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Centenarian Historian.

A hundred years ago, Thomas Clark was born on a cotton farm in the Choctaw country of central Mississippi, an area populated at the time by a plethora of Confederate veterans. It wasn't surprising that as he grew up he felt like he was reliving history. "It was as though I was literally born in the Civil War in Indian country," he says in an interview.

Perhaps that's why he grew fascinated by history and ultimately became a historian of the American experience. Because of his rural roots and captivation by the saga of people migrating across the land and the influence of the land on people, his main focus was Americans' westward movement and the opening of the frontier.

His greatest accomplishment, he notes without hesitation, was teaching about 25,000 students during his lengthy career as a professor. "I taught a little bit of everywhere," he says. "For 40 years, I was a member of the staff here at the University of Kentucky. For 6 years, I held a distinguished service professorship at Indiana University. But in the summer and other times, I taught in North Carolina, Duke, Wisconsin, Harvard, Stanford, Kent State, University of Rochester, Claremont Graduate School. I taught in a pretty good number of other people's universities." He also taught courses at the Universities of Vienna and Athens; in Salzburg, Austria; and for the U.S. State Department in India.

WOODWORK AND FARMWORK

Even though his life took a turn into the lofty halls of academe, his soul remained close to the land--evidenced not only by his academic specialization but by his lifelong passion for woodworking. "I have a great reverence for wood," he says in his courtly southern drawl, "and I love the grain of wood, working with it."

He has made chests, tables, benches, chairs, and cabinets, among other items of furniture, and still crafts things, though at the age of 100, he explains, he avoids handling power saws. "I like walnut, maple, and I have a real fondness for tulip poplar," he says. "Some of the oaks are nice, too--white oak and some of the red oaks."

While his father was a cotton farmer (as were both of Clark's grandfathers), his mother was a schoolteacher and an enthusiastic reader. "She stimulated my interest vigorously in the history of the region," says Clark, who in 1993 was appointed Kentucky's historian laureate for life by the state legislature. Though his mother was far more educated than his father, they both encouraged the boy and his three brothers and two sisters to get as much schooling as possible. "I was fortunate to have that support," he says.

It took young Thomas until he was 16 to complete grade school, because rural schools were open just two or three months out of the year in order not to interfere with growing-season farm duties. It wasn't until he was 17 that he went to high school, graduating in 1925, when he was 22. Asked if he grew up in poverty, he says, "No, that was just 'country poor.' In that cotton country, we were all just on pretty much the same economic level."

Even while attending school, he had to work hard and long to support himself. At age 16 through 18, he toiled aboard a dredge boat that was digging a canal on Mississippi's Pearl River. During the summers between school years, he and one of his brothers engaged in the backbreaking and dangerous work of logging.

During the summer of 1925, he grew a bumper crop of cotton, which yielded enough cash to finance part of his expenses at the University of Mississippi, where he enrolled in the fall of that year. To make ends meet while a university student, he kept up a nine-hole university golf course, and, during his college summers, worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in its revetment service on the lower Mississippi River.

From 1926 to 1931, he performed a whirlwind of work at three universities, earning his bachelor's degree from the University of Mississippi, his master's from the University of Kentucky, and his doctorate from Duke University.

In addition to his jobs, he was supported by a small scholarship at the University of Kentucky and awarded $600 in assistance at Duke. He also borrowed money from a bank in Charlottesville, Virginia, to help finance his master's and Ph.D. degrees. He later repaid the loan by teaching extension courses in addition to his faculty load at the University of Kentucky (where he first taught).

THE THRILL OF HISTORY

Clark is still an active member of the Kentucky Historical Society. In this capacity, he recently acquired two "exceedingly fine" collections of historical items--and his excitement over them is palpable. One is called the Calk Collection, named after William Calk, a pioneer who painstakingly kept a journal as he "broke his way through the raw wilderness."

The journal is "a graphic description, written in the language of the backwoods." Calk surveyed much of the country around the original settlement of Boonesboro, a town just a few miles from Lexington in central Kentucky. He was also a farmer and trader who floated flatboats down the Mississippi. In 1804, for instance, right after the purchase of Louisiana, he made a trip from Boonesboro to New Orleans to sell some of the harvest of the land.

Calk's materials "describe pioneer Kentucky, the settlement of this part of the westward movement. It describes all sorts of activities--just settling the land and establishing a stable way of life in this backwoods frontier country."

His other historical treasure trove is called the Alexander Collection. The Alexanders were a Scottish family whose records date from the late seventeenth century. The family had wide interests in farming; importing and breeding cows, sheep, and hogs; raising and breeding sporting horses; and commercial businesses in Chicago. "They claimed some of the finest land on the entire globe, in Woodford County," says Clark. "And every generation were paper savers--record makers and paper savers."

Not surprisingly, then, the resulting collection is voluminous--a great mass of original research material. Although he's tremendously excited by the two finds, he says that "at a hundred years, I'm past taking on any major research project right now."

Nonetheless, when asked if it's thrilling to read the graphic details in the two collections, he exclaims passionately, "Oh, quite, quite so!" And he waxes enthusiastic over the troves' written materials and artifacts, such as the Calk Collection's Jacob's staff (a compass-like surveying instrument similar to the one George Washington used as a younger man).

Among the books Clark has written are A History of Kentucky (1937), The Rampaging Frontier (1940), The Kentucky (Rivers of America Series, 1943), Pills, Petticoats and Plows (1944), Frontier America (1961), The Emerging South (1964), and The Old Southwest.

Clark has a son who is an attorney and a daughter who is a housewife and who married a college professor. "She said she'd never marry a professor," the historian chuckles, "but that's exactly what happened." After his first wife passed away, Clark remarried seven years ago; the couple live in Lexington, where they attend the First United Methodist Church. "I'm descended from a whole passel of Methodists," says Clark. "As far back as I know, we've been affiliates of the Methodist Church."

He escaped any real hardships in his life, he says, chalking up his cotton-farm upbringing and stony road to the academic world to the normal course of life in general. "I've been lucky," he says. The only real trauma in his life was that "I lost a dear wife after 62 years of marriage, but that, I guess, is the course of nature. But now I'm married to another very fine woman, indeed."

THE EBBING OF RACISM

Asked about the secret to his longevity, he modestly attributes his accomplishment mostly to "good ancestral genes" and "a lot of good luck." But he also notes that, while he has a healthy appetite, he has been "moderate" in exercise and consumption of food and avoids tobacco and alcohol. On the mental side, he says, "I have been rather disciplined in my work habits."

In addition to woodworking, the historian enjoys stamp collecting. His son took up the hobby, but when his interest flagged, Clark carried on in his stead. Today, he has two main portions to his collection: Confederate and U.S. stamps, with a "pretty full" collection of the latter. These include the original 5- and 10-cent stamps of 1847 and a one-shy complete set of Columbian stamps, issued in 1892 to commemorate the quadricentennial of the discovery of America.

On the issues of the day, Clark declares himself to be "deeply concerned that this nation not get itself involved in needless strife, in situations in which it's very difficult to get ourselves disentangled from. We are generally inclined to be a peaceful people, I think, and I would like to see us restore some stability in that respect."

He is also anxious about racial issues in America. Contending that the country still suffers from a significant race problem, he says hopefully, "We may not live long enough to see the erasure of many of those barriers, but we have breached so many of them. For instance, I can't get over the fact that, when I wrote The Emerging South [in 1964], how bitter that antiracial spirit was. Now, the southern football teams are made up largely of blacks." He tells of a letter he received from an elderly professor at the University of Mississippi, where James Meredith's admission stirred a furor in 1963, saying proudly that the school had registered some 1,300 blacks. "That's cheering when you see the nation make that kind of progress," says Clark. "We have not completely erased those barriers--by no means have we erased them--but we've made phenomenal progress in removing that divisive factor from our society. I've been very interested in that."

The historian thinks that the best way for racial barriers to fall is for black youths to persevere in school and get the best education possible. "In that way," he says, "they'll pull up the whole race.

"Don't be deluded," he counsels African-American young people, "by the few who make fortunes in athletics. Think about how many fall by the wayside. By all means, both races, white and black, get educated so you can meet the conditions of changing times and the challenges that changing times bring and will bring in greater proportion in the future."

In terms of the distant years to come, Clark most of all would like to see the advent of "universal peace, which possibly will never be achieved. But I'd like to see nations--and this nation especially--remove as many of those divisive forces as possible and live as a people of common interests, common goals, and in a free, open society."n

Robert R. Selle is an editor in the Current Issues section of The World & I.
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Author:Selle, Robert R.
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Words:1831
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