Joshua William Clauer died on Feb. 21, at age 48, a week before a scheduled book launch celebration. Here is a Q&A with his co-author, Judith Gwinn Adrian.
Joshua William Clauer did not live to celebrate the launch of his book, “Walking the Line: There is No Time For Hate.” Clauer died on Feb. 21 at the age of 48. He’d wanted to write a memoir that packaged his hard-earned life lessons in service to the youth he loved and mentored. His co-author, Judith Gwinn Adrian, says he accomplished that and more.
“We are losing a very special human,” Adrian said earlier this week when she canceled a scheduled launch event due to Clauer’s declining health. Clauer had recently been diagnosed with an aggressive stage four cancer and also dealt with other health challenges throughout his life, including a heart condition that led to a transplant, a stroke and learning disabilities. But he also managed to build a career working as a prison guard, a parole officer and a gang intervention specialist, including ten years for Just Dane (executive director Linda Ketcham wrote the book’s foreword), and Dane County’s Neighborhood Intervention Program. He was also a Southside Raiders Youth Football board member, a father of a daughter, a volunteer, an advocate and a coach — the last of which endeared him to scores of boys for whom he wanted to write this book.
“I wrote this book for you all to see it can be done even if the world tells you that it can’t,” Clauer wrote in the introduction. “I wrote this book so that you can be understood and can be motivated to be great. I did this by opening up my life for you, my saddest days and the best days ever. I want to leave you on a positive note from the heart and I want you to realize that I am coming at you and keeping it 100.”
Adrian says there are plans to give copies of “Walking the Line” away at Clauer’s funeral, the details of which are still underway. She and Kira Henschel of HenschelHAUS Publishing are also working with local youth nonprofits, the Madison Public Library and other organizations to distribute the book. Clauer had been scheduled to participate in a Madison Magazine Author Q&A; as his co-author, Adrian is taking his place here.
How did you first meet Joshua and become his co-author?
I work closely with Kira Henschel of HenschelHAUS Publishing in Milwaukee, one of very few women-owned publishers in Wisconsin. Another of Henschel’s writers knew he wanted to write a book and connected us. Having also taught prison reform classes at Edgewood College, I was interested in the work Joshua was doing and we connected instantly on that level. I wondered, when I first “met” Joshua via email, if he was authentic. He seemed almost unreal in the work he was doing with mostly African American pre-teens and teens in Madison who were facing big challenges. I knew someone from one of Joshua’s former worksites, so I made a call and found out that Joshua was not only the real deal, but a dedicated, passionate man who loved these kids. Joshua told me that more than one of “his kids” had told him he was the first white person they’d ever known. I’d co-written a book with a Madison woman who was shot execution-style and left for dead, but survived (“Because I Am Jackie Millar”). She forgave the boys who shot her and did forgiveness work in prisons and jails throughout Wisconsin and other states for years following her partial recovery. I’d also written a book with a man who’d been sentenced to life in prison at age 17 and has now lived 30 years inside Wisconsin maximum prisons (“In Warm Blood: Prison & Privilege, Hurt & Heart”). So I was very interested in writing with someone from the third leg on the corrections stool – someone in law enforcement, which Joshua had been.
How did the process of co-authoring a book with Joshua work?
Most of my writing is co-authoring and I’m currently working on my 10th book. In Joshua’s case, we started co-writing during COVID-19. Given his heart conditions (“the boy with a bad heart”), we did not want to take any chance on meeting in person. So, the first 10 or so months of our writing was done via Zoom meetings every Sunday afternoon. Zoom gave us the interesting safety zone to talk about profound life experiences, not all of which went into the book.
For me, co-writing begins with trust building and, unexpectedly, Zoom gave us that space because we concentrated on the words, leaving behind things like body-language and social correctness. There is a “read aloud” function in Microsoft Word that we used every week. We could listen to the text together that way, as a method for stepping beyond Joshua’s ADHD. Hearing the words together worked better than having one of us read them aloud. During the rest of the week, Joshua would write bits of his life story. We laughed at the ways his ADHD left him struggling with things like sequence and order in the writing. Then my job, during the following week, would be to help find patterns in the stories and weave them into sections or chapters. One of the biggest challenges was Joshua’s love for football and everything connected with the game. The book format we finally decided on was semi-alternating chapters with football memories interspersed, like the section where he admitted that, as an only child, “Yes, I Talk[ed] to Footballs.” When he’d had open heart surgery, he’d likened the whole experience to a football game, so we took the surgery and “played” it like his high school football experiences. An echo. The hospital was the field. The coaches were the physicians. The excitement and fear of both game and life-saving surgery were there.
What struck you the most about his story?
I was most struck by the complexity of this man. He enjoyed his tough-guy image: big man, football player, crew cut, law enforcer, fierce defender of rightness – good over evil. As we dug more deeply into who he was at heart, there was such compassion for the kids he helped and for humans in general. He loved. When he said he loved the kids he worked with – as well as formerly incarcerated adults trying to survive in an unfamiliar world and co-workers in the corrections and sociology fields – he fully meant it. Authentic non-judgmental love.
Were there things about his own story that Joshua didn’t realize were as powerful or unique as they were until the process of putting it on paper and trying to articulate it?
I’d say the most significant thing Joshua realized as we were writing and editing weekly was that he was not the tedious unimaginative ADHD writer he had been told he was and believed himself to be through his previous educational and some former work experiences. He began to share poems he had written. Raps. Stories. Imaginations. Analogies. Even art. As trust built over time and as he realized I was deeply impressed with the range of expressions he was capable of (perhaps because of his ADHD), he expanded those alternative, non-linear expressions. And he appreciated the ways I could pull his non-sequential thoughts and imaginings into a book format. So, mutual admiration.
From teaching college students, I know there is a range of skills and abilities that people bring to a classroom. It is something they are often unaware of, not being able to see their work and contributions in comparison with others. I do not think Joshua knew he was a brilliant man. He had built his career and caring based on other kinds of strengths. Helping him roll out and trust in these new capacities was delightful for both of us. I was moved by how willing he was to explore new ways of knowing and openly build novel ways of expressing himself.
What do you most want people to know about Joshua and his story?
Joshua Clauer was a beloved man. He was fierce in what and who he loved. He was uncompromising in walking the line in today’s complex, scrappy world. He had no time for hate. These words from the book cover are literally true. There are many ways to walk the line – or, as one of his mentees wrote in his Facebook tribute, Joshua “… taught me how to Walk the Line. This can be a sideline, a line in sidewalk, anything. It referred to keeping yourself moving forward and maintaining balance while following your line. He taught me how it pertains to life and how it helps with directions of punts.” Joshua was also comfortable in crossing so many of the boundaries that separate too many of us in our world today. Race, religion, gender, age, abilities, size, political differences, arrest record, education, and more were not his concerns when meeting someone. He wanted to know what drove the person – what was their inner fire – and then connect with that. Truly, he loved humans.
What did Joshua think or how did he feel about the book in his final days?
On February 5, two weeks before his death, Joshua wrote: “Throughout my career I have challenged many to write a story about themselves as a tool to help themselves see how far they have come and how they beat adversity that many of us couldn’t dream of facing. A great deal of the time they would quit after a few weeks. Not because they are quitters but because it is extremely hard to write about yourself. It’s fair to say I was challenged by each of these individuals to write a book about myself and hold nothing back!
I am excited to say with the help of my coauthor Judith Gwinn Adrian and our publisher Kira Henschel we have been able to finish my story! This story opens up about my struggles and love for each and every one of you that have shared my journey! I hope this writing encourages each of you to tell your story because everyone has one and they are all unique! The book tells you what I think about when I’m alone, my deepest darkest hours and the best days ever… Thanks to all of you for always supporting and encouraging me as boy and as a man! Love each of you for this unconditional encouragement! Enjoy the book!”