Ann Clymer, mother who forced attention on drunken driving, dies at 75


In this May 21, 1992 file photo, Adam Clymer, left, and his wife, Ann, announce the settlement of suit in the drunken driving death of their daughter, a student at the University of Vermont. A scholarship set up in the memory of Jane emily Clymer, killed by a drunk driver in 1985, is still helping women at at UVM. Ann Clymer died Sunday. (Toby Talbot/AP)
February 13, 2013

Jane emily. That was how Ann Clymer’s daughter, an individualist, liked to write her name. Jane emily, with a lowercase “e.”

On Sept. 14, 1985, Jane emily, then a junior at the University of Vermont, was walking her bike along a rural road near the school when she was struck by a drunk driver.

It was a Saturday afternoon, in broad daylight. The driver, Theron Webster, had a previous conviction for drunken driving and later admitted that he had been drinking all day. His blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit.

Mrs. Clymer and her husband, New York Times journalist Adam Clymer, raced up the East Coast to the hospital in Vermont. On the way, she had a premonition that their daughter had died.

Jane emily was still alive when the Clymers arrived at the intensive care unit. “We saw Jane emily, really a sort of Jane emily,” Adam Clymer wrote in an account published in the Times in 1986. “Machines were keeping her breathing and her head was swollen like a melon.”

Jane emily died the next day at 18.

Mrs. Clymer, 75, died Feb. 10 at her home in Washington, her husband said. In the years after their daughter’s death, the Clymers waged a court battle that brought legal recognition to the losses suffered by parents such as themselves — the mothers and fathers deprived of their adult children in cases of wrongful death.

First came criminal proceedings in which, after months of legal wrangling, the vehicle’s driver was sentenced to 30 months in prison. The Clymers had never thought of taking civil action, Adam Clymer wrote in the Times, until an estate lawyer asked them if there would be a lawsuit.

The couple had established a scholarship at the University of Vermont in Jane emily’s name and decided to sue, planning to use any money they collected to build the endowment. They reached a settlement with the driver’s insurance company and filed suit against two bars where he had been drinking before the wreck.

The Clymers viewed their lawsuit as an effort to draw attention to the rampant problem of drunken driving. In the years since Jane emily’s death, organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving have helped change the culture of complacence that had long surrounded the offense. But at the time, MADD was still in its infancy, and drunken driving carried nothing resembling the social stigma it does today.

Vermont, like most states, did not allow parents to seek damages for the loss of companionship of an adult child. A superior court initially ruled that, because Jane emily was 18 when she died, the Clymers’ claim could not go forward.

But in 1991, the Vermont Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s ruling.

“Children have an intrinsic value to their parents, regardless of who was supporting whom at the time of death,” the court held in its unanimous ruling. “Whether the decedent child is an adult or a minor, society recognizes the destruction of the parents’ investment in affection, guidance, security and love.”

The court also ruled that the Clymers could collect punitive damages from the bars, another departure from previous court holdings.

Before the case could go to trial, the Clymers and the bars reached a settlement of $250,000 — money the couple used to expand the Jane emily Clymer Memorial Scholarship. The bars did not admit negligence or culpability and agreed to better train employees about serving alcohol.

Jane emily’s scholarship has helped fund the education of 49 female students who, like her, showed an interest in social service, according to a university spokeswoman.

One of Mrs. Clymer’s “particular pleasures,” Adam Clymer said, was meeting the new recipients each year. She died of complications from a stroke she suffered in October and was not able to accompany him to Vermont in the fall. She enthusiastically looked at photographs of the young women upon his return.

She was born Ann Wood Fessenden on Aug. 16, 1937, in Newton, Mass. In 1959, she received a bachelor’s degree in music from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and a master’s degree in teaching from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1961, the same year of her marriage to Adam Clymer.

She accompanied her husband on newspaper assignments around the world. In Moscow and India, where he was a correspondent for the Baltimore Sun in the 1960s, she gave piano lessons to children of diplomats. In Maryland and Virginia, she taught music in elementary schools.

Jane emily was born in Washington in 1966, during the couple’s first of three stints in the capital. In the 1970s, Mrs. Clymer did administrative work for the National Republican Congressional Committee, former U.S. representative Phil Crane (R-Ill.), the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Adam Clymer retired in 2003 as the New York Times’s chief Washington correspondent. He and his wife had lived since 1991 in the Kalorama neighborhood where, in addition to her volunteer work at the National Arboretum, Mrs. Clymer served on her building’s gardening committee. Besides her husband, survivors include a sister.

“There really is no end to this story,” Adam Clymer wrote in the 1986 account of his daughter’s death and his and his wife’s grief. “There are moments of relief, moments when we are distracted from our loss. But it is always there, and Jane emily is not.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.