Bishop Heelan graduate Ron Clements

Disney animator credits Catholic schools with foundation for his success



Ron Clements is a renowned animator, screen writer and producer director of award-winning Disney films, including the 2017 blockbuster “Moana.”

But at heart, he told students at his alma mater he would always be a Midwesterner and grateful for his Catholic education.

Clements, a 1971 alum of the Bishop Heelan High School in Sioux City, visited with students Sept. 13. He was in Sioux City as a major presenter at the Sioux City International Film Festival, Sept. 12-16.

As a Crusader, Clements was recognized for his artistic talent as the cartoonist on staff of the Heelan student newspaper Heelan Highline.

Journalism teacher Mary Castle, who attended Clements’ video presentation, insisted she knew her student would flourish in his life’s work.

“He was quiet, but clearly had tremendous gifts,” the 91-year-old former instructor said. “You could tell the talent was there and I knew that he would be taking one step after another in a successful career.”

Shades of Sherlock

At the age of 15, Clements worked at KCAU-TV, Channel 9, the Sioux City ABC affiliate, where another Heelan graduate George Lindblade and Heelan parent Bill Turner – both associated with the station – helped Clements with his journey to Disney.

“I had done some Super 8 films on my own and brought them down to Channel 9 with the idea of maybe we could do some commercials,” Clements said. “And then I asked them if I could use the equipment to do my own film, and they said, ‘Sure!'”

Clements crafted a hand-drawn, 15-minute film in which he did all the aspects, including the voices. “Shades of Sherlock Holmes” caught the attention of folks at Hanna-Barbera, a cartoon producer. That led to where Clements has spent the bulk of his career – at Disney Animation Studios in Los Angeles.

With John Musker, Clements co-directed “Moana,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and “The Princess and the Frog” – all films nominated for Academy Awards. He also helped supervise, animate or write “The Great Mouse Detective,” “Hercules” and “Treasure Planet,” to name a few.

“The films that we make are meant to be films for everybody and they’re films that I think are for all ages and for people everywhere,” he said. “We want those films to resonate.”

Memory Lane

In the Kiddie Crusaders Preschool across the street from the high school, Clements waxed nostalgic about taking art classes in the same building more than four decades ago, taught by Sister Mary de Lourdes, a Sister of Christian Charity.

The kids serenaded Clements with the hit song How Far I’ll Go, while “Moana” played on a large screen TV. To repay that graciousness, the left-handed animator stood at a white board and drew “Moana” characters, Pua the Pig and Hei Hei the Rooster.

“He really hasn’t drawn in years,” confided Tami Clements, his wife of 29 years, who accompanied her husband on the Heelan tour. “He practiced and practiced before we came out here and kept asking me if it was good.”

Clad in an ocean-blue shirt, with “Moana” colorful characters, Clements – with a good growth of facial hair – was clearly out of uniform, but emphasized he never had detention at school.

“I was only called to 318 once,” he said, referring to the infamous Dean’s office. “Father Merle Kollasch had a somewhat upsetting caricature of the janitor and wanted to know if I had drawn it. I told him I had not, and really, I had not.”

It was a trip down memory lane for Clements, as he visited the former school, set to be razed sometime in the future, and was in awe at the new $30 million Bishop Heelan High School.

“My whole life was on Douglas Street,” he said, referring to the locations of his home, Cathedral of the Epiphany, Epiphany Grade School, Heelan and KCAU. “Things have changed a lot, but kids seem the same and the Heelan vibe seems the same.”

Education base

The 65-year-old Clements credited instructors who provided a strong base for his livelihood.

“Mrs. (Helen) Socknat was my English teacher and she let me draw caricatures when we studied Huckleberry Finn and A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream,” he said. “I had Sister de Lourdes for all four years of art and Miss Castle let me be the editorial artist for the student newspaper.”

The education Clements received was also important in his career.

“The Catholic faith was clearly a big part of this school,” he said. “Not only that, it is a valuable part of the school and the education it provides.”

Clements dropped famous names right and left in his presentations. He has met Robin Williams (the genie in “Aladdin”), Dwayne Johnson (Maui in “Moana”), Jack Nicholson (who turned down a role in Hercules) and Alicia Keyes (who didn’t get the Moana role).

“No, I don’t hang out with those people,” he said with a belly-laugh, then confessed, “I did get to tour Oprah Winfrey’s California house, which was cool.”

The film festival presented Moana at the Orpheum Theatre in Sioux City, the movie house where 9-year-old Clements first saw Pinocchio and fell in love with animation.

“I sort of decided somewhere in my head that’s what I want to do with my life. I want to be an animator. I want to work at Disney and that’s what led me there,” he said.

“And now, that same theater is showing my movie, Moana,” Clements marveled. “My life has come full circle.”

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