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Thomas D. Clark, 1903-2005

Kentucky’s historian
honored posthumously in Frankfort

Clark worked up until his death in June at age 101

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer


FRANKFORT, Ky. (August 2005) – To say that Dr. Thomas D. Clark devoted his life to Kentucky history is an understatement. Clark lived, breathed and ate Kentucky culture, traditions and folklore.

Thomas D. Clark

Thomas D. Clark

Clark died June 29 at the Mayfair Nursing Home in Lexington, Ky. He was just shy of his 102nd birthday.
Earlier in the year, the Kentucky General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to rename the Kentucky History Center in Frankfort, Ky., for Clark. New, gold lettering was unveiled on July 9, as hats flew skyward in honor of Clark. Instead of being a birthday party, “Hats Off to Kentucky History” was a memorial for the well-known state historian, a day filled with reminiscences of Clark’s Kentucky.
A roster of the day’s activities included a panel discussion of the state’s future by former Kentucky governors Julian M. Carroll, Brereton C. Jones and Paul E. Patton. A Hometown History Fair was erected in front of the building. It was comprised of various museums and historical organizations, such as Cumberland Gap National Park, the Kentucky Derby Museum and Kentucky State University.
Clark was born July 14, 1903, in Mississippi. His mother was a teacher. He attended a neighborhood school until second or third grade, and then went through the seventh grade at his mother’s school. On his 16th birthday he went aboard a dredge boat, digging mud, water and grease for two years before realizing this was not the way he intended to live the rest of his life.
By September 1920, Clark was without a job and no prospects for the future. He was able to gain admittance to an agricultural high school, Choctaw County Agricultural High School. He attended the school for four years.
Clark had no money to further pursue his education. After high school, his father allowed him to take 10 acres of his best farmland. Clark put a cotton crop in the ground himself, and this crop gave him the financial support to attend the University of Mississippi in 1925.
Clark came to Kentucky and earned his master's degree from the University of Kentucky in 1929 and began teaching there in 1931. He earned his doctorate from Duke University one year later. During this time, he worked long and hard into the night, researching and writing. In 1942, he became head of the history department at UK.
Throughout his lifetime, he sustained a passion for building library and archive collections. “It gets in your blood. Just the challenge” of collecting the material, he told UK history professor David Hamilton in a 2004 interview.
He labeled the biggest thrill of his career as having obtained the Calk Family Papers for the Kentucky History Center. “He worked on the Calk Family Collection for 70 years,” said Margaret A. Lane, assistant to the director of the Institutional Advancement Branch Manager for the History Center. The Calk manuscript dates to the time of pioneer Daniel Boone.

Ky. History Center

Photo provided by the
Ky. History Center

The late Dr. Thomas Clark
was honored July 9 in Frankfort, where they
named the Ky. History
Center after him.

Clark and Libby Jones were both responsible for acquiring the Woodburn Collection, said Lane. This is a similar collection of personal items and memoirs of the Woodburn family, of which Jones is a member. Through the family’s generosity, visitors to the center can view this collection and learn more about a Kentucky family’s history.
Clark is credited with saving and archiving the state records collection. When Gov. Albert “Happy” Chandler took office, the records were in a horrible condition, stacked in piles in the basement of the Capitol. Clark was the driving force behind developing the Kentucky Library and archives building, UK’s state archive collections, the University Press of Kentucky and the Kentucky History Center.
“He had a dream for many years,” said Lane. Clark wished that Kentucky’s history, heritage and artifacts too precious to be housed in the distilleries would be preserved and displayed for the public. Since 1838, the History Center has rented a space in an old distillery to store its growing collection of artifacts.
Since 1999, the center has housed the 80-member society staff, collections, research library, exhibit galleries, outreach and educational programs and the 1792 store in a 167,000-square-foot facility. This headquarters cost $30 million to build and has welcomed more that 1 million visitors.
Lane co-authored a book with Clark in 2002, "The People’s House: Governor’s Mansions of Kentucky." “It was his 31st and my first,” said Lane. “I was the novice and he was the master.”
At first Lane was a little intimidated, thinking, “I have no right to be working with this man.”
But Clark was in on the project from the get-go. Lane had been advised to team with a serious historian for this project. She went to Clark for advice and upon their second meeting he asked Lane, “Margaret, how much of this book would you like me to write?” Clark went on to write 15 chapters of historical narratives, said Lane. The book evolved into a synopsis of Kentucky history for the past 200 years.
Lane had ample credibility to pen the book herself, since she was executive director of the Governor’s Mansion for 12 years. She had access to antiquated documents and files and “was always distressed no one pulled the histories together,” she said. Lane spent seven years researching material to include in the book.
Clark was 95 when Lane met him. He had taught, written and researched for 60 years, she said. What she learned from him about writing and the publishing business provided her with good, solid guidelines for her book. Some of the best advice Clark gave her was to “never write what you cannot substantiate,” Lane said.
“Clark was the writer’s writer,” said Prospect, Ky., resident Jim Cummings. Cummings owns his own graphic advertising business and had the opportunity to meet Clark during a lecture series that Clark was giving in Kentucky. What impressed Cummings most about Clark was his sincerity and knowledge. “He believed in what he wrote,” said Cummings.
And why doubt him, when he had lived through a large portion of the events he wrote about, says Cummings. “He was one of the most underrated historians in the United States. He helped set the standard of other historians coming up to today’s era.”
Many wonder who will replace Clark; who can be worthy enough to slip on his well-worn shoes? He traveled all over Kentucky, down the many back roads and sat on many a country store’s front porch to extract tales from the locals and give credence to their oral traditions. While not being specific, Lane said, “We have some very good historians in Kentucky.” But can they live to be 102 and still be called a good historian?
Before his death, Clark had planned what was to become of his personal collection of research material. Years of notes were donated to Lindsey Wilson College several years ago, said Lane. Others are housed at the UK special collections and some at the History Center.
Clark was once asked why he chose to be a historian. His replied that a good historian would know something about his factual background. Secondly, not all historians can write with grace, but historians should write something that the public can easily read and understand. He also believed a historian should take an active role in his institution and various related associations.
“A good historian never slights the classroom,” Clark said. He loved the classroom and its students. He taught at the University of Kentucky for 33 years and was head of the history department from 1935 until 1964. In 1968, Clark taught at Indiana University, where he wrote a three-volume history of the school.
When asked by Hamilton what advice would he give a graduate student today, Clark replied, “Get out and become a historian on your own.”
Clark had been working on his memoirs before his death. The University Press of Kentucky plans to publish them in book form in 2006.

• For more information on the Kentucky History Center or Dr. Thomas D. Clark, visit: www.history.ky.gov.

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