Elliot Klearman has counseled prisoners and lay people as payback for his blessings
Against all odds, Nancy and Elliot Klearman found each other and have now been married for 33 years.
In the late 1970s, they could not have been farther apart: She was living and working in Vancouver, and he was serving a life sentence plus 25 years at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington.
They strongly believe that God intervened in their lives to bring them together. Taking a leap of faith, they decided to get married after writing and talking on the phone, and tied the knot three months after she first visited him in prison; Elliot received a pardon from the parole board two years later and has dedicated his life to counseling others.
Nancy, 82, was born in Oregon City during the Depression, the youngest of five children. "I married young and had two children," she said matter of factly. "My husband was an alcoholic and died at 36 of cirrhosis of the liver.
"When I was 48, I had a lot going on in my life and thought I needed to get back to the Lord. I was already active in my church, and a neighbor asked me to go with her to her church to hear a pastor speak. She said, 'You really need to go.'
"The pastor said, 'You need to pray specifically for what you want,'" Nancy said. "'If you want a husband, ask for one.'"
Nancy followed his advice. "I said, 'Lord, if it's your will that I marry again, let it be someone who loves you more than I do so I can learn from him.'"
And Nancy didn't stop there, adding, "Lord, as long as I am asking, I would like him to be 6 feet tall with a dark complexion and be between 40 and 48 years old."
Nancy also decided that one way she could serve the Lord was to correspond with prison inmates and give them hope, so she got a pen-pal.
In the meantime, Elliot, who will turn 74 on April Fool's Day, was born in St. Louis into a Jewish family.
"I had no idea about Jesus," he said. "I got married at 19 because she was pregnant. She didn't love me, and I messed around with other women. We were living in Arizona at the time and decided to try again."
They moved to Washington, and Elliot, who was a pharmacist, bought a drug store in Kingston. While he was successful professionally, the marriage ended, and the couple, who had two children by then, got divorced.
"I got involved with a woman I hired," he said. "She was in an open marriage, and we started an affair. She had an abusive husband, and I hired a man to kill him and paid him with drugs from the pharmacy."
But the man Elliot hired was an undercover cop, and Elliot, who was 38 years old at the time, was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder.
"They gave me life for conspiracy to commit murder plus 10 years plus 10 years plus five years for paying the hit man with drugs from the pharmacy," said Elliot, who was sent to the Monroe Correctional Complex located between Everett and Wenatchee.
"When I first went to prison, I wanted to commit suicide," he said. "I was going to wrap myself in sheets and cut my wrists and bleed out, but before I did it, a man came into the cafeteria and said, 'Someone loves you, and His name is Jesus.' I went to the chaplain to learn more about the Lord. I went to prison in August and gave myself to Christ before Christmas."
As Elliot settled into prison life, another inmate concocted a scheme in which Elliot would illegally write prescriptions for classified and recreational drugs, which would be filled by someone's girlfriend on the outside and brought into the prison.
"I refused and got stabbed with a coat-hanger," he said. "It only went in one-quarter inch, but I was taken to the hospital and then put in protective custody. I didn't like being in protective custody and wanted to be put back into the general population.
"The warden, who was a Christian, was worried that someone else would hurt me, so he transferred me without the proper authority to the Monroe honor farm, which was a dairy where inmates worked."
While sitting in the honor farm cafeteria one day, Elliot said to a friend, "I would like to write to a Christian woman," and an inmate across the room heard him and walked over, saying, "I've been writing to a Christian woman, but I've been lying to her, so here's her address."
Elliot was handed Nancy's address, and they started corresponding, although she was reluctant at first.
"I read his first letter and thought, I don't want to do this," Nancy said. "Then I heard the Lord speak to me and say, 'Didn't you say your heart's desire was to please Me?' I answered the letter, and Elliot and I wrote back and forth for several weeks."
When Elliot thought she had taken too long to answer his last letter, he called her to ask, "Did I write something that upset you?"
"I said, 'No,' and we kept talking and calling," Nancy said. "I was excited about what the Lord had in store for me. I got a letter from Elliot that said, 'You sound like you're putting a fence around yourself, but I'll come through the gate you leave open.' I realized the fence I had put up was also keeping the Lord out.
"I got down on my knees and prayed to the Lord not to fence Him out. I needed to talk to someone, and the only one I could think about talking to about this was Elliot, which was strange. I had never met him in person, but I called him, and we talked for an hour. I said, 'We're talking about our lives together.'
"He said, 'I've got to talk to my Lord,' and he called back half an hour later and said, 'Yes, we'll spend the rest of our lives together.' He sent me papers to fill out to come and visit him."
Nancy and Elliot first met on Labor Day weekend in 1980 when she made a seven- to eight-hour round-trip in one day to visit him at the honor farm.
For some reason, Elliot was expecting Nancy to be Spanish, and she felt insecure and nervous as she waited for the guard to call him.
"He came out and hugged me real hard, and the guard said, 'She must be something special,'" Nancy said. "I brought some food to eat, but we never ate - we just talked."
Nancy started visiting Elliot on the weekends, and before long, Elliot told her he would like to get married.
"Another couple told us we had to ask for permission from the warden and get on the chaplain's schedule, so it would take six months," Nancy said.
Elliot had saved money doing the books at the dairy and gave Nancy money for wedding rings. Nancy, who moved to Marysville to be closer to Elliot, was a dental technician and purchased gold to create their rings herself.
Only two weeks later, they were given permission to marry; their wedding day was Dec. 6, 1980, and Nancy made her wedding dress out of a sheet. Nancy continued to visit Elliot at the honor farm, and their only privacy was walking around the pastures and fields.
"I kept asking the Lord when I would get out, and I wrote letters to the parole board," said Elliot, who was denied parole the first time he applied after switching to the honor farm but was successful the second time after a parole officer visited Nancy's apartment. "He apparently liked what he saw," Nancy said.
Elliot got out Jan. 6, 1982, noting, "Jobs were being created for people coming out of prison, and I was able to get a janitorial job."
He soon quit and started his own janitorial service called Master Services.
"My family lived in Oregon, and Elliot asked his parole officer if he could move to Oregon," Nancy said. "He was given permission, sold the business and started a new one called Rainbow Services. We eventually bought a house in Tigard, and Elliot ran the business for 15 years. It grew to 22 employees and seven trucks.
"He was busy. When he was 56, he hurt his back and wanted to retire," although Elliott added, "I retired for two weeks."
They were familiar with Chuck Colson, who was a special counsel to President Richard Nixon, named one of the Watergate Seven and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for attempting to defame Daniel Ellsberg, a Pentagon Papers defendant. In 1974 Colson served seven months in a federal prison.
In 1973 Colson became a Christian, and his mid-life conversion prompted him to found his non-profit ministry, Prison Fellowship, which Nancy and Elliot joined. They eventually met Colson when he came to Portland.
"Nancy and I spent a summer ministering at the Columbia River Correctional Institution," Elliot said. "After two years, I decided I couldn't help as many people as I wanted to, so I got my master's degree in marriage and family therapy at George Fox University when I was 63."
The $65,000 tuition and related expenses were daunting, so Elliot went to different churches asking for financial help and spent only $5,000 out of pocket, becoming not only a counselor but also a marriage and family therapist and a registered play therapist.
He opened a practice in Tigard, and the Klearmans moved to King City last May. Elliot worked until last November when his prostate cancer returned and he was also diagnosed with bladder cancer; Elliot is undergoing treatment and fully expects to beat it and return to a part-time practice.
At various times, the Klearmans owned a trailer and a motor home, and for three weeks at a time they would travel through Canada, Mexico and the Midwest; they also took a tour to Italy.
"We love King City," said Elliot, adding that they joined the King City Bible Study Group that meets on Fridays and are members of Life Roads Fellowship in Lake Oswego.
"We enjoy church very much," Nancy said. "Friends we went camping with told us about it."
And Elliot has never stopped ministering to those in prison, saying, "I've been to every prison in Oregon leading bible studies."
Nancy added, "He went to bible study when he was in prison, so this is his payback."
Their four kids have produced five grandchildren, and there are also three great-grandchildren "spread all over," Nancy said, "and everyone loves the Lord."
Elliot is grateful every day for Jesus coming into his life and leading him to Nancy, saying, "She is my best friend, my sweetheart, my love. We can't do without Jesus or each other."
Nancy added, "God has always given us what we need. Jesus is the glue that holds us together."