Who is Frank A Clark?

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By TOM LONGDEN • Register Staff Writer

Frank Clark ministered to tens of thousands of people in an unusual way - via his popular one-panel newspaper cartoons. His instructive and insightful "The Country Parson" sermons were treasured by loyal fans. At the height of its popularity, in 1963, the feature was published in 79 American newspapers, although during its lifetime it was carried by more than 200 newspapers.

Clark took weighty themes and treated them with gentle humor, lightly poking fun at human foibles and weaknesses Each panel carried an illustration - often of the kindly parson himself - and an aphorism that made readers think:

"If you haven't time to help youngsters find the right way in life, somebody with more time will help them find the wrong way."

"Sins are kinda like rabbits - turn a couple of 'em loose and the first thing you know there's a whole bunch of new ones."

"A Bible that's falling apart usually belongs to a person who isn't."

"A young man should never be ashamed of his ancestors - unless he's turning out to be like them." Clark was born in Elkhart on Oct. 10, 1911, the son of Ralph Atherton Clark, a banker who later sold insurance, and Bethania McKinstry Clark, who died in 1917. The senior Clark remarried, and his second wife, Elizabeth, brought up Frank and his brother, Tom, who was one year older.

As a student in Elkhart, Frank Clark participated in school plays and speech events, says Clark's son, Bruce, of Bellevue. Later in life, Clark would feel at ease when speaking before groups of people about "The Country Parson." In 1929, Clark enrolled at Drake University, hoping to become a Disciples of Christ minister. Bruce Clark says his dad worked part time as a janitor at the Equitable Building to help meet expenses.

Clark found New Testament and Greek courses difficult, prompting a switch a year later to Drake's Liberal Arts College, where he majored in math and minored in physics.

Graduating in 1933, Clark took a job on the information desk at the Des Moines Register and Tribune. He soon talked his way into writing a science column, selling the Sunday magazine editor on his idea for a weekly feature. Carrying the byline F. Atherton Clark, "Odd, Isn't It?" was based on little-known scientific facts. The success of "Odd, Isn't It?" helped Clark become a features writer. In 1938, Clark married his high school sweetheart, Gladys, who had become a music teacher. They had three sons, Mark, Paul and Bruce.

In 1941, Clark moved to the Register and Tribune Syndicate as assistant managing editor and was later promoted to managing editor.

In a 1980 interview, Clark told longtime Register and Tribune religion writer William Simbro that "most of the good things that have happened to me in my career happened by accident when I was trying to help someone else." In the case of "The Country Parson," he was helping Minnesota cartoonist Wally Falk, who wanted to get a second feature started with the R&T Syndicate after his first, "Kickin' Around," proved successful.

He pitched the idea of "The Country Parson" to Clark, who agreed to provide the one-liners for the daily feature if Falk drew the illustrations. "Parson" made its debut on April 4, 1955.

At the end of that year, 28 newspapers were carrying the feature. Clark and Falk worked as a team until Falk's death in 1962. At that time R&T artist Dennis Neal took over illustration duties.

When asked about his role in making "The Country Parson" successful, Clark explained that "I hear a lot of sermons, and I read a lot of others. I just boil them down to one sentence, which probably is all they should have been in the first place."

But he added that many preachers would take his one-liners and blow them up into full-scale sermons again. Today, Gladys Clark says her husband was proud of "The Country Parson" and took the work seriously.

"He spent a lot of time on it - both at his office downtown and at home," she says. She also says her husband was often asked to speak at conventions and before church groups and clubs about the feature.

Clark worked three months in advance, sending his written homilies to the illustrator so that the R&T Syndicate could send six panels weekly to member newspapers. The Des Moines Tribune ran "Parson" on Page One for a long period, then moved it to Page Three, publishing it Monday through Friday, using five of the six panels offered. When the Tribune closed in 1982, the Register carried the feature for a time.

During his career, Clark was able to work alongside his brother Tom, the Register's financial and markets editor for 30 years. It was he who, as a young R&T library clerk, had tipped off Frank about the initial job opening that launched his career. In later years, Frank Clark was the R&T Syndicate's business manager and served on its board of directors. He retired from his full-time job in 1976, but continued to write for "The Country Parson."

At age 80, on Dec. 11, 1991, Clark died of a kidney ailment at a Des Moines hospital. He donated his body to medical research at the forerunner of Des Moines University, and memorial services were held at Des Moines' First Christian Church, where Clark had long been an active member. His ashes are interred at Elkhart. Additional Information from the same article: FRANK A. CLARK, Writer Through the years, Clark's concise "sermons" found in "The Country Parson" were collected and published in booklet form - at least 12 slender volumes - for faithful readers. An early opponent of the Vietnam War, Clark often wrote of peaceful themes as well as social and economic concerns. Some of his one-liners, which numbered in the thousands, still show up in magazines such as Reader's Digest. Clark's son Bruce says his dad was an avid crossword puzzle player. Bruce Clark also says his dad and Frank's brother, Tom, were "both great story-tellers, loquacious and witty, able to regale the dinner table with their stories." Clark once served as president of the Des Moines Area Religious Council.

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