Ron “Duff” Martin stood in the rain alongside Clifton Sorenson on Memorial Day about two decades ago.
Martin felt panicked about how the inclement weather would impact the parade he helped organize that day, one of his first as part of the Eau Claire Patriotic Council. Despite Martin’s nerves, Sorenson, then the Eau Claire County veterans service officer, provided calming wisdom.
As the rain fell, Martin and Sorenson discussed if the parade should proceed or be canceled. Channeling what Martin called his “beautiful optimism,” Sorenson suggested talking to the local American Legion and VFW commanders, who wanted to move forward with the plans. They did so, and by the parade’s conclusion, the skies had cleared and the sun shone.
That example was not uncommon, as Sorenson had ample patience, passion, positivity and attentiveness, according to local veterans who worked with him over the years.
“He was always ready to help,” said Dave Zien, a Vietnam veteran and former state senator.
Sorenson, who died March 16 at age 73, spent most of his life either serving in the Armed Forces or helping veterans.
Sorenson grew up in Chippewa Falls, where he graduated from high school. He attended UW-Eau Claire and then served in the Air Force. Sorenson was stationed in Vietnam in 1970 and honorably discharged in 1975.
He graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1978 and worked in the state for over a decade before becoming the Barron County veterans service officer in 1991. Sorenson then worked for the Wisconsin VA from 1995 to 2000 before becoming the Eau Claire County VSO, a position he held until retiring in 2014.
Zien was one of the veterans impacted by Sorenson’s caring attitude and work ethic. He met Sorenson in the late 1970s, a time when Zien said Sorenson was one of the few veterans who discussed issues affecting combatants like PTSD.
“He could put things into writing that a lot of us thought,” Zien said. “He took his passion, his obsession with serving veterans and their loved ones, way beyond the 40-hour work week.”
Zien said Sorenson supported and provided perspective on state projects related to veterans and was instrumental in making the Wisconsin Veterans Home at Chippewa Falls a reality. He said Sorenson preferred to work behind the scenes and “didn’t want to or need to take credit.”
Joe Heil, chair of the Eau Claire Veterans Council, met Sorenson in 1979 when Heil moved to the area. Heil is a Navy veteran, and Sorenson made sure Heil received his pension and disability funding.
Heil said Sorenson was honest, well-liked and always willing to assist veterans in any capacity.
Patrick LaVelle, County Board supervisor and Army Reserves member, said Sorenson possessed high character, would bend over backward to help someone and always made time to talk with people.
Larry Werner, chaplain of the American Legion Post 77 in Chippewa Falls, said Sorenson was always willing to learn from others.
Werner found Sorenson quiet yet approachable and always willing to lend an ear when veterans had questions.
“If he didn’t have an answer, he was the kind of guy who’d get back to you,” Werner said.
Martin called Sorenson a thinker who excelled at navigating challenges and mediating disputes. They worked closely together on Veterans Day and Memorial Day projects, and Martin said Sorenson was an “instant help right away.”
Sorenson had a memorable laugh and wasn’t afraid to have fun. During a retirement party at the American Legion in Eau Claire, Zien recalled Sorenson driving Zien’s three-wheel Harley Davidson motorcycle but quickly returning it after nearly jumping the median.
“A couple of us almost fell on our knees laughing,” Zien said.
Upon hearing about Sorenson’s death, Zien felt sadness but also “honor and pride to have known him and know that his work will carry on.”
“Another American hero is gone,” Martin said.