Remembering Clement Onyemelukwe

Clement Onyemelukwe — the “Father of Electricity” in Nigeria, whose 1963 marriage to a Peace Corps volunteer made news around the world, and who then spent many years in Westport with his wife Catherine — died last month at home. The cause was metastic non-small cell, non-smoker’s lung cancer. He was 86.

Clement Onyemelukwe

Clement Chukwukadibia Onyemelukwe was born April 1, 1933, in Nanka, Anambra State, Nigeria. After graduating from a premier colonial-era secondary school, he attended the University College Ibadan for 2 years before being sent by the British colonial government to Leeds University.

He received his B.Sc. engineering degree in 1956, and worked in the power sector in the UK. He acquired a second degree in economics from London University.

Onyemelukwe was recruited to fill civil service positions after Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960. By 1962 he was chief engineer of the Electricity Corporation on Nigeria.

During the nation’s civil war he led Biafra’s Coal Corporation and electrical utility, served as executive chairman of the Biafra Airports Board, and chaired the Panel on Post-War Reconstruction. He returned to Lagos and the Electricity Corporation after Biafra surrendered to Nigeria in 1970.

Onyemelukwe founded an engineering firm in Lagos in 1973, and a project management company in the UK 3 years later. He also wrote 5 books on economic growth. His latest, “The Decline of the American Economy,” will be published this spring.

Although, his obituary says, “his parents had rejoiced” that he returned to Nigeria after 9 years in the UK “without a foreign white wife,” in 1963 he met Catherine Zastrow.

They married the next year. The New York Times ran stories on the wedding. One was headlined “Peace Corps Worker to Wed Nigerian Engineer.” The marriage was also covered in Life and Ebony magazines.

Clement and Catherine Onyemelukwe’s marriage was covered by Life Magazine in January 1965.

Interracial marriage was still illegal in Kentucky, where Catherine lived while in the Peace Corps. When her parents returned home after the wedding, they had to change their phone number because of hate calls.

The couple received telegrams from around the world. Many were supportive, but some were not.

They moved to Westport in 1993. He became an American citizen in 2007. He spoke to the Y’s Men, and could often be seen researching or writing at the Westport Library.

Catherine Onyemelukwe was president of the library board in 1999-2000, and later became director of development for the Westport Weston Family Y. She is an active member of TEAM Westport, and the Unitarian Church.

Clement’s obituary calls him a well-loved church and community member. “His warm smile, easy laugh and joy in recounting stories of Nigeria made him an engaging conversationalist. He loved to discuss politics and economics.”

He is survived by his wife; 3 children, Chinakueze, Elizabeth and Samuel; 5 grandchildren, and 4 siblings.

His life will be celebrated on Saturday, March 7 (Unitarian Church of Westport, 1 p.m.). He will be buried in the family compound in his ancestral village beside his parents in April.

The Onyemelukwe family, Christmas 2019.

5 responses to “Remembering Clement Onyemelukwe

  1. So saddened by this news. Suzanne and I were always greeted with a huge smile and a big hug by Clem whenever we saw him at church or elsewhere. We gladly returned both. Clem was one of the sweetest and nicest men we ever met. To Catherine and all their children, our hearts are saddened along with yours. Clem was a special man and he will be missed.

  2. Clark Thiemann

    My father, also a Nigerian Peace Corps volunteer, always had great respect and cared a lot for the Onyemelukwe family. Our condolences to the whole family.

  3. I moved into the area 20 months ago and sadly never had a chance to meet Clem personally, but know Catherine from the UU church we both attend and sing for. What a great love story, and what a fabulous life to have been lived. A sad time for sure, but one of celebration and awe, too. Thanks for posting, Dan.

  4. I knew Clem (and Cathy) from Church. He was one of the sweetest, most charming men — always had a smile and a friendly word for everyone. He will be greatly missed.