GARRETT — The Garrett community is feeling deep sorrow and loss following the unexpected death of Garrett High School Assistant Principal Jake Clifford on Wednesday.
The school district observed a two-hour delay Thursday for staff members to be able to process and grieve the passing of the beloved administrator at the young age of 36.
A graduate of Columbia City High School, Clifford began his career as a Garrett Middle School teacher in 2008 and has added many hats since then.
“Jake Clifford was an extraordinary educator, friend, colleague, husband and father,” said Garrett-Keyser-Butler Schools Superintendent Tonya Weaver. “The impact he had on the Garrett community truly is immeasurable. His laughter and smile could brighten any room. Jake poured his heart into G-K-B and thrived by being around our kids.
“We extend our deepest sympathies to his wife, Mallory, and four beautiful children.”
Mallory Clifford is an eighth-grade science teacher at Garrett Middle School.
Former Railroader football coach Ron Frickey has known Clifford since he was in the third grade in Columbia City. Frickey served as football coach for the Eagles for 20 years before coming to Garrett.
“Jake was in my circle of influence. He was a student, player, coach of mine and my assistant principal,” said Frickey. “He was one of the finest persons I have ever been around.”
He was also a mentor to Frickey’s son, Todd Frickey, a standout quarterback for the Railroaders who graduated in 2012.
“Jake was my son Todd’s coach, and they truly loved one another. Jake helped Todd become the man he is today.
“Heaven gained another great man yesterday,” Frickey added.
Clifford served as a varsity assistant football coach prior to Chris DePew taking over the Railroader football team in the fall of 2012.
“Teaching and coaching were his initial assignments,” DePew said. Clifford transitioned to middle school coaching in 2013 until about five years ago. He was the head boys’ track coach for a period of time, as well.
“Jake was an incredible man to be around every day,” said Garrett High School Principal Matt Smith. “He brought out the best in people, whether they liked it or not. He never liked seeing people struggle.”
Clifford was also a champion of school spirit at Garrett.
“He was always willing to do whatever we could to make school spirit a priority, even if it meant wrestling in a singlet during a pep session or lip-syncing to ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart,’” Smith added.
Nothing was off limits for Clifford when it came to Garrett pride.
Clifford took on the role of emcee of the Miss Garrett 2017 pageant, donning a strawberry-pink blazer on the stage. During the shorts competition, he introduced contestants while wearing a dress shirt and tie with cut-off denim shorts, argyle socks and leather oxfords to the cheers of the audience. He was a contender at pie-eating contests and was not afraid to dress in outrageous costumes to promote school spirit. His voice could be heard booming in the Paul Bateman Gym when he served as announcer for various sports events.
Best friend Bob Lapadot shared Clifford’s quieter side.
“Jake was the perfect friend. He was so calm and balanced. Nothing ever fazed him, and he always had the answer you needed to hear,” Lapadot said. “He was as selfless as anyone I’ve ever met. He gave all he could for our community and specifically our school and students.
“Jake loved his life, he loved being a dad to his four kids, and he was so proud to be married to Mallory. He loved his mom and was always so respectful of her. His love for others was always so evident,” Lapadot added.
Lapadot also praised his friend’s faith and positive attitude,
“Jake always believed that the best possible outcome was the only outcome! He strived to be the best he could be and wanted everyone else to do the same,” Lapadot said.
“He touched so many lives in his time here, but I can assure you that those same people who feel he touched their life, they touched his life, too. He remembered everything. We would see a kid we had in class 12 years ago, and Jake would have multiple stories about that kid. He didn’t just remember names, he remembered people, he remembered relationships. He wanted to let people in, he wanted to form bonds, he wanted to make a difference,” Lapadot added.
“Lots of people want to do things, not everyone accomplishes that goal. Jake absolutely accomplished that goal, and his legacy lives in the young generation of students that have been inspired by him. It’s reassuring to know that his legacy will not only live on in his own children, but it will live in through the lives of all kids he impacted daily.”
Grief counselors were on hand Thursday to comfort both students and staff members.
A Garrett pastor, Brother Bud Owen, shared Scripture found in Matthew 14:25 with the staff during a grief session in the morning. In those verses, Jesus is awake during the fourth watch, the darkest part of the night, when the waves were high. It was then God showed up and Peter began walking on the water.
Owen said during this sad time, we are to trust God and not ourselves, just as Peter trusted Jesus.
“Jake embodied every aspect of school spirit,” said Owen. “He gave every kid a fair shake. He was ‘Garrett Strong’ through and through. A good man with a big heart.”
Arrangements are pending at Feller & Clark Funeral Home in Auburn.