Clarence Henry “Soc” Clay traveled the world for his life’s passion and work documenting the outdoors.
As one of the world’s most sought after outdoors photographers and writers, Clay was able to travel the globe while chronicling breathtaking scenes of nature.
But he always held a special love for northeast Kentucky, as Clay grew up and grew old in Greenup County along the banks of the Ohio River.
Clay died on Dec. 28 at the age of 86.
Born in 1935, Clay grew up in Greenup County and was a 1954 graduate of McKell High School, now closed.
Before he became a world-traveling outdoors photographer and writer, Clay’s start came as an outdoors columnist at the Portsmouth Daily Times in Scioto County, Ohio, which also borders the Ohio Rivers, for $2 a column in 1966.
Clay also worked in the steel industry for almost 30 years until 1980, when his career as an outdoors photojournalist and writer became a full-time pursuit. That career went on to span more than five decades and resulted in numerous accolades for Clay.
“Literally the guy was working on something the whole time that he was alive,” Clay’s son, Tom, told the Herald-Leader on Saturday. “He always wanted to either help something or help his community or help just make it a better place or a better world. … He always thought that he could help somebody in every way.”
He would go on to contribute outdoors articles and photographs to publications like the Herald-Leader and well-known outdoors magazines Bassmaster Magazine, Field & Stream and Outdoor Life.
This represented a full circle moment for Clay, who learned to become a writer by reading old copies of Outdoor Life and Field & Stream at a library in Portsmouth, Ohio.
Clay spent more than two decades as the masthead editor for Outdoor Life, and also wrote several books covering topics like fishing in Kentucky, hunting and even about how to bake sourdough bread.
Clay also wrote a newspaper column in Greenup County and spotlighted local residents, including children, by highlighting their outdoors adventures such as catching a fish.
One of the highest-profile honors given to Clay was when he became Kentucky Poet Laureate in 1984.
Plenty of other awards followed for Clay, including inductions into several halls of fame. Among them were the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, the Legends of the Outdoors National Hall of Fame and the Greenup County School District Hall of Fame.
Another distinct honor bestowed upon Clay can been seen in Greenup County, along U.S. 23, the state highway that leads into South Shore, Kentucky.
Along the road, signs inform travelers that South Shore is the home of Clay.
The campaign to create the signs, which went up in 2018, was started by Tom, and also took help from state Rep. Danny Bentley.
“He’s a source of great honor and pride to the people of the commonwealth,” Bentley told The Daily Independent in Ashland in 2018.
Tom said that despite the awards and recognition his father earned during his life, the biggest honor for Clay was becoming a grandfather.
“He loved being the grandpa more than just about anything,” Tom said.
Despite his travels, Clay held a special bond with South Shore and Greenup County.
Clay was a booster for the football team at McKell High School, his alma mater, while the school was still in operation.
Since Clay’s death on Dec. 28, Tom has received phone calls from former McKell football players who told him his father once brought 40 pounds of apples on the team bus during a long road trip so the players had something to eat.
Clay remained an active outdoorsman and writer prior to his death, and lived in South Shore in a log cabin with his wife, Wanda. Clay had three children, with Tom being the youngest.
During Clay’s final days alive, Tom spoke to his father about life. He asked Clay about the prettiest place he ever fished.
“He said the headwaters of the Kinniconick (Creek), which is in Lewis County, Kentucky, not 20 miles from our house,” Tom said. “(He) went all over the world catching the biggest fish, the biggest tarpon, everything, and he likes to wait for the small mouth fish up in Lewis County, Kentucky, in a rock creek we have.”
A celebration of Clay’s life will be held for friends this spring, although a date and location have not yet been publicized.
In lieu of flowers, Clay’s family asks that donations be made to Community Hospice of Ashland at 1480 Carter Ave., Ashland, Kentucky, 41101.