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Dr. Thomas D. Clark
1905 -2005

By Jim Cummings

Kentucky lost one of it’s priceless jewels on June 29th 2005. Dr. Thomas D. Clark at the age of 101, died of complications from a hip infection at the Mayfair Manor Nursing Home in Lexington, Ky. On July 14, Dr. Clark would have turned 102 years old.

Governor Ernie Fletcher ordered flags at the Capitol to fly at half mast until after the funeral on Friday, and urged other state facilities to do the same, in honor of this great Kentuckian.

Dr. Clark taught history at the University of Kentucky for 37 years, where by his own admission almost 25,000 students passed through his history classrooms. And some he noted went on to do great things.

Dr. Clark retired from UK in 1968, but never retired from life. He was active in writing and educating the public right up until his death. In 1990 he was named Kentucky Historian Laureate for Life.

Thomas Clark was not a yes man. He stood up for Kentucky, it’s people, it’s historical past and future. He stood up for the preservation of Kentucky’s Historical archives when they were destined for the scrap heap. It is recorded that he received a late night call from someone informing him that a crew was loading dump trucks with state records to be sold for scrap. Dr. Clark in his pajamas covered by an overcoat raced to the scene to stop the destruction. He saved much of Kentucky’s history that night. (Whatever were they thinking?)

It seems some people in high places “couldn’t see the forest for the trees.” Dr. Clark had the foresight and vision to save these records of the past so that others might study, read and write about it in the future. It seems one mans junk became a generations treasures.

He had a passion for expressing his views about the Commonwealth. He talked to governors, and politicians on what they should do for the people of the Commonwealth and he never backed down. Dr. Clark will emerge as one of the most influential Kentuckians of the 20th Century. When you talk about famous Kentuckians you must but Dr. Clark right up there with Daniel and Squire Boone, James Harrod and Simon Kenton. What these early pioneers did with the longrifle, the tomahawk and the long knife, Dr. Thomas D. Clark did with pen, paper and a typewriter. These were his weapons of choice.

Dr. Clark not only wrote of Kentucky, but of the South, of it’s past, present and future. He wrote over 30 books and was not only a n historian but a gifted writer as well. He armed himself with a knowledge of the past, and made his history works alive with his humor and antidotes. His books were not only for other historians but for the general reader as well and for the younger generation too. He is a writer’s writer.


People throughout the state talked to Dr. Clark for he talked to everyone he met. He picked up bits and pieces from conversations with a wide variety of people.

There is a famous story told of Dr. Clark and an associate traveling through out Eastern Kentucky, and stopping for lunch at a small restaurant. As the gentleman went up to pay he lost site of Dr. Clark. Thinking he had gone to the restroom or on out to the car, he at first thought nothing about it. But soon he couldn’t find Dr. Clark anywhere and began to become alarmed for Dr. Clark was in his nineties. He could just picture the headlines if something happened to Dr. Clark on his watch. When he finally found Dr. Clark, he was off in a corner discussing pocket knives and their merits with two local gentlemen. Everywhere he went Dr. Clark would engage in conversation with the locals. His study of the old southern country store resulted in the acclaimed book : Pills, Petticoats and Plows

Another knack that Dr. Clark had was telling a person where they were from by their sir name. I heard him do this at a book signing and it was amazing. He asked the woman in front of me her name and then proceeded to talk about her family from Estill County. He always claimed that the real story of Kentucky came from it’s people.

This was the kind of person Dr. Clark was. He was a hands on historian. He traveled the back roads of Kentucky sitting on front porches and porch swings gathering information.

Education was his passion. He stated many times that education was the cross that Kentucky has to bear. His belief was that there should be books in every home, where children could pick them up and read at any time. He was an advocate of libraries and learning, and loved to teach and talk history.

Thomas Clark was born in Louisville, Mississippi, in 1903, the son of a cotton farmer and a school teacher. Clark attended the University of Mississippi and almost studied law before deciding on history. He received his master degree at the University of Kentucky and his Doctorate in 1932 from Duke University.


He served as a visiting professor at Harvard, Duke, North Carolina, Washington, Tennessee, Chicago, Wisconsin and Stanford.

At 101, Clark was writing yet another book. He had completed over 400 pages of his memoirs at the time of his death. He also had several other “projects” planned for 2005.

Dr. Clark had lobbied for years and to several governors to create a”history center” that could house a museum and research library. Clark’s efforts were not in vain for in 199 in Frankfort The Kentucky History Center was opened. As of July 9th 2005 the Center will be renamed The Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History. Like Dr. Clark this center is first rate and does not need to take a back seat to any other such center in the country.

At a recent planning session for this special day at the history Center Dr. Clark told Ed Hamilton, artist , sculptor and board member that he hoped to be present on this special day. But that if he didn’t make it “to go on without me.”

And “Go on without me’” is exactly what will happen. The renaming of the history center will go on without the presence of the man that meant so much to all Kentuckians. The future will press on, so that the past may not be forgotten.

Dr. Thomas Clark lived through much of the history that he wrote about. And he had a special fondness for the pioneer spirit of the first settlers that came into this land that was to become The Commonwealth of Kentucky. Clark admired the settlers that fought and stayed through the hardships of early frontier Kentucky. He also wrote about the ones that came through and went on to settle the west and those like the Bones that left simply because of the bad land deals and treacheries of the times.

As Kentuckians we have heavy laden hearts for Dr. Thomas Dionysius Clark will be missed. The historical legacy that he leaves behind will be cherished and not forgotten. The physical being has left us but the spirit lives on. His journey is not ending but simply beginning a new chapter. In heaven he will now get to meet the people he missed meeting on this earth - those that he wrote about that make up The History of Kentucky.

Link to the Ky History Center for more information about the passing of Dr. Clark and also about the Hats Off Celebration on July 9th honoring this man.

Link to Story on the
 Pioneer Times of Dr. Clark at Museum and History Day


Link to UK Alumni News article on Dr. Clark by Linda Perry

Link to a list of Dr. Clark’s books by the Lexington Herald Leader


Dr. Thomas Clark in frontier dress in 1941 at Fort Boonesborough during a film shoot about Kentucky’s Heroes and Pioneers

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