WATERTOWN, NY — Clifford Gilbert Olney, Sr., 91, Watertown, NY, passed away on Monday, Aug. 7, 2023, following a short stay at Samaritan Medical Center.
Cliff’s life began on March 2, 1932, in a white house on a hill in the little town of North Springfield, Vermont. He was one of six siblings, born to father Ralph Olney, and mother Grace Clow Olney. He came from a large family who would gather on weekends for dinners, enjoying music, and playing horseshoes together. Cliff had a strong work ethic ever since he was young, helping with the family-owned cider mill on Olney Road, working on his neighbor’s farm, and repairing cars at the gas station his family built.
His first job, in what would become a long career in construction, was working with his father and brother on Milton Dam in Vermont. But the job he says shaped him was working as a laborer in an asbestos mine in Eden, Vermont. Cliff called this job his “so close” job. While constructing a walkway made of 4x4s, he slipped and was left hanging 100 feet above the cement floor below. A friend helped pull him to safety. He took his father’s advice and climbed back up the 8-story structure that same afternoon. Cliff said getting back up there was the hardest thing he had ever done. It was that near-death experience that taught Cliff not to let fear define him. He walked many beams after that.
When he was 18, Cliff entered the Naval Reserves. Six months later, he enlisted in the Navy as a Machinist’s Mate Third Class, attending the Naval Training Center in Great Lakes, Illinois. He served during the Korean War, traveling to South America on the USS Albany, and to the North Atlantic on the USS Hickox.
Cliff was outgoing, naturally befriending everyone, including many sailors outside of his unit. His affability ultimately led to him meeting the love of his life, Beverly Ann. After seeing a photo of Beverly from one of his shipmates (Beverly’s uncle), Cliff instantly fell in love and asked for her address to write to her. Beverly and Cliff exchanged letters for months, and agreed to meet in person on May 18th, 1953. The pair drove to Buffalo, NY to meet Beverly’s parents, and that’s when Cliff knew he wanted to marry her. They continued to write to each other over the summer months. There was no proposal. Beverly gave Cliff a date. They were married 7 months later, the 13th time they ever saw each other, on December 6, 1953 at Stone Street Presbyterian Church in Watertown, NY. Surrounded by their parents, family, and neighbors, the ceremony was officiated by Reverend Thomas Carlisle. They honeymooned in Burlington, Vermont, getting caught in a snowstorm along the way. They were due to celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary this December.
Cliff and Beverly went on to have five children: Clifford, David, Daniel, Valerie, and Marlanie. Because of the nature of Cliff’s work, the family moved a lot – from Springfield, MA to Old Forge, NY, to Oklahoma – but they spent the majority of their lives together in Evans Mills, NY. Cliff and Beverly moved to Watertown, NY in the late 1970s.
After leaving the service in August of 1955, Cliff continued his career in construction, holding various positions over the years, from cement laborer to lead foreman. He was a lifelong member of the Carpenter’s Union. Some of the projects he was most proud of included supervising the foundation work for the Thompson Park water tower, serving as head foreman on the Hamilton Street dam repair, supervising the finishing work on the Jefferson County office building, building bridges for the New York State Thruway, and overseeing the finishing work for the Wenatchee River Dam in Washington State.
Professionally, Cliff was most proud of his work as a superintendent for Stone & Webster, overseeing a major impact project at Fort Drum, NY during the initial design and build phase. He supervised the construction of over 100 buildings still standing today, working directly with the Army Corps of Engineers.
He retired at the age of 62, but was called back on countless projects as a consultant.
Cliff was honored to serve as an EMT and volunteer firefighter for the Evans Mills Fire Department. He often talked about the snowstorm of 1977, and the pregnant woman he helped transport to Mercy Hospital in a blinding blizzard. He was a founding member of the Thousand Islands Search and Rescue program that still operates today. Cliff also volunteered his time at the Evans Mills Fire Hall on Noble Street on the weekends, calling out BINGO numbers on the microphone, or hosting movie days for kids as part of a community outreach program. He was always the first to help plan and organize Fireman Field Days, giving out generous amounts of cotton candy and popcorn at his booth. He loved bringing smiles to people’s faces.
A dedicated family man, craftsman and true jack of all trades. There was nothing Cliff couldn’t fix, no problem he couldn’t solve. He was decisive and tenacious in all of his endeavors with an iron-will that wouldn’t quit. There was nothing he was afraid to try. When he wasn’t helping family, you could find Cliff tinkering in his garage workshop, somehow finding time to remodel three homes, refinish cabinets, or create furniture. He recently built jewelry boxes made from cedar for all of his grandchildren and great grandchildren, something they all will cherish forever. Right up through his 90s, Cliff could be spotted snow blowing his drive-way and sidewalk, not to mention all of his neighbor’s sidewalks. He was always there to lend a helping hand to anyone in need.
He took being a parent very seriously and was a fierce advocate for his children. Calm in nature, but a warrior; sharp-witted with a dry sense of humor. That humor was ubiquitous, even in his final days.
Cliff enjoyed camping and traveling with his wife across the country in their RV. He was an avid outdoorsman who loved fishing, gardening, making sure all of his backyard geese and squirrels were well-fed, and being on the water. Cliff spent his last good weekend on this earth doing just that; enjoying a day on the St. Lawrence River with family. But the happiest day of his life was the day he met his wife of 70 years, Beverly.
It’s an impossible feat to sum up the life of a man who did so much for so many. His legacy of compassion, diligence, and love lives on through the large family he leaves behind.
Cliff is survived by his loving wife, Beverly Olney of Watertown, NY; children, Clifford Olney III of Watertown, NY, David (Vickie) Olney of Tylerville, NY, Daniel Olney (Dianne Bankes) of Rochester, NY, Valerie (Vance) Trapp of Watertown, NY, Marlanie (Robert) Lemke of Palm Coast, FL; daughter-in-law Mary Olney of Watertown, NY; sister-in-law Greta Olney of Milton, VT; brother-in-law Jimmy (Linda) Foster of West Seneca, NY; grandchildren, Whitney (Michael) Nazari, Bree (Hans) Hoomans, Kylie Olney, Joel Sullivan (Kaylin McNulty), Tiffany Young, Lindsey (Kevin) Cean, Jessica (Chris) Treadway, Anthony (Hilary) Macchia, Justin Sullivan (Jenna Bresset), Marissa Olney, Kara Olney (RJ Elizondo), Matthew (Jessica) Olney, Daniel Olney (Bethany Perez), David Olney (Lauren Arango), and several great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins.
Cliff was predeceased by his parents, Ralph Olney and Grace Clow Olney; his father and mother-in-law A.D. and Lily Foster; his siblings, Isabelle Sirmans, Dorothy Lawrence, Doris Wood, Ralph Olney Jr., Donald Olney; a sister-in-law, Patricia Litowski; and a granddaughter, Angel Sullivan.
Public calling hours will be held 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 15, at Reed & Benoit Funeral Home in Watertown, NY. All are also welcome to attend a celebration of Cliff’s life at the Evans Mills Fire Hall from 3 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Aug.27.
Arrangements are with Reed & Benoit Funeral Home, Inc.
Condolences may be made online at reedbenoit.com