GARY | The casket of former Gary Mayor Rudolph "Rudy" Clay lay Tuesday under an enormous chandelier and was surrounded by a veritable garden of flowers and greenery at the Genesis Convention Center.
Clay, 77, died last week after four decades in public service as elected representative of the city and Lake County. He served as state senator, a county recorder, councilman, commissioner and, finally, as mayor of Gary from 2006 to 2011. He bowed out of politics two years ago because of prostate cancer.
But it was the man, not the politician, who was remembered Tuesday during the early hours of his visitation service.
When Gary resident Roderick Lowery first met Clay, he said he didn't realize the man he was meeting was a mayor. Clay frequented The Salvation Army store in Hobart and always took time to speak with the employees, Lowery said.
At the time, Lowery was coming out of the darkest years of his life. He said he was battling a crack cocaine addiction and had been living in abandoned homes.
Lowery said Clay shared his vision for improving Gary and was "like a godfather to us." Those interactions gave Lowery hope for his own future.
"It helped me stay up on my feet," said Lowery, who has been cocaine-free for four years and six months. "It really built me up."
Gary resident Mary Smith, 63, also paid her respects Tuesday to Clay, a man she first met in the mid-1970s when he pierced her ears.
"He would shake your hand any time you see him," Smith said. "He did so much for the city of Gary and did so much for me, too."
Clay's former classmates from Roosevelt High School class of 1953 remembered him as a "go-getter" and "people person." His former peers said they called him "Toots" growing up, though they can't remember where the nickname came from.
Theresa Grigsby, 78, said Clay was part of their reunion committee and hosted picnics at his home every other year between reunions.
"He couldn't break us away," she said with a laugh.
Many others attended Clay's service who barely knew him.
Gary resident Donald Lott, 60, said he once saw a talk Clay gave about the economy and bringing Gary back to its glory days.
"He represented something that the city needed," Lott said. "He represented a positive change. Everything didn't go the way he wanted, but at least he tried."
Gary resident Tommie Nixon, 75, said she already had retired from the city of Gary when Clay came into office, but she said he was doing everything he could to improve Gary.
"I came to pay my respects because he was the kind of person you couldn't not pay your respects to," she said.
In the evening service, local politicians and pastors remembered Clay as a deeply religious person. A crowd of family and friends sat around Clay's casket, and ushers stood with boxes of tissues.
Many stopped to hug Clay's wife, Christine Clay, and his son Rudy Clay Jr., who sat closest to the casket.
The service wasn't entirely somber as many laughed as the speakers told stories of Clay constantly passing out campaign pins or bookmarks.
Throughout the service, the speakers called Clay a giant in local politics but acknowledged the challenges and criticism he faced as mayor.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said Clay's tenureas mayor was when the city was going through one of its most difficult financial periods.
Despite the challenges, state Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, said Clay's legacy would be intertwined with the city's history. He said Clay remained focused when faced with criticism.
"Rudy understood that he was born to make a difference," Smith said.
Gary Councilwoman Mary Brown said she, like others in the room, became involved in politics because Clay nudged her into the role.
Brown said she was part of a group dubbed the "Claymates" that helped with his election campaign for state Senate. She recalled going door to door campaigning while Clay was dressed in a tuxedo.
"He played such a major role in shaping politics in this community," she said.
The Rev. Carrell Cargle, who was Clay's pastor, told the crowd Clay loved people and tried to help the community.
"Well done, Rudolph!" he shouted to the crowd.
Clay's funeral will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Genesis Convention Center.