GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - I had the great pleasure of first meeting Clarence Carnal in November 2008, just before he was to perform for the first time at the Grand Junction Cowboy Poetry Gathering at the age of 99.
He blew the audience away that year with his wit and ability to recite long, long poems by memory in front of a crowd.
Carnal said he'd always liked poetry but didn't start reciting aloud until he was 92, after he could no longer play his guitar or accordion due to arthritis.
Carnal told me he's memorized hundreds of poems - his wife and daughter said it's more like a 1,000.
The Museum of Western Colorado invited Carnal to perform again at the 2009, 2010 and 2011 Grand Junction poetry gatherings.
In early February of this year, Carnal attended the national cowboy poetry gathering in Elko, Nev., where he recited eight poems, including works by Robert Service. He was accompanied by his daughter, Dolores Roberts, museum cultural heritage specialist Ronna Lee Sharpe, his wife Rose, of 77 years, and other relatives.
Carnal died Sunday at age 102.
"It was one of the highlights of my life getting to know Clarence and his family, and getting to go to Elko with them," Sharpe said. "He inspired everyone there, too.
"One of the other poets said he was the best reciter he ever heard."
The Elko gathering is attended by well-known cowboy poets from across the country, including Baxter Black, who made a point of introducing himself to Carnal.
Dolores Roberts introduced me to her dad a couple of years ago when she walked into the Free Press to tell me he would be performing at the cowboy gathering and that it might make a good story. That's for sure. Free Press stories about Carnal led to other groups seeking his talents.
I was at Clarence and Rose's house less than a month ago to interview him again about his trip to Elko. He put aside his crossword puzzle to talk with me, crack jokes and recite a few poems for my enjoyment. His beloved and feisty wife Rose, 96, interjected here and there.
Even "a stranger - he gives them a little poem," Rose said that day. "He recites to the grocery man, the cleaning lady, the oxygen delivery guy."
Sharpe said the museum was fortunate to be able to share his talent and spirit with the community.
"Everyone was just in awe of him," she said. "He was a gift to us all."