Cheesecake in the air

Mar. 29—ASHLAND — Clarke Wiley was born to fly.

It was in the air that Clarke, whose birth name is Allan, struck gold with a dessert that became the First Lady's favorite.

On Air Force One, Wiley served Ronald and Nancy Reagan. He navigated a quite interesting course to become Chief Steward for the country's Commander In Chief.

The road to the air

Rewind to the Vietnam War era. Wiley knew if he didn't make a choice it would be made for him.

Not long after graduating high school in Seattle, Washington, Wiley entered the Air Force.

Wiley had enrolled in culinary school prior to serving as a Pararescueman.

The Pararescue unit — who endure grueling military training — consisted of highly trained special-operating paramedics who would conduct pilot rescue operations and other missions.

A car accident knocked Wiley out of aviation. Although he said he was healing and would recover, the sustained injuries prevented him from Pararescue, according to regulations dating back to World War II.

Since those rules were nearly 30 years old, there was a chance an exception would allow Wiley to resume service in that capacity.

While waiting at headquarters, Wiley received a phone call from his mother, Beverly, who informed him that his chef school had told her if Wiley didn't start his actual culinary hours, he'd lose academic time and would be forced to repeat.

At headquarters, Wiley worked with the master chef of the officers' club. He dabbled in ice sculptures and wedding cakes, among other tasks put forth by those in charge.

Wiley had also logged time in nursing school with a goal of eventually becoming an RN.

With his nursing, cooking and Air Force background, the chief nurse viewed Wiley as a the perfect candidate for the presidential suite.

"Oh no, I'm not interested in that," Wiley recalled saying.

"But they said, 'oh, this isn't a request. We're putting in an application for you,'" he said.

Meanwhile, Wiley learned he was approved to return to Pararescue, but, as fate would have it, he got word on a Sunday night that he'd be aboard the 707 Air Force One by Tuesday.

The name change

Wiley first met "Superman" actor Christopher Reeve at a lookalike contest.

They quickly befriended one another. Because of their similar appearance, Reeve labeled Wiley his "cousin" — and the two stuck with the narrative.

One day when Wiley saw the manifest for Air Force One, Reeve's name appeared as a guest. Wiley approached his commander and notified him of the "issue."

"My cousin will be on the plane," Wiley recollected saying. "'Who's your cousin?' he asked. and I said, 'Christopher Reeve.'"

The commander deemed it no problem but said Wiley would just stick to the back of the plane (the coach area).

That did not go as planned, because Wiley soon received an order from the presidential suite.

"Mrs. Reagan has requested you to serve the cheesecake," one told Wiley.

"I'm all excited, because I knew how much she enjoyed it. I draped the tray with beautiful linens and very fine Picard China. So, I walked up, and there was Chris right next to her."

Reeve normally wore contact lenses, but not in the air because his eyes would get too dry.

"He had the exact same frames I did," Wiley said. "He was in a dark blue suit. I was in a dark blue suit. He was in a conservative red tie. I was in a conservative red tie.

"... Mrs. Reagan looks back at me, and she looks back at Chris, back at me, back at Chris ... and I'm still holding the tray. Her assistants were laughing, busting up. I'm still holding the tray, trying to be very professional.

"... Finally, Chris goes, Mrs. Reagan, may I present to you my cousin?"

Wiley said Reagan gasped, "Oh my God, I just told Ronnie (President Reagan) the other day, 'you know, Steward Wiley looks just like Christopher Reeve! In fact, we were watching "Superman" at the White House, and Ronnie goes 'Look, there's your steward!'"

"My steward is Superman!" Mrs. Reagan said, according to Wiley. "To think my steward is Clark Kent!"

That's all it took.

Allan Wiley became Clarke Wiley.

"When I got back to the squadron, my name tag had been changed, my military name had been changed, and the officers were in Superman paraphernalia," Wiley said.

So, why Clarke with an E?

An exchange steward from the Queen who was "very British and very proper," according to Wiley, is the one who ordered the new name tags. In the United Kingdom, Clarke was the more common spelling. "He spelled it that way, so I'm Clarke with an E."

In his father's obituary a few years ago, Clarke Wiley's birth name was listed, so he said several of his friends didn't even realize his dad had died.

Wiley said his mom disagreed with the name change, but when she died in 2023, he was compelled to list his more well-known identity "Clarke" in parentheses in the obituary.

The cheesecake

As part of his final grade in the culinary program, Wiley had to create a recipe from scratch. Part of the assignment was figuring out how to sell it and determining how well it would freeze.

Wiley achieved an A-plus with his cheesecake. He said Sysco Foods carried it for a while.

He eventually introduced the recipe, which had been published, into the squadron. When it was first served, Nancy Reagan said, "Oh, I really like that," according to Wiley — so much so that she desired the product become part of the White House dessert menu. Wiley is unsure if it was ever served there.

"We called it Mrs. Reagan's cheesecake," Wiley said. "I was very honored. She wanted it put on the menu for the aircraft."

Wiley said the Reagans played the political game well, so, for example, if they were entertaining guests from Maine, blueberries would top the cheesecake. If guests were from the West, they'd go with blackberries. Wiley said one could drizzle lemon or orange sauce atop the dish.

It's a popular request to this day for the Wiley kitchen.

Recently, he prepared the cheesecake and published the recipe for attendees of the royal high tea that concluded the Daffodil Springtacular on March 24 in Ashland.

Community go-getter Norma Meek is a huge fan, thanks to businessman Corbie Stull.

When Stull owned The Jockey Club in Ashland, Meek asked Wiley to conduct a cake-decorating class for a Lunch-n-Learn event. Stull insisted that Wiley craft his famous cheesecake, so he did.

"Norma fell in love with the cheesecake, and that's how the star was born," Wiley said.

Years ago, he switched from Kroger-brand sour cream to a dollop of Daisy. He said his friends remarked how much different and better it was, so he rolled with the permanent change. Wiley also uses only brown eggs.

It features a thick graham cracker crust, and it's best served chilled.

Wiley is experienced in making wedding cakes and even ice sculptures. He recently branched off into pastries. Bakeries have hired him for seasonal work.

Wiley has not created an ice sculpture in "quite a few years," he said. When he did, he donned rubber boots and wielded a chainsaw and "sliced away." They would take a blow torch to the final product to give it a shiny appearance. He said swans are the easiest. The most challenging sculpture he made was a goblet for a wedding that featured a bunch of criss-crosses.

Creative juices are in his genes.

A distant relative of famous pioneer Jenny Wiley's, Clarke Wiley said his grandfather was a canvas painter and his dad picked the banjo in a bluegrass group that once toured with Bill Monroe.

Mrs. Reagan would often ask Clarke about his dad picking the banjo, he said.

The Reagan-Wiley bond

The First Lady remembered personal details about Wiley, and often brought them up in conversation.

Wiley constantly reminded himself that he was there to serve and could not get caught up in a friendship.

However, in retrospect, he indicated that he could not help but form a strong bond.

"The Reagans were wonderful people," Wiley said. "They treated you with such a purpose. We used to have training on how not to be engulfed in their friendliness.

"... Even if you didn't like their politics, you were very proud that they were in the White House representing us (from 1981-89). But don't rile him up. If you riled him up, it'd scare you half to death."

Wiley was intrigued by the elegance of the Reagans.

"Her gloves, her hats ... her elegance, grace and style was comparable to that of Mrs. (Jacqueline) Kennedy. Mrs. Reagan carried herself well," Wiley said.

Nancy Reagan was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987. President Reagan insisted that a medical person fly with her, according to Wiley.

"One night I'm working at a Naval air station, stitching up a kid — it was one of our protocol officer's son — and she said, 'I heard you were in the medical field but didn't realize you were a nurse,'" Wiley said.

He was asked to take over as the First Lady's nurse, unbeknownst to her.

"So I was Mrs. Reagan's personal nurse. They say she didn't know it, but when we said goodbye for the last time — it still breaks my heart to think about it," he said through tears as he vividly remembered the conclusion of Reagan's second term, "she squeezed my hand like she knew I was her nurse. To say goodbye was really rough. It was endearing."

The SAM 27000 (707 Air Force One in the 1980s) is now on display in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

The next chapter

Wiley served President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush for one flight aboard Air Force One. He had served Bush as Vice President.

He then was part of a three-year control tour in Panama. He retired from the Air Force in the early 1990s after 24 years in the service.

"I'm really glad I did join the Air Force," he said.

In the late '90s, Wiley wrote a fictional book called "The First Man To Be First Lady" under pen name Clarke Allan. The novel is about the first gay President and Vice President. One summary reads that it's "a romantic love story between two men who, with their dog Barney, are thrust into the spotlight and illuminate two of the most powerful positions in the world."

Wiley's real-life experiences helped shape the novel.

Wiley's parents — originally from the Ashland area — moved back in 1995. Wiley visited every couple years, he said, and eventually moved to Ashland, first in 2007, and then again in 2016. He's been at 2700 Forest Ave. for eight years.

The air, the tea, the flowers

Wiley still flies.

Upon retirement from the Air Force, he went into nursing and then administrative nursing. After retiring from nursing, he returned to the air.

Wiley works as a flight attendant for Delta, American and United Airlines. He often flies from Columbus to New York, and even overseas.

"If you fly out of Columbus, chances are very good we'll get to fly together," he said.

At home, he stays busy with various tasks such as the Daffodil Springtacular in March.

At his address, fittingly enough, he has planted a total of 2,700 daffodil bulbs as part of the yellow-flower movement this spring.

"When they're all in bloom, it's rather impressive," he said.

He's hosted tea parties featuring women in big hats and gloves and gentlemen in waistcoats. The latest tea events — both the family tea on March 23 and the royal tea (with alcohol) on March 24 in the Highlands Museum — were spurred by Meek. A group, including Wiley's sister in-law, temporarily opened a hat shop in the museum for the tea, the upcoming Kentucky Derby and other suitable events.

"Norma wants one every year — the hats, the gloves, the fanciness," Wiley said. He has a feeling she's going to keep him pretty busy over the next several years ... just as Mrs. Reagan did in the 1980s. And, of course, the cheesecake will remain a request.

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