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  • April 17th, 2020

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS

By Joel M. Vance

 

My octogenarian friend of 60 years and counting, Bill Clark has a best-selling book stuck in his head and I haven’t been able to pry it out, although I’ve tried for years. It is a list of the favorite lunch spots he and his faithful and indefatigable Wednesday birding squad have visited over the years.

 

I’ve often told anyone who cared to listen that Bill Clark is the most fascinating person I’ve ever met and that includes a whole bunch of fascinating people. He is a quintessential Renaissance man. A partial list of his enthusiasms include major league baseball scout, professional boxer and wrestler, longtime official in just about every sport known, weightlifting record holder, entertainment critic, worldwide birding enthusiast, philanthropist, community activist, and contender for the most joint replacements by anyone human (11 at last count).

 

I first met Bill in 1959 at a frigid early season softball game shortly after I started as the sports editor of the Mexico Missouri Evening Ledger. Bill was, at the time, reporting sports for one of the Columbia newspapers—I don’t remember which but at various times he has worked for both of them. I was bundled up in the stands, shivering in the icy late evening air when this burly guy approached, wearing shorts and a T-shirt and flip-flops and introduced himself. If he was affected by the cold it didn’t show. This is a person I think I need to know, I thought to myself.

 

In the ensuing decade we swapped scores over the phone, pretty much dominated the choice of All-state high school teams and became closer friends with each passing year. After decades of writing columns for the Columbia Tribune, Bill was ousted by a new ownership after he wrote a column critical of the Sheriff’s Department for having ticketed him for making a legal but unsignaled turn. It turns out that at least in Columbia when you want to turn right after a stop at a stop sign, you’d better signal it. Common sense should have prevailed—the deputy who pulled Bill over should have issued a warning, but instead issued a ticket. Bill subsequent column was intemperate.

 

The sheriff retaliated with a rebuttal column. So Bill overreacted, the sheriff overreacted, and the Columbia Tribune which, unfortunately for Bill had the last word also overreacted by suspending Bill permanently. The summary judgment by the paper was symptomatic of what megacorporations do today to longtime employees—rewarding them for their loyal service by putting them out if there is even a whiff of something that doesn’t conform to the corporate image. It reminded me of a hunter I once overheard saying that if a new dog didn’t immediately prove out “I put them down.” The paper lost the voice of, in my opinion anyway, Columbia’s number one goodwill ambassador.

 

Bill had proved out for many years, often spending more to acquire material for his column that he was paid for it—he invariably bought lunch for those he interviewed, including me. Bill taught a series of classes in writing, baseball, and birdwatching, for the adult education program in Columbia, again paying out of his pocket for lunches and travel for those in his classes. The few dollars from his columns helped pay for countless tickets to countless performances by theater groups ranging from area high school thespians to traveling Broadway talent. His reviews showcased the Columbia theater scene for decades.

 

It was, for the large part, a thankless effort one which continues today as an Internet blog without the pittance paid by the newspaper. His retirement income from baseball helps and the Atlanta Braves also have helped him through those numerous joint replacements with their orthopedic expertise. Bill has tried to compensate for losing out on his Tribune pittance by opening a subscription blog through Patreon, aided by one of his five multitalented children who is a computer guru (Bill obstinately had clung to an anachronistic manual typewriter for decades—even Mark Twain succumbed to the lure of mechanized typesetting, although he lost his entire fortune doing it).

 

While Bill may have gotten crossways with Missouri’s version of the Sheriff of Nottingham, it was not the only time he and the law have had different versions of life. Some years back I was duck hunting with several members of the Atlanta Braves when Bill was their chief scout for Latin American talent. Over dinner I asked one of the Braves executives (I think the traveling secretary) if he knew Bill Clark. “Oh, old Clark,” he said, “he’s been in every jail in South America.” It turned out it was one jail, in Nicaragua , when Bill was arrested after he bumped an old man while driving  in a dust storm, with zero visibility.  The old man suffered a broken leg.  Latin American jails are notoriously poor places for gringos to wind up. Bill managed to get a phone call to the Braves and after negotiations and access to the deep Braves’ pocket (they were in their glory years with players Bill had scouted and recommended) he managed to bribe his way onto the good side of the iron bars and his criminal record remained spotless until he forgot to signal a turn.

 

Almost every time I hang around with Bill or even when I read his many and varied columns, I find out something new about this incomparable character. For example, in a recent column he reminisced about the time that he and the Hickman High School wrestling coach Dan Judy owned several trotting horses. It was a revelation akin to finding out that Bill was one of the Apollo astronauts. The world of trotting horse racing (you may have seen photos from the 19th century of a driver behind a trotter in a rickety little sulky, a memento of the time when Dan Patch was as famous a horse name as Man-O’-War or whoever this year’s Kentucky Derby winner would have been if the race hadn’t been canceled.

 

That factoid alone would make Bill unique among my acquaintances—how many people do you know

who have owned race horses of any type?

 

In a recent column Bill fessed up to the fact that he is way behind on joining the wonderful world of book authorship. Being a book author is kind of like having once owned a trotting horse, a source of ego boosting but unless you’re the rare Stephen King or John Grisham, is unlikely to boost you into the ranks of the moneyed few. Bill wrote, “When I turned 86 (Bill is 87 now) I had a talk with myself and decided that I probably didn’t have more than 25 more years to live. If I still had plans to write all those great books, I had better start.”

 

He found that after writing about 40,000 words of a memoir of his officiating days, and doing interviews with local black leaders about collecting columns he had written on his interaction with the African-American community of Columbia, what he termed as “the huge number of bank storage boxes containing all my notes and collections” that had been in a storage area on his family farm had burned to the ground destroying everything. “Essentially my whole life work had disappeared. All I had were memories and publishers don’t pay much for undocumented memories.”

 

I beg to differ. While most writing concerns the here and now, there is the rare individual, like Bill Clark, whose here and now is plenty fascinating, but whose undocumented memories are more fascinating than anything life conjures up these days.

 

Bill is more of a Luddite than whoever Lud was, whoever he was, and his editor at the Tribune once told me that it drove me nuts when Bill came in and plopped down a typewritten column probably on copy paper left over from the nineteen fifties, which then had to be typeset before it could be shoveled into the newspaper by computer. There was a two month gap between his ousting at the Tribune and the birth of an Internet blog several times a week. I suspect having a computer savvy son and the urging of his wife, Dolores, of 65 years playing a large part in bringing  about a revival perhaps not seen since biblical times in the rebirth of the Clark column.

 

I quickly subscribed to the new service which unfortunately has not been overwhelmed. Bill’s viewpoint on current issues, his wry observance of the human condition always is entertaining, even when he’s writing locally about things that don’t apply to my part of the world. I haven’t figured out how to negotiate Patreon but you can contact Bill at 3906 Grace Ellen Drive, Columbia, Missouri 65202 – 1796 or call him at area code 573 – 474 – 4510. Just don’t call on Wednesday; that’s birding day and Bill won’t be there. He’ll be somewhere in Missouri  at a birding spot in his new\used Toyota Camry which replaced one that was within shouting distance of 500,000 miles.

 

Bill said that he and the Camry planned to reach the end of the road together, but the Camry didn’t make it and Bill rolls along with the practically new Toyota and 11 new joints.

 

Which brings us to one of the several books Bill has promised me for years that he will apply fingers to (oh, horror of horrors, (he has delivered his manual typewriter to the same fate as the venerable Camry) in favor of a computer keyboard. The book would be a survey of the favorite lunch spots of the birding group, collected over the many years the birders have chowed down during visits to about 1200 conservation locations in Missouri, ranging from river accesses, to the state’s largest conservation areas.

 

If ever you have, as I have, spent time roaming afield far from home when hunger struck at midday, you know the value of finding one of those rare eating establishments that serves up memorable food. There’s not always a McJunque on every corner in those remote towns where wildlife areas exist and the hidden mom-and-pop eatery that makes Bill’s list is one to be cherished and shared, which is why I think a guidebook to the state’s lunch spots would be a bestseller. But first it has to be written and that’s where the snag has been. Even the most productive of Renaissance men would have trouble applying britches to seat and fingers to keyboard to produce a book. The material is there waiting to be transferred to type, but good intentions are merely asphalt on the road to hell.

 

And maybe he has lost his notes and documents to fire but he is far from having lost his mind where those same notes and memories reside. I want to read his memoir. And, although my weightlifting mainly is relegated to lifting a fork at dinner time, I even want to read his history of weightlifting (his notes of decades of lifting and writing about it mercifully were stored in an obscure corner of the basement and escaped the disastrous fire). Where else are you going to find a history of weightlifting? And I think the African-American community of Columbia if not the country would be interested in the thoughts of an old white guy who’s always been far ahead of the curve in racial relations. Those are just several of the five books he has indicated he has plans for. But, butt to chair, Bill. They won’t write themselves.

 

In a recent column, Bill talked about the impact Covid 19 has had on him his family and his activities. He has a pile of tickets bought in advance of the many entertainments he had planned to visit and review which now will not happen. Instead of asking for his money back, he has told the various venues to apply the ticket cost to next year’s productions. Typical Bill Clark—giving back that which did not need to be given back.

 

Here is Bill’s take not just on Covid 19, but on life itself: “the world must reopen, then recover before the bright lights go on again. Take care of your family and yourself. Keep your distance so that we can eventually gather together again in the music halls and theaters and enjoy the world of make-believe.”

 

Subscribe and enjoy—and don’t forget to signal your turns.  

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