Toni Clarey, age 50, of Carthage, who fulfilled the idea of the American dream as a Laotian immigrant, mother of five and do-it-all leader of local restaurants, died on November 8, 2020, in Sioux Falls at the Avera Mckennan Hospital, from complications due to cancer and other health issues. A celebration of life will be on November 14 at the Cabaret in Carthage from 4 to 7 p.m. A private funeral ceremony will be held due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Clarey was born Chan Hom Lee in a small Laos village that she compared to Carthage. The oldest of eight children, she and her family left the country between the late 70s due to an ongoing conflict. She once estimated she was 12 years old when they left for Thailand as refugees and later they moved to America to Evansdale, Iowa. At her career peak, running the Cabaret bar and steakhouse in its opening years, she straddled a culture clash between her penchant for an upscale Midwestern lifestyle and embracing the blue collar nature of Carthage and its residents’ farmer work ethic.
A Cedar Falls, Iowa, Catholic group and two others sponsored the family’s move to the United States. She immediately grew to be a self described “cartoon freak” on Saturday mornings and, as she grew to be a teenager, she took on a job at a Chinese restaurant. There, she met her husband John Clarey, who wooed her with drinks and king crab legs on early dates, and brought her into his own family with two children, Shannon and Jon. The two went on to have three children, William, Phyllis and David, and settled in South Dakota. After a period of working together in commercial trucking, the two went on to run bars and restaurants early on with an Artesian bar and a Chinese buffet in Huron to later on operating a steakhouse and lounge in Milbank.
John died from various health complications in 2002 in Milbank and Clarey and the three young children moved back to Carthage. There, Clarey purchased the Cabaret and co-owned it with a business partner. It was a fruitful time for her and a quick hit, where the restaurant saw regular weekend waitlines in a town’s nightlife typically known for its quiet, local crowds. It was where Clarey also forged some of her closest friendships with her staff.
She did not know how to stop work. After she sold the Cabaret to her daughter Phyllis in the mid 2010s, she took a break from work and found those moments difficult. She busied herself with house projects and yard work, but quietly hatched a plan to re-enter the food business. Less than two years later, Clarey and her son William opened Diner 34 in Howard, a small, mostly self-funded and -rehabilitated restaurant. The short-lived restaurant was open for less than two years, as she was approached to manage De Smet’s Kingsbury County Country Club and accepted.
Like at the Cabaret, she developed strong relationships with many there and worked tirelessly. She made a makeshift home in the basement of the restaurant with a bed, television and shower; where, on late nights, she would stay. A lover of dining out and a dry glass of Chardonnay, her final meal was beef pho, a Vientamese dish of rice noodles, meat and broth, eaten three days before she died.
She is survived by her five children, Jonathan, Shannon, William, Phyllis and David; and six grandchildren, Aedan, 15; Quentin, 10; Sawyer, 7; Rolland (Ollie), 6; Jerry, 4; and Winter, 2.
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