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Helmut Schmidt, Published October 10 2012

Fargo loses ‘Can Man’ who kept fields clean

FARGO – If heaven has softball and baseball, then the “Can Man” is probably now in charge of keeping the diamonds clean.

Willis Clemenson, known by many in the Fargo area as the “Can Man” after 17 years of picking up cans and trash at the city’s softball and baseball fields, will be buried today. He died at age 79 on Sunday.

“He was at all the ballgames all summer long. He cleaned those ballfields from morning to night. Sometimes he’d get home, and it would be midnight,” said his daughter, June Edmunds.

“He’d come home with a carload. And he’d sell them, and he’d give the money to his grandkids. He was very generous,” Edmunds said.

The Fargo man died at Sanford Health’s Palliative Care facility, succumbing to lung cancer, family members said.

Clemenson was so well known that ballplayers and spectators would leave soda and beer cans in bags and piles to make it easier for him to collect, people that knew him said.

Rene Smith, athletic field coordinator for the Fargo Park District, said he was a happy person who could be relied on to help, even though he never got a dime from the public coffers.

“He’d not only do the cans, but he’d pick up the garbage. Just a very caring guy,” Smith said.

Clemenson told her he was saving the money he earned from recycling the cans to give to his grandchildren to help them get through school.

“I know one time, somebody else came and picked up the cans at Anderson (Softball Complex). And he confronted them and told them, ‘If you’re going to pick up the cans, you need to pick up the garbage, too,’ ” Smith said.

She said that one year, she made sure he got a Fargo Park District shirt.

“It was like I gave him a million bucks,” Smith said. “He was just a nice, nice little guy. He’ll be missed.”

Clemenson was born June 4, 1933, in Horace, N.D., to Oscar and Mary (Anderson) Clemenson.

He grew up on the family farm near Horace.

He started working on American Crystal Sugar’s fall beet harvest campaigns in 1949, and found a full-time job with the company in 1952, working several jobs there over the years until he retired in 1995.

Clemenson’s son, Wayne, said while his father didn’t play softball, he loved to watch the games. Picking up the cans and other detritus was a hobby.

Players would invite him to post-game celebrations, so it was also a social time for him, his son said.

“It was a point of pride for him” to keep the fields clean, Wayne Clemenson said. “Even in the hospital and the nursing home, he said, ‘I’m going to get better and get back to doing that.’ ”

Clemenson married Gilberta Cossette on July 26, 1952 in Wild Rice, N.D.

He is survived by his wife; his son and daughter and their spouses; two sisters, three brothers and three grandchildren.

Greg Laffen, the commissioner of the Fargo Slowpitch Softball Association, said Clemenson was a quiet man. People didn’t realize how much good he did until he had gotten sick this summer.

Complaints came in about trash at the area’s diamonds. That’s when it was learned Clemenson was fighting cancer.

“Everybody liked him and everybody knew what he was doing it for,” Laffen said. “Very sad to see him go. I know he’s in a better place. He definitely will be missed.”

The funeral service is at 1 p.m. today at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Fargo. He will be buried in Holy Cross South Cemetery in Fargo.

Arrangements are being handled by Boulger Funeral Home, Fargo.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583