Vaara humbled by family’s love, support

Mel Vaara has seen his health deteriorate in recent times, but the 85-year-old remains as upbeat and outspoken as ever. Photo by Matt Mackinder

Fourth and final feature in a series on a pillar of the community, Mel Vaara, as he remembers more than a half century of Clarkston history, and looks to the future.

Clarkston News Staff Writer

There’s an old saying that goes, “Behind every great man is a great woman.”
Mel Vaara has been married to his wife, Jo, for 61 years and joked that “the first 59 were great.”
In recent times, Vaara’s health has declined a bit as his eyesight has diminished, his speech is slurred, he’s in a wheelchair and his hearing isn’t the best.
But his mental awareness is still top notch.
That said, he’s relied on Jo more than ever to literally be his eyes and ears. It doesn’t always go as planned, but laughter ensues regardless.
“My behavior’s not the best either,” said Vaara. “What’s my illness again, Jo? With my eyes?”
“Don’t ask me,” said Jo. “I’m drawing a total blank here. His eyesight is bad, we’ll say that. He also has Parkinson’s symptoms.
“But Mel has a great doctor in Ann Arbor that he sees, and he is very positive, a very fine man. That’s always a big plus for us.”
On the wall of the Vaara’s living room are family pictures of the couple’s four daughters (all Clarkston High School graduates, all Michigan State University graduates) and six grandchildren. When Mel and Jo look at those pictures, they can’t help but smile and be amazed at how fast time has flown by.
“We both feel very blessed,” Jo said. “Both of our parents were just terrific, and not all children have that, as we all know. I just adored his parents and my parents loved him.”
Still, even with all his health issues for being 85 years old (Jo is 86), Vaara still beams and smiles when talking about his distinguished career with Clarkston Community Schools.
“I know I made my mark in Clarkston,” said Vaara. “It was a privilege for me to be here. When I was growing up, I came from a very poor background. I had three pairs of pants – one for church, one for playing, and one as a spare. I didn’t have any advantages or any money, but when I came to Clarkston, I saw all that wealth and was just impressed with it. And so I stayed.”
“He made his mark, for sure,” added Jo. “He sure made his mark.”
Now living in Birmingham in an assisted living facility with Jo, Vaara will be back in town to serve as the grand marshal for the Independence Day Parade on July 4.

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