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Family Remembers Clifford Shuping, A North Carolina Veteran Lost To COVID-19

Clifford Shuping feeds his goats outside his home in Rockwell, N.C. A Korean War era veteran, Shuping died of COVID-19 at the N.C. State Veterans Home in Salisbury last month.
Courtesy of Carrie McKinney
Clifford Shuping feeds his goats outside his Rowan County home. A Korean War era veteran, Shuping died of COVID-19 at the N.C. State Veterans Home in Salisbury last month.

Clifford Paul Shuping, who served in the Army during the Korean conflict, passed away from COVID-19 at the State Veterans Home in Salisbury. As part of an effort to honor North Carolina veterans who have died during the pandemic, WUNC spoke with Shuping's family about his life and legacy.

Clifford Shuping's daughter, Carolyn Hess, said her dad might not have looked like Army material. As the smallest of his family's six children, he was known as "Wimp" in his youth.

"I've actually run into people from a long time ago, and they say 'Was Wimp your Daddy?'" Hess said.

But his size didn't stop him from enlisting when he was just 17-years-old, before he even finished high school. Shuping may have been itching to escape a rough childhood, where food wasn't guaranteed and his parents, who both worked second shift at the mill, were usually absent at night.

"I remember my aunt saying that one time they didn't have anything to eat, so they went out and picked dandelion greens and made sandwiches with it," Hess said. "So I think it was pretty rough for them growing up."

Those are not the stories that Shuping preferred to tell his adopted daughter Hess and his grandchildren. Instead, they remember his tales of sneaking off-base during his military service in Panama in the 1950s. He had an album of the pictures he took of the beautiful countryside, and he laughed about turning an unused Army building into a rollerskating rink.

"He loved that time of his life," said Shuping's granddaughter, Carrie McKinney. "He would tell wonderful stories of the friends he met."

In Panama, where Shuping was assigned a job supplying truck and machinery parts, he also found his profession. He spent the rest of his working life in the auto parts business, and fixing up cars became a favorite pastime. Hess said her dad's skill was truly impressive.

"When he got the antique cars, they were rust-buckets," said Hess. "You'd look at them and think this will never be a car you can ride in. And he would work and work and get them to where they're just beautiful."

Shuping's skill rebuilding the old classics led to some of the family's favorite memories together, especially the Fourth of July parade in Faith, N.C., where Shuping would put on suspenders and a little hat and drive the 1929 Ford Model A coupe he had found in a pasture and restored to gleaming new.

McKinney remembers watching her grandparents in their old-timey clothing as she and her brother and cousin threw candy out of the car from the rumble seat. Shuping was always striving to make sure the kids had fun when they came to stay at his farm during the summers. He took them on road trips to eat "squeaky cheese" at the cheese factory in West Jefferson, bought canvas at the military surplus store to erect a giant teepee they could play in, and tinkered around building the perfect playground for his beloved goats.

McKinney said that her Pawpaw, as she called Shuping, was a quiet man, though prone to wild exaggeration when he told stories. But overall he was a reliable and hard worker who was always available to lend a helping hand.

"What was important to Pawpaw was that he treat people fairly, that he did what was right," she said. "He wanted to be an example of somebody who would be proud to be followed."

Clifford Shuping stands alongside one of the antique cars he restored, a 1948 Ford convertible.
Credit Courtesy of Carrie McKinney
Clifford Shuping stands alongside one of the antique cars he restored, a 1948 Ford convertible.

Shuping worked until he was 80-years-old, when his family suggested he finally step back. After his health declined and dementia set in, they cared for him at home before finally moving him into the North Carolina State Veterans Home in Salisbury. He was there for only about six months when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.

When McKinney found out Shuping had contracted the virus, she felt tortured imagining what her Pawpaw was going through, confused and surrounded by staff wearing PPE, separated from family. She wanted to hold his hand, let him feel her presence in the room, and tell him that she loved him.

A video conference in the final days of his life allowed her to at least express her feelings to a man she loved and respected. "I was grateful to be able to have the opportunity, whether he could hear me or not, to be able to say the words. To tell him how much that he meant to me."

Shuping passed away May 19 at age 89. He never wanted a big funeral, just a graveside sermon. But Hess said he did want full military rites -- something the VA told her would have to wait because of social distancing requirements.

The family still hasn't been able to come together to honor Shuping's wishes. And without a funeral, there hasn't been much closure.

But there have been moments of comfort. When Hess went through her dad's things, she discovered a folder full of poetry he'd written over the years. It included one he'd written in his late twenties describing his own funeral. It ends like this:

"A song is sung, a prayer is prayed, a very short eulogy said.

People like to remember the living, but too soon they forget the dead.

A 100-yard walk to the cemetery plot where the grave is surrounded by flowers.

Here my body will rest in its ashes till Christ returns in his glorious powers.

I can see this whole ritual happening as my spirit looks down from above.

I wish I could say to you audibly: Look up, I'm with the King of love."

Hess said she wishes she could ask her father why he wrote that poem, especially at such a young age. But just finding it gave her a measure of peace. She felt like God wanted her to find it, and know just where her dad is. And that he's okay.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the model year of Clifford Shuping's car. The story has been updated to identify the car as a 1948 Ford convertible. 

Jennifer Brookland is the American Homefront Project Veterans Reporting Fellow. She covers stories about the military and veterans as well as issues affecting the people and places of North Carolina.
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