difference in young and old. “You can’t help but notice him because he talks to everyone coming and leaving – people automatically show their receipts, and he doesn’t make you feel like a thief,” said Bill Basehore. “It’s like he’s got eyes all around his head.” Basehore was drawn to Clouse when he first began visiting the Franklin Wal-Mart and says he hasn’t seen anything like this in his visits to many Wal-Marts around the country. “It is unusual for someone to be that upbeat all the time. He’s had a rough life, but that doesn’t stop him. He’s too busy cutting up with kids and adults – 90 percent who seem to know him. You can tell he enjoys people and his job. I personally go in there just to see him and get a dose of that charisma.”
It took a while for him to make that transformation from the strong rowdy kid he was to the caring, giving gentleman of today. Fortunately for Clouse, his childhood and farm life most likely helped him survive the polio that struck 2,516 people in N.C. and caused 143 reported deaths.
Born in 1944 in the Watauga community just outside the Franklin city limits, Clouse recalled not having electricity or other modern day conveniences and often heard his proud daddy, Guy Clouse describe how they settled in the community.
“My daddy was born up there and raised up there, until he went to Gastonia to work in the cotton mill. That is where he met Valeria Davis, courted her, married her and convinced her to come to Franklin.” The city girl had to learn everything about the country from scratch – things were quite different from what she had imagined. “My grandmother had never been to the mountains, but love has a way of making you adjust,” said Clouse’s daughter, Stephanie.
The successful union produced eight offspring, including one set of triplets, survived by two twins. Milbern is the middle child with three sisters and three brothers. “Well, not only am I a middle child, but I was born in the middle of the month of July,” said Clouse.
The elder Clouse came “back this way” to take care of 72 acres of land, and he loved farming. “Daddy worked the farm and mother ran us and the house,” said Clouse. “From the time you were big enough to do a chore, you worked the cows, chickens and hogs – practically everything you ate. All the corn was raked with a hoe and it was hard work.”
During that era, by the time young boys were 12 years old, they were expected to do a man’s job. “The old folks would say ‘work like a man,’ and they meant it,” said Clouse.
His oldest brother had moved away and the oldest sister was in Michigan. Since he was the oldest one left on the farm, Clouse had to prove he could do a man’s job. So, he farmed the corn and put up hay with a pitchfork before there were tractors. He worked sun-up to sun-down and also had to take care of his horse. Later his son and daughter had their horses and were taught to take care of them.
Despite the hectic schedule, Clouse was still expected to attend school. He started first grade in a two-room school with two teachers, one who was a principal. The teacher taught first through fourth, and the principal taught fifth through eighth grade. After eighth grade, he went to East Franklin.
Recalling how rough it was, Clouse described things he says people take for granted today. “Toilets were outside, and our playground was the nearby red clay banks,” said Clouse. “Some boys were rough, and they would grab the britches, throw them in the toilet hole and the poor victims had to go away without their britches. You could hear them screaming all the way down the road, running to their mommas. And boy would those mommas be mad.”
Clouse described one of the boys who would taunt the others. “He was a cripple boy with one leg and one hand, but he could hop and go faster than most folks thought, and boy was he mean,” said Clouse. “I can still hear him teasing us with that nursery rhyme, ‘Georgia Porgy pumpkin pie, kiss the girls and made them cry’ except he was picking at me and some other boys.” Clouse said working on the farm made him tough, so he had to show the boy what he was made of. The kid got in a few good licks, but Clouse beat him down, and he never bothered him again. “I’m a fighter and always was a fighter from day one,” said Clouse.
The fight in him saved his life. He was four years old when he awakened one morning burning with fever and felt he couldn’t walk. The family didn’t have a car, but it was a close knit community with friends and relatives living close. Fortunately, his Uncle Lee Crawford lived a few feet away, and his father carried him there for a ride to the late Doctor Horsley. The doctor’s office was where Wells Fargo bank is now located, and Clouse still remembers feeling sicker as his father carried him up the stairs. Although he was just four years old, when Horsley said the diagnosis was polio, something about that tone and his father’s and uncle’s reactions didn’t feel right. “My father said we had to go to Asheville right now,” said Clouse.
He recalls riding in the back seat to Asheville but doesn’t remember getting to the hospital. “It was a long trip back then, but I remember the pungent smell of the paper mill in Canton,” said Clouse. “I’m 73 years old, but it’s funny at four years old what you can recollect.” It was a trying time for the toddler who cried a lot, especially when his daddy had to leave him.
Things were a bit more bearable because two nurses were especially good to him. They would encourage Clouse with kind words and tuck him in before he went to sleep. However, it only eased the loneliness and aching a little. “Wherever I was in the hospital room, I could see the highway out the window. I would sit there looking for Uncle Lee’s car and for them to come take me home,” said Clouse.
His family has taken recent trips to Asheville trying to recall the exact spot of the hospital. So far, they have found that Dorothy Holland was one of the nurses from 1948 until 1952, and the old hospital called The Asheville Orthopedic Home has evolved into another health facility.
His mother hadn’t seen him since he left, and he doesn’t recall how much time had passed. “When she did come with my Uncle Lee, I said ‘Hello Uncle Lee’ instead of speaking to my mother first,” said Clouse. He was excited to have a little red tractor the family brought him. “The attendants were real particular about infection, because they didn’t know what they were dealing with,” said Clouse. His eyes began to fill with tears as he thought of that red tractor. “It was a nostalgic moment – all the kids were home, and they had to feed them and take care of them, so that was some sacrifice for me.” Tears flowed as he finished the story. “I dropped the tractor on the floor and the nurses wouldn’t let me have it back. I didn’t know why; I just wanted it.” Later, when he was older he understood the hospital didn’t know what they were dealing with and could not take any chances.
Clouse knows he was hospitalized for some time. It was an epidemic so they quarantined schools, churches and just about any public place, because they didn’t know the cause. There were so many kids that had it. The hospital couldn’t handle the volume, so they put army tents outside on the lawn to house all the infected.
Fast forward to Clouse in his role as Greeter at Wal-Mart. It was around the second year he was with Wal-Mart as a greeter when the company began collecting money for Children’s Miracle Network. One day, he kept hearing them say, you’re doing good if you get $50. “Something hit me and I said give me that hat; I don’t know what happened but I raised $512,” said Clouse. He remembers it just as plainly. “Nobody ever raised more than that in one day. It changed my life, and I caught a positive ‘fever.’ I have done it now for 10 years.”
After the first year, he took a tour at one of the sponsored hospitals for kids and saw all Wal-Mart had done for them. Tearfully, he shared what hit him most was a big room of toys that Wal-Mart had provided as it does each year. They sanitize the whole room before the kids get in and back then, he couldn’t get back his one little tractor. He has such compassion for the work Children’s Miracle Network performs and for the role Wal-Mart plays. He is a Christian and loves the Lord, so he got to thinking about the Bible saying: “as you’ve done unto the least, you have done it unto me.”
Clouse dedicated the bucket, saying this is the Lord’s bucket. “I said to God, ‘you take care of the bucket, and I’ll just stand here and hold it,’” said Clouse. That partnership has worked every since, with Clouse’s heart strings pulling at passersby – children and adults who have donated from $10,000 to $12,000 to Children’s Miracle Network each spring. He said the cashiers are especially helpful, too.
Clouse overheard one guy telling his wife, “Wal-Mart gets that money.” That bothered him because he knows the truth. “Wal-Mart lets us do this and pays us for our job. But they don’t get any of this,” said Clouse. “I’ve seen the checks.” The man who is well-to-do, put $5 in the bucket after he realized that Wal-Mart sends 100 percent to Children’s Miracle Network. Clouse was satisfied with the man’s good seed.
“I love my job, but I knew there was something more to being a Wal-Mart Greeter that God had in store for me,” said Clouse.
Although Clouse gives his whole effort to the Children’s Miracle Network campaign, he says his passion is symbolic for the many organizations that have helped him and other families. He knows these stays can be long and costly for children and families dealing with illnesses except for the generosity of organizations similar to the American Red Cross, March of Dimes and public establishments such as health departments and prayers and donations from churches and their affiliates.
Clouse doesn’t know how long he stayed initially at the hospital, but he does remember being excited when his Uncle Lee came to get him. He stayed at his uncle’s house for a month and was spoiled rotten. So much so that he pouted when he realized he had to go home and sat on the steps and cried. His uncle was a preacher and had to go away for a funeral and other business.
Since his family was poor, Ms. Shope, a Macon County Health Department nurse, was his overseer. He was very scared of her and made a bee-line for the bed when she came. That is the only thing that kept him in bed resting as he was instructed. The Red Cross took care of the monies, because he had several surgeries on his right leg until he was 12 years old. Every summer after the surgery, he was fitted with a new cast. That did not keep him from outrunning some of the kids and being mischievous. “I didn’t want sympathy and I was determined the other kids weren’t going to outdo me,” said Clouse. “That didn’t sit well with my sister who was five years older than me; she was determined to pet me and spoil me.”
The petting conflicted with his reputation as a fighter. He had always been a fighter – fight the bully who picked on small children, fight the polio that affected him and other children. Unfortunately, even fight the doctor’s orders. “Doctor Horsley told me to get a good education because I wouldn’t be able to work like others, but I could use my head,” said Clouse. “I didn’t listen, but I overcame the odds because of my size, being muscular from the farm work – I really believe that helped me recover from the Polio. My legs were weaker than the rest of my body, but it didn’t bother me.”
As a teenager, his daughter Stephanie recalled the effect his muscles had on her potential wooers. “He scared the boys away because of his Popeye arms and big booming voice,” said Stephanie (Clouse) Ramsey. Ramsey says her dad was always adventurous and passed that on to her even taking her on a wagon train when she was just 12 years old. “Back then I thought it was either really dumb or really brave.”
Despite all the challenges, Clouse was still a teenager who thought he was grown at age 14. So he wanted to go to town to the pool room. He slipped off and down the road he went. He would hide in the bushes if he saw his parents, then he would thumb a ride to town. Despite the age limit of 18, he was allowed inside and became a regular, staying until the pool hall closed. At midnight he would hoof back home to slip into the unlocked door of the family home. “That worked well for a while until I felt I was grown and left a note that I was never coming back,” said Clouse. “Well, with a change of heart I made my way home again, only to find the door locked. I raised the front window and thought I was home free, until I saw my daddy standing there. He turned on the lights and didn’t say a word. He just turned around and walked away.”
Something was about to happen that would change Clouse’s life forever. The encounter with his dad slowed him down a little, but what really got him was meeting Eva Nell. “We went to school together and didn’t know each other,” said Clouse. “This friend told me about her one day, and when I met her, I knew that was my woman. She knew to find me in the pool room. That didn’t feel so good after a while, and I never went back to the pool room. My mother couldn’t believe the change.”
They married in 1964 and rented for five years, building their first home in 1969. “Stephanie (Ramsey) was born first and 15 years later our son Dale was born. Between the two of them, we have six grandchildren,” said Clouse. “All are precious to us and that is why we have a family tradition of Thursday night dinner. We talk and play and pray, even the six-year-old says prayer. Our family has been through so much, but we have so much to be thankful for, and we don’t want to take this for granted.”
Something else happened that Clouse was hoping would escape him. At age 45, he was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy as his mother was a carrier of the gene that causes MD. “If you are a carrier and have a boy, there is a 50/50 chance of the male child contracting it,” said Clouse. “The family had memories of my mother’s dad falling a lot before they knew he had MD. Despite this new challenge I still did not want to depend on a cane or a wheelchair. My concern now is with my other family members, including my brother who has been in a wheelchair for 30 years. Since my daughter is a carrier, a recent biopsy revealed my grandson also has MD.”
Ramsey is emulating her father’s spirit while facing her own challenges. “He is such a proud man. He won’t use a cane and doesn’t want pity. Despite everything he is very happy, happy,” said Ramsey. “I see him as a role model and as he doesn’t want people to focus on his MD, but to see him as a devoted family man.” His children see him as a towering figure.
“My Dad gave me the greatest gift you could ever give another person because he always believed in me,” said Ramsey. “I have never stood alone. My dad was always a potent, moral force in my life, even telling me the brutal, honest truth, no matter what.”
He has the same effect on his son Dale and he sums it up nicely to his dad. “No matter how tall I get, I will always look up to you,” said Dale.
Clouse is thankful the disease has lessened its toll on other families. “It was six years after my diagnosis for polio that the Salk vaccine was developed,” said Clouse. “As far as I know the disease has been wiped out. There is no cure and nothing that be done to stop it once it is contracted. It is a progressive, regenerative disease.”
Clouse is correct that Polio has been eradicated. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Polio has been eliminated from the United States thanks to widespread polio vaccination in this country. This means that there is no year-round transmission of poliovirus in the United States. Since 1979, no cases of polio have originated in the United States.” [Source Lakia Bryant Media Officer at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/polio/us/index.html on March 5, 2018.]
In Clouse’s own words, he is an up-lifter and an encourager. More than one person has jokingly asked him whether he had plastic surgery for that smile. “No, but I had a heart transplant; God came in and changed my heart from stone to a heart of flesh,” said Clouse.
Asked if he has survivor’s remorse, Clouse is quick to say his he is too busy being blessed and focusing on today and hoping for tomorrow. “After all, if I don’t get up in there [Wal-Mart] and wear my funny hat, how am I going to get my hilarious propositions from men and women?” said Clouse. He is quick to say he jokingly tells them he’s been happily married to Eva Nell Clouse for almost 54 years.
The funny hat that brings success for Clouse and Children’s Miracle Network has a nice history. A lady who had been the recipient of Clouse’s cheer, wanted to pass it on. One day she saw him in another hat and offered one she had made and worn to the Kentucky Derby. Without hesitation, Clouse accepted the straw fedora-style hat with the colorful bouquet of flowers, and it has been quite an attention-getter. He always wears that crazy flowered hat,” said Basehore. “He does that for a cause, and it makes me want to hand him money every time I go out although he scorns that I don’t have to give like that.”
He has worn the floral hat about four years to raise the money. “And it has the magic; it’s like Frosty the Snowman,” said Clouse.
Basehore feels the real magic is in Clouse, his spirit and his refusal to self-pity but to focus on helping others.