VILLA GROVE — It is somehow fitting that Paul Cler left this world on a day designated to honor fathers.
He knew a lot about that, having sired nine children with his wife of 74 years.
He was also the father of many inventions hatched in the machine shop that bears his name on the north edge of the Douglas County community he called home for most of his life.
Mr. Cler, 97, died Sunday at the Tuscola Health Care Center, where he had been since December 2015.
He outlived his wife, one son, five of his six siblings, two grandchildren, one great-grandchild and most of his friends, according to one of his sons, Ed.
"In his case, he was blessed with a large family," Ed Cler observed.
Indeed. Family members are hard-pressed to give an exact number of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren for whom Paul and Celestine "Cel" Cler were responsible.
"I would say there are about 35-ish grandchildren," Ed Cler said. Add in the greats- and the great-greats, and the number exceeds 70.
A native of the Pesotum area, where his father Henry worked in heating and cooling, Paul went on to exceed his father's skills, even with just an eighth-grade education, said his son.
After he and Cel — an Eisenmenger from Pesotum — married in 1941, they moved to South Carolina, where, as a civil servant, he taught sheet-metal work and did ship repair.
"His number came up in the 1940s to be drafted, and he chose to enlist in the Navy," Ed Cler said.
After the war, the couple returned to Villa Grove, where Paul continued to work with his brothers and uncles before transitioning into his own plumbing and heating business around 1951.
"It was originally Paul's Plumbing and Heating for many years until probably the name change started around the mid-1960s. He started emphasizing machine and welding and de-emphasized plumbing and heating," Ed Cler said.
The younger Cler said it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Mr. Cler's six sons would work with him. His three daughters chose other paths.
"Some of us moved away and tried different things. I served an apprenticeship in the Quad Cities but eventually some magnet in Villa Grove pulled me back. I was probably the last one to come back, in 1976," said Ed Cler, the fourth of nine children born in a 20-year span to the couple.
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Ed Cler recalled wryly that his mother once tallied up how many meals and sack-lunch sandwiches she prepared for the family, but the number is lost to history. She knew with clarity, however, that she was pregnant for a total of 81 months, or almost seven years.
With a Cler born just about every other year, there was little one-on-one time between parents and children.
Mr. Cler worked at the shop while Cel cared for their offspring in the house on Wilson Street that he built for them.
Neighbor Gale Underwood joked that Mr. Cler had to keep building on and remodeling his home to accommodate his growing clan. Underwood has lived for 51 years across the alley from where the Clers lived.
"He was a super-intelligent person. He and Cel were super-nice people. He wasn't hard to get along with.
"He was a businessman from the day he was born until the day he died," said Underwood, who said Mr. Cler insisted on paying him for mowing the yard, a task Underwood did to be neighborly.
Ed Cler said he and his siblings were fairly independent.
"Mom was so busy with raising all these children that I think our parents gave us a little more freedom than many parents today. The opportunity to experiment, make mistakes, learn from them was a big part of our growing up," Ed Cler said.
That experimentation worked well for the sons who eventually took over the shop.
"We all remember the date very well. Thanksgiving Day 1979, we were down at brother Kenneth's house, and Dad started laying out contracts around the table. We didn't know exactly what we were committing to, but ownership transferred on that day. The six brothers all signed in to buy him out, and everyone was gifted a little bit," Ed Cler said.
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Jon McNussen said he and his family moved in across the street from the Clers when he was in the eighth grade, becoming fast friends with Keith Cler.
"We shared houses, so I would go over and have a meal," said McNussen, whose relationship with the Cler parents grew as his friendship with Keith did.
That included going along on Cler weekend camping trips, using Mr. Cler's tools for hobbies in their basement, and working at the shop in the summers.
"(Paul) helped teach me welding and machinist work. He was a gifted and skilled tool designer, tradesman," said McNussen, a 27-year employee of Paul's.
Now the director of safety and human resources thanks in part to what he learned from his neighbor and mentor, McNussen said he admired Mr. Cler's ability to "come up with a concept in his mind and transfer those ideas and concepts to a working tool or machine. He was willing to help teach others how to do that. Paul was self-taught. He learned by reading books and applying what he read and learned."
"In some ways Paul was like a second father," McNussen said, choking up a bit.
After the Cler children had all moved out and McNussen still lived across the street, he would warm up his car or truck, have breakfast with the Clers, then drive Mr. Cler to work at the shop.
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The business that had about a dozen employees when Mr. Cler retired in 1979 has grown to a preeminent engineering, manufacturing and millwright business serving customers in other industries, including packaging, food processing, printing, grain handling and storage and mining equipment.
Ed Cler retired as president in January 2016, the same day as his brother Tom. Their older brother Kenny was the first to retire — around 2004 — and Marvin left in September 2018.
Brothers Keith and Pat Cler remain working there along with their nephew, Eddie Cler, who now serves as president. The company has about 85 employees today.
Keith Cler, at 61 the baby of the family, said his dad was a "perfectionist" who was "very intelligent" and had high expectations. Given that he was alone in the house with his folks during his high school years, his relationship with his father was a little different.
"He was nearing retirement and was more relaxed," said Keith Cler, who traveled alone a lot with his parents out west to visit his sister and family.
"I had older siblings. ... If there were any misunderstandings, I could lean on them."
Ed Cler said his dad was the kind of boss who delegated to his sons, who had similar thinking and aptitudes.
"I think my dad had a work ethic (that) if you work hard and are trying to do the right thing, he was very supportive. He wanted people not only to work hard but to work smart. He was a prime example of how to get a lot done with very little," Ed Cler said.
Among Mr. Cler's crowning achievements was the creation of a detasseling machine that allows the tassel to be pulled from the corn ear with minimal damage to the stalk. He held a patent for that and the gratitude of many teens who have done that sweltering work.
"He developed other solutions that never made it to the patent office. He found ways of getting things done that hadn't been done before," Ed Cler said.