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Tom Chaney, No. R767: Dr. Thomas D. Clark (1903-2005)

Of Writers and Their Books No. R767: First appeared 3 July 2005 shortly after the death of Kentucky Historian Thomas D. Clark.

The next earlier Tom Chaney column :Tom Chaney. R766 review: The Coming of Rain

By Tom Chaney

Dr. Thomas D. Clark (1903-2005)
First published in July, 2005 in the Hart County News-Herald

Dr. Thomas D. Clark, dean of Kentucky historians, died this week just a few days shy of his 102nd birthday.

Kentucky is immeasurably richer because of his extraordinary life.

As a teacher of history, he introduced the delights of Kentucky and American history to generations of students at the University of Kentucky. As a writer of textbooks, he expanded that influence to young people in the public schools of the state.

As a research historian, he taught the value of the past and its records to his students and to those in public life. He was instrumental in saving state records and in the organizing the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives.

Speaking in conversation with Dr. David Hamilton, his successor at the University, Dr. Clark described a crisis in the history of state archives.
When Happy [Governor Albert "Happy" Chandler] came into office the state records were in horrible condition -- piled up in windrows in the basement of the Capitol. Happy ordered these greenhorns to clean up the state Capitol. They sold the records for scrap paper. Two truckloads had gone to Louisville. J. W. Martin [a Chandler aide] called me in the night and said, "don't take time to dress. Just go as you are."

And, well, [I said], "I can't go to Frankfort in my pajamas."

We got down there and there were two trucks loaded, ready to go to Louisville. I stayed by the trucks and J. W. went over and got Happy out of bed. Happy realized what was happening, and he ordered them to unload the two trucks and to bring back the other two. We brought them over to the University and kept them for several years. We saved the state records.
Dr. Clark was deeply committed to educational reform in the Commonwealth. His activities with the Pritchard Committee were just the tip of the iceberg of his concern with better teaching. He saw students at the University as "a seed crop . . . that will catch the vision of the future and who . . . will recognize change and give validity to the fundamental spiritual, social, economic and political welfare and destiny of man."

And Dr Clark was a storyteller without peer. First, in his books. They read like well-written novels. As an undergraduate in the 1950's I studied southern history with one of Dr. Clark's students. Dr. Carl Fields introduced me to Dr. Clark's writing. I shall never forget the pleasure I got from reading his Pills, Petticoats and Plows: The Southern General Store. His text on Kentucky history has lured many public school students into a love for their native state.

And he was a storyteller in the flesh. I was pleased to attend a Valentine Day party a couple of years ago. Dr. Clark was present as was Steve Nunn, whose father, Louie B. Nunn, former governor had just died. Dr. Clark and Representative Nunn swapped stories about the former governor to the delight of us all.

Some years ago Dr. Clark came to Horse Cave with his wife, whose son Robert Brock is [2005] director of Kentucky Repertory Theatre. While Mrs. Clark visited her son, Dr. Clark came to The Bookstore. We sat at a table for a couple of hours as he spoke of his early teaching at Memphis State under the eagle eye of Dr. Nellie Angel Smith, a classical linguist, dean of women, and keeper of the maidenly virtues of the Memphis co-eds. I showed him Dr. Smith's Horse Cave High School graduation picture as he told of evading Dr. Smith's approbation as he and the poet John Crowe Ransom escaped her sniffing out the pre-dinner drinks they had enjoyed.

Dr. Thomas D. Clark is gone. We shall miss him greatly. But, we still have his books -- we remember his stories. His students and his grandstudents and their students are yet sharing his love for Kentucky history and for his rigorous scholarship.

Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney Note: Thomas Dionysius Clark (July 14, 1903 - June 28, 2005), perhaps Kentucky's most notable historian, saved from destruction a large portion of Kentucky's printed history, which later become a core body of documents in the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives. Often referred to as the "Dean of Historians" Clark is best known for his 1937 work, A History of Kentucky. Clark was named Historian Laureate of the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1991.

This story was posted on 2012-06-17 05:14:00
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