CMU alumnus, creator of The Embers Clarence Tuma dies
Mount Pleasant businessman Clarence Tuma, who opened The Embers fine dining restaurant in 1958, died Thursday.
As family members shared word of his passing with people in the community, those who knew him mourned and paid tribute to his contributions to Mount Pleasant and Central Michigan University.
University President George Ross called Tuma "a lifelong friend to CMU."
"With a gentle soul and constant enthusiasm for CMU, he became a legend, in part through all the mentoring he did of Central students who worked at The Embers through the decades," Ross said. "Mr. Tuma understood the transformative power of an education, and he fully embraced the Chippewa spirit of supporting the next generation of students. Our hearts and prayers go out to his family and friends."
According to his autobiography "The One-Pound Pork Chop: A Recipe for Life, Love, Family and the American Dream," Tuma, or “CT” as he was known by friends and coworkers, opened The Embers after discussing the city's need for a fine dining restaurant with Pixie owner Norm LaBelle over a cup of coffee. Tuma opened The Embers in 1958 on the northeast corner of Mission and Preston Streets.
A 1950 graduate of CMU, Tuma served as the university's Director of Dormitory Food Services. His creation of the dormitory salad bar — later adopted by Eastern Michigan University, Western Michigan University and Michigan State University — was revolutionary at the time, though it wouldn't be his greatest achievement in food service.
Tuma’s signature entree, the one-pound pork chop, quickly became The Ember's most popular dish. He was also noted for the personal connection that he made with diners at the restaurant. Tuma ran The Embers until 1990 when he sold it to his son, Jeff. The restaurant closed in 2007, marking the end of the local dining favorite.
“I remember going to Sunday morning brunch at The Embers. Clarence made sure to table-touch every table and knew them by their first names,” said Cheryl Hunter, owner of Hunter’s Ale House. “Even with the restaurant tour he had, his customers still mattered to him. Not everyone works to build that relationship with customers.”
In Tuma's memoir, released in 2015, he discussed his military service. According to a 2012 story published in the Morning Sun, Tuma was in high school when America entered World War II. He soon found himself in Georgia as an 18-year-old Army draftee — just one month after his high school commencement.
Tuma joined the 789th Anti-Aircraft Battalion and served until the end of the war. He was in Normandy, France on D-Day and served in the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-45. He was serving in England when Germany threatened the British with constant V-1 buzz bomb attacks during the summer of 1944.
"I had a hard time writing this because you get emotional. There’s troops everywhere. It looked like a movie but it was the real thing," Tuma said in an interview with the Morning Sun. "We were all scared because we knew this was it. I’m watching history take place — history in the making."
When his military service ended, Tuma moved to Mount Pleasant in 1946. He graduated from CMU with a bachelor of science degree majoring in physical education and minoring in industrial technology.
When news of Tuma's death was shared on social media, dozens of former Embers' patrons and workers offered condolences and expressed gratitude for the memories they made at Tuma's establishment.
Reflecting on Tuma's body of work, Mount Pleasant Mayor Kathy Ling called his impact "unique and remarkable."
"The Embers Restaurant was certainly the most famous restaurant in Mount Pleasant for many years and for both CMU students and local families the place to go for any special occasion," she said. "He also played a key role in establishing the Annual Lions Club Chicken BBQ — a Mount Pleasant tradition for over 50 years. In addition, he was instrumental in establishing a new permanent location for the Soup Kitchen. He also provided leadership to the Mount Pleasant Board of Education for many years. His contributions to this community will live on for many years."
After coming to CMU as a student in 1989, City Commissioner Jim Holton said watching Tuma work with an "energetic, warm personality" inspired him to open his own restaurant, Mountain Town Station Brewing Company & Steakhouse, in 1996.
"In big chain (restaurants), you lose personality," Holton said. "Clarence Tuma was the personality of The Embers."
By 1996, Tuma was no longer operating The Embers, Holton said, but he remained active within the community. He would "pick (Tuma's) brain" any chance he got to learn from the experienced restauranteur.
"I'd see him at a community event and would say hello and he'd ask 'How's it going down there?' Holton said. "I'd lean over and listen to whatever he had to say. He always had a passion for the business."
Tuma helped the university organize 50- and 60-year reunions for the war-years generation and would spend hours in Carlin Alumni House, making personal phone calls to fellow alumni, encouraging them to attend, said Marcie Otteman, executive director of alumni relations, in a press release from CMU.
Tuma was an emeritus member of CMU's Development Board, an alumni group that focuses on financially supporting the university and its students.
Mount Pleasant attorney Joe Barberi called Tuma "a man of integrity and a man's man."
" (He was) always about family, friends and community. A giver, always trying to help others — a man you were glad to know and call a friend," Barberi said. "My dad, Carlo, told me early on that Clarence was a man to get to know because of his character. I briefly worked for Clarence in the late 60's in party service for special catering events. He was always about doing things 'the right way.' Truly, Mount Pleasant has lost a great man and myself and all of our Lions Club mourns for him and his family."