Thomas D. Clark: Historian's words ring true today





I always think of Thomas D. Clark in the spring.

Perhaps it's because, soon after I returned to Lexington in the spring of 1998, I asked Kentucky's historian laureate to speak to the Herald-Leader staff. He stood and lectured for nearly an hour without notes, putting Kentucky's array of issues, controversies and quirks into the context of history's great sweep.

It was an impressive performance, especially for a man about to turn 95.

While cleaning out files recently, I found a 15-page autobiographical memo Clark sent so I could introduce him properly that day. Hammered out on his manual typewriter, it was filled with typos and seemed to be missing a page or two. Mostly it was his exposition of Kentucky problems that need to be fixed.

It was classic Clark. He didn't study history to bask in the glow of a romanticized past. Rather, he saw history as the recipe for who we are and as a guide to the future that could help us learn from the mistakes of the past.

After Clark retired from a long and distinguished teaching career, he became even more active and outspoken. He drove himself around the state, speaking to legislative committees and garden clubs alike -- anyone who was willing to listen. And he never pulled punches. Herald-Leader reporter Andy Mead wrote my favorite description of Clark, calling him "a sort of unofficial state grandfather -- but not the kind who spoils you."

Clark didn't let up until his death on June 28, 2005 -- 16 days short of his 102nd birthday.

Perhaps I also think of Clark this time of year because spring is a time of renewal, a time to sort through old things and get serious about the future.

This is an especially good day to read Clark's observations, as the General Assembly heads home from Frankfort, having left so many of Kentucky's needs unmet.

Here are some excerpts:

"I thoroughly abhor the political corruption which has so often stained the democratic process in Kentucky's history. Every vote 'bought,' every private driveway paved at public expense, every mean and selfish act of a public school board, failure of the courts and criminal act by a public official has soiled Kentucky's image and diluted its integrity. One has only to examine the electoral statistics of past elections to see how much Kentuckians lack faith in their governing process...."



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