Last Rushmore carver Nick Clifford receives tribute

Leslie Silverman

About 175 people filled the Carver’s Cafe at Mount Rushmore National Memorial to pay tribute to Donald L.”Nick” Clifford, who was the last living Mount Rushmore National Memorial carver prior to his November death.

The memorial service featured patriotic songs from the Shrine of Democracy Chorus.

“Nick loved patriotic songs. There were times that I would see Nick coming through the basement areas or the terrace just walking along and they’d be on the speaker playing patriotic songs and Nick would walk just a little bit faster after hearing  that music,” said Maureen McGee-Ballinger, chief of interpretation and education at the monument. 

Those in attendance were able to share fond memories and stories of Clifford. Some like, Dave Shepherd of Rapid City shared their favorite “Nick” quotes.

“If they had let us guys and Mr. Borglum go over to that other carving across the way we would have had that thing done by 1955,” he was quoted as saying. 

Others like Diana Nielsen Saathoff, CEO of the Mount Rushmore Society, shared stories that offered a glimpse into Clifford’s humility and more of his humor.

“Buzz Aldrin was here at the park. We brought him over to the gift shop so he could meet Nick. I’m just standing there thinking what each of them has accomplished. Buzz said, ‘So Nick what was it like working/carving  on the mountain?’ And Nick said, ‘Well you know it was a job A good paycheck.’ Nick asked Buzz, ‘So what was it like walking on the moon?’ And Buzz said, ‘it was a pretty good job.’ I will never forget seeing the two of them together.”

Clifford’s starting wage was 50 cents an hour. He worked eight hour days, six days a week. The most he ever made was 65 cents an hour.

“My first check was for $52. That was pretty good money for two weeks,” said Clifford in a video clip shown during the service.

The clips included his 2013 trip to the top of the mountain, which awards him the title of being the oldest person to hike to the top of the memorial.

“In 2013 Nick was 92 years old and I thought I can keep up with him. ‘I can do this,’” recalled McGee-Ballinger as she recounts making her first trip to the top of the monument. “Yes, I was chasing after a 92-year-old man. He got to the top before I did.”

Some chose to share how Clifford’s life impacted them.

Blaine Kortemeyer, who worked closely with Clifford, shared four lessons he  learned from the carver.

“The first, do your best with what you have where you are. Number two, the power of saying yes. It’s easy to say no. It takes commitment every day to say yes and follow through.  Number three, making the right choices at the correct times leads to positive momentum. Nick’s life is a story of momentum Be present every day. Live your life every day.”

Many described Clifford as a hard worker, a great boss  and as a man who was “never shy” to speak his mind. 

“Nick made a lot of differences in a lot of people’s lives,” said Pastor John DeGroff. “Nick left an amazing legacy. On his last birthday someone gave him a cup. It said ‘Making America great again since 1921.’ He was proud of that cup.”

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