Paul VanCleve Langston (November 27, 1915 - April 10, 2014)

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  • "When I think of my friend, Cleve, I always picture him with..."
    - Cathy McNally
  • "Cleve will always be remembered for his unwavering..."
    - Tom McNally
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Cleve Langston died quietly at his home in Happy Valley at 5:30 p.m. on April 10, 2014.

He achieved the age of 98 years remarkably free of debilitating physical ailments until just the last few weeks of his long, happy and productive life.

Born as the youngest son into a large, rollicking homesteader family, Cleve learned the values of hard work and familial love.

His mother, Donnie (Dora Van Cleve Langston) raised five children on a dry-land section in Sweetgrass County, Montana, during the Great Depression. She was the daughter of a prominent Montana pioneer family (her father had known Chief Sitting Bull, Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickock), but she happily relinquished her advantages to marry Jesse Langston, a charming, fun-loving, hard-scrapple settler from Georgia.

Despite his father's unceasing efforts to do any and everything to provide for the family, times were tough. And they got tougher when Cleve's mother suffered a stroke giving birth to his younger sister.

For a time, she could not engage in her greatest pleasure, reading. So little Cleve, just then learning to read, would sit next to her bed, night after night, reading aloud to her by kerosene lamp. In time, Donnie recovered, and Cleve had skipped ahead a few grades in school.

Cleve often spoke fondly of his school (his family had somehow managed to donate the land for it) and of his teacher. Even as his memory faded in his later years, he could recount the details of the school day and how his teacher, the marvelous Mrs. Hershey, would prepare the lunchtime meal on the potbelly stove from whatever ingredients the parents could spare to send along with the kids.

Cleve always maintained that his one-room schoolhouse provided the best possible education because you could listen to the upper grades' lessons for new information, and by hearing the younger kids recite, you were reminded of what you already knew. It must have worked.

Cleve graduated from high school at 16, a scrawny kid everybody liked to pick on. Just about that time, his father died from pneumonia.

The family couldn't allow more than one son to go off to make his way through college, so the three brothers drew lots, and the winner was Cleve's brother Phil Langston (late of Sequim, where he and son and grandson have served as teachers, coaches and administrators at Sequim High School).

It was his brother and his wonderful wife, Tots, who caused Cleve to eventually choose Sequim as his retirement home.

But to hear Cleve tell it, his growing-up years were all rodeos and barn dances, family pranks, good horses and better friends. The Langston family didn't have much except for each other . . . but that was plenty enough.

Still, Cleve knew that real opportunity was hard to come by in Depression-era Montana and that some in his family had set off for new lives in Southern California. Besides, he had just lost a gal and his paying gig as the drummer in a local swing band, plus those Montana winters were so harsh.

So he left his beloved mom and siblings — Jess, Phil, Allie and Dorothy — and set out.

It was in pre-war San Gabriel Valley (Pasadena, Arcadia, Monrovia) that Cleve began the life he had hoped for. Despite the odds, he found work (the one applicant chosen out of a hundred for a Standard Oil station mechanics job).

"It was because I had the good manners my mother taught me," he would say.

And even better than a job, he found a wife, Mildred Lorraine Mayne Langston, late of Scottsdale, Arizona, whose family had come from Iowa to start a chicken farm in what is now a nice neighborhood in Arcadia.

Millie soon presented him with his first daughter, Lynne Lorraine Langston Prosser of Pinetop, Arizona, and then a second girl, Julie Ann Langston of Phoenix, Arizona.

Although exempt from the draft due to his age and growing family, Cleve enlisted in the Navy. Fortunately, it was toward the end of World War II, and he was never stationed further afield than San Diego, California, so he was largely spared the horrors of that conflict, save for the loss of good friends.

Upon returning home from the Navy, Cleve began to see that he had a gift for selling. Persistence, persuasiveness, honesty and courtesy were traits he possessed, and when applied to sales in the booming food industry, Cleve began to sense that economic security was possible for his family.

It would still be a long, difficult road, but the destination was in sight.

Just as well, since his third child, a boy this time, Brian Evan Langston of Santa Ana, California, had just arrived on the scene.

After working for several grocery products manufacturers and distributors that necessitated moving the family from California to Michigan and Texas, then back to California again, Cleve was ready to do something crazy: He would take the job offer to be sales manager for a little Mexican food manufacturer in Mesa, Arizona.

This was the early 1950s, long before most people had even heard of tortillas or refried beans, much less considered eating such "strange food."

And this new company had only a year before built its processing kitchens.

The company turned out to be Rosarita Mexican Foods, for many years now the largest American manufacturer of packaged Mexican food products. And Cleve turned out to be its general manager and CEO for more than four decades until his retirement.

Cleve's contribution to the astronomical growth of Mexican food in the United States is chronicled in the definitive book on the subject, Taco USA by Gustavo Arellano.

Cleve and Millie settled into a modest house in a good school district in Scottsdale that became their home for more than 40 years, through Mildred's death in 1983 and on to Cleve's retirement a few years later.

Lynne married and started a family in California, Julie got a great job with the airlines, and Brian went off to a good university.

Of course, there were challenges. The foremost was overcoming the disease that had plagued Cleve from his early days as a bootlegger's helper in Montana: alcoholism.

With the encouragement of wife and friends, Cleve attended his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Fifty-three years later, until his death, he never took another drink. And, as so many AA members do, he dedicated himself to helping others struggling with addiction.

He attended AA meetings religiously, sponsored many in recovery, donated to the establishment of rehab centers, was a frequent speaker at AA conferences and helped organize new meeting groups, including one in Sequim that after starting with five members has grown to be of support to the dozens of attendees to its daily meetings.

Soon after achieving his sobriety, it was sorely tested. Cleve's daughter Julie was severely injured in a car accident. He was at the hospital every morning before work and again every afternoon before going home throughout her long and difficult recovery, just as he had been at his mother's bedside so many years before.

Julie recovered, and Cleve's new life as a non-drinker flourished.

Even the grief over the death of his wife, Millie, was overcome.

And soon he met the second great love of his life, Mary Lou Rawlings Langston, late of Sequim. She was a highly educated and sophisticated widow from Texas whom he met through the recovery community in Phoenix. She was more than a match for him.

They were married, and prompted by frequent visits here and the urging of his brother, Cleve and Mary Lou found their retirement oasis in Happy Valley, where they lived happily for more than 30 years.

Cleve golfed with his AA buddies, fished with his brother and nephews, beat all comers at gin rummy and gardened — until the local elk herd stomped his crops just one too many times.

But although still in remarkable physical condition, after the protracted illness and death of Mary Lou, Cleve's memory was failing to the degree that he needed help to get by. First his daughter Lynne stepped in as a live-in home caregiver.

Cleve's granddaughter, Stacy Prosser of Sequim, took on that responsibility about a year ago, providing him with the most loving care imaginable. Stacy was with him until the end, as were his sister-in-law, Tots Langston, and his most constant and faithful friend, Neil Cays.

The family is so grateful for all those, including the kind health care professionals from Volunteer Hospice of Clallam County, who made Cleve's final days as comfortable as possible.

Cleve experienced more changes in his lifetime than most of us can even imagine: from kerosene to electric light, horses to automobiles and planes, farm to city, two world wars and the Great Depression, deprivation to comfortable success, affliction to recovery. He was the patriarch of a five-generation family.

He is survived by three children, five grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and 11 great-great grandchildren (with another on the way in a few weeks).

There will be a celebratory service for Cleve this summer at a Langston family reunion in Montana.
Published in The Peninsula Daily News on May 4, 2014
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