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Officer in iconic Rockwell work dies

Trooper, 83, was a ‘true gentleman’

Richard Clemens with ‘‘The Runaway’’ at the Norman Rockwell Museum in 2001. He was Rockwell’s neighbor when he posed.

NANCY PALMIERI FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/FILE

Richard Clemens with ‘‘The Runaway’’ at the Norman Rockwell Museum in 2001. He was Rockwell’s neighbor when he posed.

Richard Clemens often said that Norman Rockwell had a gift for showing the world not as it was, but as it ought to be.

But when the artist painted Clemens, a Massachusetts state trooper who posed for Rockwell’s iconic illustration of a police officer helping a young runaway, he captured his true essence, his daughter said Monday.

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“I don’t think Rockwell could have chosen a more appropriate model,’’ said Mary Blaauboer. “It’s a symbol of police officers and how they help people. But it symbolized my father as a person, too. It showed his heart, and his whole life.’’

Clemens, who became a decorated police officer after serving in the military during wartime, died Sunday. He was 83.

Clemens was a 29-year-old trooper when Rockwell, his Stockbridge neighbor, asked him to pose for “The Runaway,’’ which depicts a police officer sitting at a diner beside a young boy with a knapsack under his stool.

It appeared on the cover of “The Saturday Evening Post’’ in 1958, and became a quintessential image of small-town life that adorns countless police departments to this day.

“Rockwell’s painting sums up this truth: An officer is never so tall as when he stoops to help a child,’’ the Massachusetts State Police wrote online. “Trooper Clemens greeted everyone in his humble way, with a constant smile, a firm handshake, and a warm hello.’’

‘It’s a symbol of police officers and how they help people. But it symbolized my father as a person, too. It showed his heart, and his whole life.’

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As a state trooper, Clemens received an award for outstanding police service and a medal for bravery from the Massachusetts Humane society, his family said. He retired in 1975, then began a career in industrial security at General Electric.

He later established a security consulting business, his daughter said.

“He led a very full, interesting life,’’ she said. “We’re going to miss him terribly.’’

Marian McGovern, superintendent of the State Police, recalled Clemens as a “true gentleman,’’ whose image stands for the “very best of what a police officer should be.’’

“The painting of a trooper bending over in counsel to a young boy intent on leaving home captures - much more than any of the images of shootouts and car chases favored by popular culture - the highest ideal of police work: helping someone in need at a vulnerable moment,’’ she said.

Born in 1928 in New York City, Clemens moved to Stockbridge in 1944. Two years later, he joined the Marines, and later served during the Korean War. He was a police officer in Virginia before joining the State Police, his family said.

Over the years, Clemens attended many events celebrating his role in the painting, often with Ed Locke, who posed for the 8-year-old runaway. As if continuing the moment captured on canvas, the two became good friends and built a skilled rapport in recounting their experience with Rockwell.

“They developed a great friendship,’’ said Jeremy Clowe of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. “They had a great camaraderie, and were happy to share their memories.’’

The image represents a “perfect Rockwell moment,’’ Clowe said, one that stands among his most admired works and resonates with police officers around the world.

“They were the absolutely right models for the piece,’’ he said. “I think you see the connection between them.’’

Museum officials conveyed their sympathies to Clemens’s family and friends.

The original painting can be seen in the museum’s traveling exhibition, “Norman Rockwell: Beyond the Easel,’’ now at the Heritage Museums & Gardens in Sandwich.

Rockwell also painted Clemens’s portrait for a 1961 Christmas card for the State Police.

Tom McNulty, a retired state trooper who became friends with Clemens in recent years, said Clemens embraced his brush with fame and never tired of telling - and teasingly embellishing - the story of how Rockwell chose him.

“He’d say, ‘Rockwell chose me after a nationwide search. The fact that I lived two doors down from him had nothing to do with it,’ ’’ McNulty recalled.

Police officers and their children would often want to pose for pictures with Clemens, who unfailingly obliged, McNulty said.

“He came to life when he talked to people.’’

Clemens could tell his Rockwell story 30 straight times, he recalled, but never lose the “twinkle in his eye.’’

Every summer, Clemens and his family spent two weeks in Ogunquit, Maine. He had gone there for years, McNulty said, and had a routine. Each day, he and his wife would walk the Marginal Way, a path along the water, and have lunch in Perkins Cove. When they got back, they would sit on the porch and watch the boats come and go, he said.

“He was the type of guy you’d want to know,’’ he said.

Blaauboer described her father as a humble man who served his family and community “with quiet dignity and honor,’’ a life crystallized in Rockwell’s image.

“He would always say it was Rockwell’s work,’’ she said. “But that’s who he was.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@globepete.

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