By Brigid Schulte and Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 14, 2011; 10:13 PM
James T. Clemons packed his black wheeled suitcase and black-and-orange Orioles duffel bag early Friday for a weekend of study and prayer with his daughter. He had sold his car last year because, at 81, he no longer felt safe making the long drive from Gaithersburg to Severn alone. He headed for the train station.
Like many other commuters at the historic old Gaithersburg MARC station on that chilly morning, Clemons sought refuge at Java Junction, a coffee shop nestled on the north side of the tracks, where he ate breakfast.
The loud clang clang clang of the crossing signal alerted commuters that the 7:47 a.m. southbound train toward Union Station was approaching. There would be only two more trains, the last at 8:26, headed downtown that day. The commuters, like many say they do every day, quickly packed their belongings and rushed across the tracks in front of the oncoming train. There is no boardwalk above the tracks and no tunnel underneath.
Although still spry with his daily walks, Clemons, dragging his suitcase and hauling his duffel, was the last to cross. He was just steps away from the platform when he was struck by the left front edge of the arriving train. The force of the impact threw his body forward and onto the pavement of the platform. The incident is being investigated as an accident.
By 7:52 a.m., Gaithersburg emergency fire and rescue workers had arrived and began to work on him. He died on the platform, in a dress shirt, tie, winter coat and gloves. Clemons was a distinguished professor emeritus of the New Testament and Greek, author, Methodist minister and groundbreaking advocate for suicide prevention.
"Ironically, he thought it would be safer to take the train," said Margaret Clemons, who is a minister at Severn United Methodist Church in Severn. Her father, a widower since 1997, visited often on the weekends.
The elder Clemons served as youth director at his daughter's church until last year. This weekend, he planned to use his daughter's religious texts to update one of his books.
He also planned to provide emotional support before his daughter's visit to a dying family member. "We were great friends," Margaret Clemons said of her father.
News of James Clemons's sudden death stunned the tight-knit Methodist community. Clemons, who was born in Arkansas, taught at the Methodist Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington for 28 years before retiring to the Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg in 2005. He survived advanced cancer in the 1990s and the sudden death of his wife, Barbara.
"Everyone's just wondering how this could have even happened," said David Denton, executive director of Asbury Methodist Village, where Clemons helped bring attention to the mental health of seniors. "He was a remarkable man who was never afraid to pursue difficult issues."
Indeed, colleagues said, he was instrumental in changing the Methodist Church's official position on suicide, removing the stigma long associated with it. He based his argument on a passage in Romans: "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future . . . will be able to separate us from the love of God."
"Every time you talked to Jim, you walked away feeling like a better man," said Jerry Reed, his friend and colleague. "He cared about those people didn't think about, causes people didn't address. We lost a good man."
Shortly after Clemons's death, the Maryland Transit Authority issued a statement cautioning commuters against rushing to cross the tracks to catch a train. "Trains are not like automobiles or buses, they cannot stop on a dime," the statement read. "Missing a train is frustrating, but it is more important that you get to work or home safely."
Like the Gaithersburg one, several stations on the Brunswick Line require passengers to cross tracks to get from one platform to another.
But some commuters say that, especially in winter, huddling in the station out of the elements, then rushing across the tracks when the train comes is a regular occurrence.
"When the crossing arm bells go off, everyone in the coffee shop very quickly scuffles and gets their stuff and crosses the railroad tracks," said David Preusch, who arrived at the station minutes after Clemons was struck. He figures he has 35 to 40 seconds once he hears the bells to make it across the tracks. "Generally, it's not a problem. It is still scary, though. If I have my newspaper out, and it takes me an extra five seconds to put it in my briefcase, I start getting worried."
Staff researcher Magda Jean Louis contributed to this report.