In River or Ocean

Clay Roberts’ spirit lives on through fishing tournament, scholarships

When Clay Roberts penned these words, he meant to describe himself for a school assignment at Bishop Kenny High School, not to write something that would eventually adorn his gravestone.

Yet the words perfectly encapsulate the essential being of the happy-go-lucky high school senior and Ortega resident, who died March 21, 2007, as the result of a four-story fall sustained while trying to help his friends retrieve some house keys from a Jacksonville Beach condo, two days after his 18th birthday.

Clay’s spirit and memory are what his father, Gary Roberts, is trying to preserve through In River or Ocean, a nonprofit named after a portion of Clay’s former email address. Roberts set up the foundation as a living memorial, soon after his son’s death 11 years ago, with the help of two close friends, Carl Ludwig and Rick Ryals.

“I’m one of those people, I had to do something positive. I think if I didn’t, the depression would just destroy me,” Roberts said, noting the nonprofit receives most of its funding through the fishing tournament, Fish With Clay, an annual angling event in Jacksonville. Money raised from the tournament helps provide a college scholarship at Bishop Kenny High School in Clay’s name, as well as 10 Jacksonville University Marine Science Research Institute Summer Camp scholarships for children in financial need, and a yearly water-related outing for children and their mentors from the Boys & Girls Club of Northeast Florida.

“The mission of our foundation is to provide education to young people in our community regarding the rational use of our waterways and surrounding habitat. We don’t want to be Greenpeace or fish huggers, but we want to be conservationists and advocates for enjoying the waterways we have around us. We started with the fishing tournament to raise money. Clay loved to fish, and people identified him with fishing,” Roberts said. “With the Boys & Girls Club events, we are helping kids who have never been on the water to see what Clay saw in it.”

In the past, the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Florida event was called Pier Pressure, where children were treated to a day of fishing on Jacksonville Beach Pier. During the first Pier Pressure event six years ago, a 5-year-old child took part, having never fished before, Roberts recalled. “This little kid caught a fish this big,” he said, indicating the length. “There he was, kissing the fish and loving it. And wouldn’t you know his name was Clay?”

After the lengthy wharf sustained major damage during Hurricane Matthew, the Boys & Girls Club Pier Pressure event became an eco-tour on a river taxi in conjunction with the St. Johns Riverkeeper. “It was a lot of fun. A lot of the kids had never been on a boat before,” said Casey Roberts, Clay’s younger sister. The group also got to explore Exchange Island, a small island in the river that the city recently refurbished and opened for public use.

For the past 10 years, the foundation funded The Clay Robert’s Scholarship at Bishop Kenny consisting of $1,000 per year for four years. The scholarship is described by Roberts as “an award of the human spirit.” It is given annually to a senior who has participated on a varsity athletic team, has at least a 2.0 grade-point average, and best reflects Clay’s personality traits and values. Coaches at Bishop Kenny nominate students and forward descriptions of their qualities to the foundation, which makes a blind selection. Names of the candidates are confidential, and the winner is announced at the school’s senior awards banquet.

“Each class at Bishop Kenny has a personality, and the principal told me Clay was the spirit stick of his class,” said Roberts, adding that his son played varsity football for the Crusaders as a running back, wide receiver, and defensive back. “Clay loved his family and his friends. He thought of his friends and others before himself. He had a respect for adults, himself, and his friends. Some would call him a class clown because he loved to make people laugh.

“He was very perceptive,” Roberts continued. “One of his classmates, who is now a coach at the school, described Clay as ‘somebody who had inner vision and the courage to say something about it.’ Clay could see what people were feeling on the inside. Yet, if they were having a great day he would want to be a part of that, too. A school counselor once told us a freshman was having trouble getting into his locker and no one would stop to help. But Clay stopped, and he didn’t even know him. He was that kind of guy.”

Eventually the foundation would like to expand its reach, said Roberts, noting the nonprofit’s board has been discussing ways to serve handicapped children. “Our main mission is education. We want to impact as many lives as we can and keep growing,” he said, noting his plan is to have the foundation that celebrates Clay’s spirit continue in perpetuity long after he and his family are gone.

“Clay was cut short in life, but through the foundation he still has a life. He still has an impact here,” said Roberts. “Perhaps it seems somewhat self-serving to be so concerned about his legacy and keeping his memory alive in the community, but then again, his name has been associated with so much good.”