Ann Clymer, 75; focused attention on drunken driving

In 1955, the year she graduated from Needham High School, Ann Fessenden Clymer chose for the quote in her yearbook entry: “She was restless, stirring all afire, she could not stop, she could not tire.”

Thirty years later, she brought that tireless energy to bear on court actions in Vermont after a drunk driver killed her only child, Jane emily, an 18-year-old University of Vermont junior.

“We were both shaken by Jane emily’s death,” said Mrs. Clymer’s husband, Adam, a former reporter and editor for The New York Times, “she perhaps more than me.”

They wanted their daughter’s 1985 death to heighten the legal responsibility of drunk drivers and establishments that serve alcohol. Six years later, the Vermont Supreme Court set a precedent by ruling that the Clymers could collect punitive damages from restaurants that served the driver. In a reversal of previous practice, they were allowed to sue for loss of companionship of a child, even though their daughter was an adult. They used the money from the lawsuits to create a scholarship in Jane emily’s name that has since helped about 50 women attend the University of Vermont.

Mrs. Clymer, whose calm resolve in a time of crisis impressed those who knew her best, died in her Washington, D.C., home Feb. 10 of complications from a stroke last fall. She was 75.

“I’ll always remember that she had that strength, and it was amazing,” her older sister, Jane Fessenden of Falmouth, said of her sister’s efforts after the death of Jane emily.

The couple’s lawsuit, and Adam Clymer’s poignant writings in The New York Times, prompted a reappraisal in Vermont of how drunk drivers and their victims were treated.

“That devastating tragedy with her daughter, I think it changed her,” said Stella Gabuzda of Newtown Square, Pa., a friend of Mrs. Clymer’s from Needham High School and Vassar College. “But it shows her spirit and Adam’s spirit that they tried to use this to prevent something like that in the future.”

Jane emily spelled her middle name with a lowercase E, possibly as an homage to the poet e.e. cummings, though she never said for sure. After she was killed, some of the sparkle that defined Mrs. Clymer since childhood seemed to fade, friends said.

“They say that losing a child is the worst possible kind of grief,” said Donna Sokol of Ithaca N.Y., who roomed with Mrs. Clymer at Vassar College, “and I’m a hospice care volunteer, and I know about grief.”

When she herself was a girl in Needham, Mrs. Clymer had excelled in music, sports, and the classroom.

Her mother, the former Margaret Wood, had taught physical education, and young Ann Wood Fessenden was athletic, too, playing field hockey, basketball, and tennis.

“She just had a lot of spunk and energy,” Gabuzda said. “She was very unpretentious. She was good natured, intelligent, and approached everything with kind of a can-do approach. Nothing seemed to be a big problem.”

Mrs. Clymer also took quickly to learning to play the piano.

“I was playing Mozart and the old chestnuts,” said Pat Pennal MacKenzie of Acton, a friend from first grade onward, “and she was going on to Scarlatti because she was so creative. She played jazz piano in high school. Not many people do that.”

As an adult, moving with her reporter husband from one posting to the next in the United States and abroad, Mrs. Clymer taught piano in schools and privately.

She also had been close to her father, Donald Fessenden, a night editor and rewrite reporter at the Boston Herald who was home during days to drive his daughters to activities.

“When he heard we were engaged,” Mrs. Clymer’s husband recalled, “he said to her, ‘Didn’t you learn anything growing up in this household?’ I think he was joking.”

After high school, Mrs. Clymer chose Vassar, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., rather than Wellesley College because “she was afraid she’d run into her mother across the street shopping,” Adam said.

In college, as in high school, she was known to all as Fess, a shortened version of her last name.

“I knew her as Fess 50 years ago, as did all her roommates and friends,” Sokol said. “I don’t know when she succumbed to Ann.”

At Vassar, Mrs. Clymer studied music, a major that offered more regular hours than Sokol, a theater major who returned late to their dorm room.

If Sokol tried to study past an appointed hour, Mrs. Clymer pulled a golf club from under her bed and, without rising, reached over to press the room’s push-button light switch.

“She would haul off and shut the light out,” Sokol recalled, laughing. “She would be lying down and would have the arc just perfect. When the light went out, that was my cue that I had to take my studies elsewhere.”

Graduating in 1959, Mrs. Clymer joined Sokol, who was from California, to work at a Harrah’s casino at Lake Tahoe, on the Nevada border.

“I am pleased to say that Fess’s first employment experience was as a change girl at Harrah’s,” Sokol said. “We absolutely had a blast.”

Mrs. Clymer, who had met Adam Clymer when he was dating one of her previous Vassar roommates, graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education with a master’s in teaching in 1961, the same year she married.

His work as a reporter brought them to live in places such as Washington, D.C., Virginia, New York City, Moscow, and India.

“She was always so good at sending me photographs of where they were all over the world,” Sokol said.

“Ann was just totally at ease everywhere,” Gabuzda said. “She just had this kind of happy feel about her. You’d always feel comfortable with her.”

At stops along the way, Mrs. Clymer worked at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York and volunteered at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., where the couple settled more than 20 years ago.

Mrs. Clymer will be buried in a family plot in Townsend, her father’s hometown.

The legacy she and her husband built from their daughter’s death, meanwhile, continues at the University of Vermont. The Clymers designed the scholarship to reflect the life and college experience of Jane emily, who was involved in volunteer work, and whose academic record improved after a somewhat hesitant start.

Until her stroke last fall, Mrs. Clymer took pleasure in meeting recipients of the scholarship named for her daughter.

“We get letters from these students that are very touching: ‘Thank you for letting me stay in college,’ ” her husband said.

Bryan Marquard
can be reached at

Correction: Because of a reporting error, the burial information was incorrect in this obituary on Ann Clymer. Mrs. Clymer will be buried in a family plot in Townsend.