MOORHEAD — This Saturday marks a milestone birthday for Jon McClary. The former Moorhead resident is turning 50, and as candles are blown out on his cake and the “Happy Birthday” song is sung, his parents can’t help but reflect on how this day almost never happened.

“Fifty is a significant year for everybody, and then we realize this is the 45th anniversary of when he almost didn’t make it to 5,” said Jon’s father, Ric McClary.

On Dec. 9, 1975, Jon McClary, just three days shy of his fifth birthday, nearly drowned after falling into the icy waters of the Red River. He has flashes of very specific memories about that day, but his parents, who witnessed the rescue and aftermath, remember enough to write a book about it.

“We once thought about calling the book ‘Everything we needed to learn about God we learned when Jon fell in the river,” Jon’s mother, Darilynn McClary, said with a smile .

The McClary’s story is part terrifying, part faith-filled and all serendipity.

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Jon McClary in 1975, not long before his near-drowning in the Red River. Submitted photo
Jon McClary in 1975, not long before his near-drowning in the Red River. Submitted photo

‘I knew he was gone. I knew it.’

It had been a cold but snow-free winter for Fargo-Moorhead in the fall of 1975. People had long since polished off their Thanksgiving leftovers and now prepared for Christmas, less than three weeks away. The lack of snow made 4-year-old Jon McClary pretty sad.

“He hoped to celebrate his birthday with mounds of fresh white snow,” Darilynn said.

Even though it wasn’t snowing outside, both mother and son were happy when Jon’s neighborhood buddy, Matt Glander, also 4, knocked on the door and asked Jon to go outside and play. Darilynn welcomed the chance to get the boys outside in the yard, so she could put her two young daughters Tallie (about 20 months) and Tara (2 months) down for a nap. Because it was so muddy outside, she opted to put Jon in an old hand-me-down green snowsuit rather than his nice new one. She sent the boys out to the backyard sandbox. But after getting the girls down, she noticed Matt and Jon were no longer in their yard.

“I just assumed they went to Matt’s house because they always played back and forth between the two houses,” Darilynn said. “And they both knew they were never to go to the river (which was right near the Glander and McClary homes in Moorhead’s Woodlawn Park area). It was absolutely forbidden.”

Darilynn figured she’d check on the boys if they didn’t come back to her house in a couple of minutes.

“Then, all of a sudden, my front door just flew open. Matt came running in, and he was crying. He screamed at me that Jon fell in the river,” Darilynn said.

When Matt told her exactly where Jon had gone in, she assumed the worst.

“He said ‘by the dam,’ so in my mind, picturing open dam water, he fell in the river. I knew he was gone. I knew it,” she said, adding that she was frozen for a second, thinking about her two babies still sleeping in the bedroom, but then she bolted out the door with no coat and no shoes. Darilynn says to this day she has no memory of running sock-footed to the banks of the river. But she clearly remembers the slight sense of relief at seeing that Jon had not gone under, but was hanging tightly onto the ice.

“I was so shocked. I couldn’t believe I was seeing him. There he was, his little blond head bobbing up and down,” she said.

Serendipity steps in

So how did the boys end up at the river when they both knew it was forbidden? Blame it on the snow. While the boys played that afternoon in the brown, dying grass outside a friend’s house, they spotted — in the distance — what they thought was a big field dusted in clean, white snow. They took off running at the chance to play there. They didn’t realize it wasn't a snow-covered field. It was a dusting of snow blanketing the Red River below.

As luck would have it, about that time, Fargo teacher Joyce Hains was on her way home from school. She normally took a different route, but that Tuesday afternoon she opted for a more leisurely drive past the river. It turned out to be a serendipitous detour. As she drove, she soon became startled at the sight of two young boys walking on the not-quite-yet frozen river. As she pulled over to tell them to get off the ice, one of them, Jon, fell in. She yelled at Matt to get his mother, while she flagged another car to call the police.

At that exact moment, members of the Fine Arts Club also happened to be looking out the window of the nearby high rise apartment where they were meeting. They saw what was happening and also called for help.

Police and fire were dispatched immediately while Jon’s mother watched in terror as her little boy clung onto the ice.

The Red River flows over the midtown dam Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018, in Fargo. 
 Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
The Red River flows over the midtown dam Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018, in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

‘Obey me! Hang on! Don’t you let go!’

Even now, Jon has to piece together exactly what happened.

“I remember that I went in face-first. I fell in facing the dam. But then I ended up turning around with my back to the dam,” Jon said. “The next thing I remember, I was holding onto the edge of the ice. There was a bump on the ice that helped me keep my grip. And, so, I held onto that.”

Darilynn stood on the river bank, calmly telling her son to hang on.

“He’d cry back, ‘I can’t!’ and I’d call out, ‘Hang on! I’m your mother, and I’m telling you to hang on, Jon! Obey me! Hang on! Don’t you let go!’”

Jon says he doesn’t remember being scared. He says he just remembers being really cold and having an idea of how to get out of the river.

“In my head, I kept thinking I could go hand-over-hand and work my way to the shore. But I couldn't pull away to move my hands because the pressure of the water was pushing me towards the ice, so I just hung there...waiting.”

Darilynn says she just recently found out about Jon’s hand-over-hand strategy and is so glad he didn’t attempt that.

“He told me about that the other night on the phone. I mean, 45 years later, my heart just went ‘Oh!’"

‘Sometimes it takes more faith just to stand’

At one point, Matt’s mother attempted to reach Jon with a rope, but Darilynn urged her back to shore because she might fall in. Darilynn says as she stood there, she remembered a scene from Jon’s favorite show “Emergency” where the firefighters laid flat on the ice attempting a rescue. She says she prayed to God to help her attempt that, but then, something funny happened.

“I drew in a deep breath and took my first step toward the ice,” Darilynn says. “And then, God spoke to me, maybe not audibly, but as close to it as I’ve ever experienced. It came to me clearly and sure: ‘Sometimes it takes more faith just to stand.’”

She says as tears stung her eyes, she fought the urge to run to the river, instead choosing to trust God with her son.

Around this time, Darilynn says she heard the sirens and saw the lights, and she knew help was on its way. In another example of serendipity for no particular reason, the fire truck responding to the “Child in the River” call that day was not parked in its usual place. Instead, it was backed up just two feet from the department’s boat trailer, meaning they were able to respond several minutes faster than normal.

Fargo Fire Captain Joe Upton was a part of the rescue of 4-year-old Jon McClary from the Red River on Dec. 9, 1975. Before his death in 2015, Upton said it was one of the most memorable rescues of his career. Photo courtesy: Fargo Fire Department
Fargo Fire Captain Joe Upton was a part of the rescue of 4-year-old Jon McClary from the Red River on Dec. 9, 1975. Before his death in 2015, Upton said it was one of the most memorable rescues of his career. Photo courtesy: Fargo Fire Department

And the minutes mattered. After careful maneuvering with the boat and Jon’s head going in and out of the water, Captain Joe Upton was able to lean over the edge of the boat and grab the hood of Jon’s parka and pull him out of the water.

“I remember when the boat came up behind me. I remember sinking down into the water. And I remember being a little irritated he grabbed my hood, which pulled up on my neck. I was a little upset about that,” Jon said with a small laugh.

No measurable temperature

Ric McClary was working as a plumber’s assistant at the time, and in a strange twist of fate, saw and heard the fire trucks responding to the call. He said a silent prayer to help whoever was on the other end of the call, not knowing it was his son. Once he got back to the office, he was told to go to St. Ansgar Hospital because there had been an accident.

When he got there, Ric says doctors told him Jon had no measurable temperature, so they were attempting to warm him up. Joyce Hains, the teacher who called for help, was also taken to the hospital after fainting at the scene. Both Hains and Jon were released a short time later.

The Fargo Forum on Dec 10, 1975, summarized the harrowing few minutes of  Jon McClary's fall in the river. Forum archives
The Fargo Forum on Dec 10, 1975, summarized the harrowing few minutes of Jon McClary's fall in the river. Forum archives

In the days to follow, the McClarys visited Captain Upton at the fire station to thank him for what he did. Upton tousled Jon’s hair before hoisting him up on the firetruck that saved his life. Upton noticed Jon was in his nice coat that day — the one Darilynn didn’t want him to wear because she didn’t want him to get it dirty.

“He told us, ‘If he had been wearing that yesterday, he would have sunk like a rock,’” Darilynn recalls Upton telling them.

It turns out that old snowsuit was filled with the same materials used to fill up life jackets.

Despite being in the water for between 12 and 15 minutes, Jon didn’t suffer many lasting effects. Darilyn says she knew Jon was fine when she found he and Matt a few days later yelling, “Emergency, Emergency” and taking turns playing the roles of “the kid in the river” and “the brave fireman coming to the rescue.” He wasn’t afraid of the water. He even eventually joined the school swim team.

As for physical effects, Jon says every winter until he was in his 20’s, he’d get small blisters on his fingers when he got cold. But it hasn’t happened for years.

Jon McClary is married and lives in Arizona now. He says he doesn't have a lot of memories from the day he almost drowned. Photo: Jon McClary Facebook
Jon McClary is married and lives in Arizona now. He says he doesn't have a lot of memories from the day he almost drowned. Photo: Jon McClary Facebook

Where are they now?

Jon is now married to wife Kelli, working in network engineering and living in Arizona. He says he lost touch with his buddy Matt.

Ric and Darilynn now live in the Brainerd, Minnesota area, where Ric manages radio stations and Darilynn is retired. They are working on a book about their life together, not just about Jon’s near-death experience, but about raising three children and moving all over the country. They have had 24 addresses in six different states.

“The book is meant to be an encouragement to people, especially young families. We would encourage you not to give up, to be courageous. God provides for us,” Ric said.

“And we’d say to just keep going,” adds Darilynn. “There’s a motto I love that says ‘Life is hard. God is good. Don’t get these confused.’”

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