In a world full of conformists, Don Clark always stood out
When I think of Don Clark I think first of him standing in a college football stadium, surrounded by people clad in clothes bearing the vibrant colors of their school.
Don is wearing a brown coverall.
Which is neither vibrant nor, so far as I know, a color affiliated with any college’s athletic teams.
It might have been a Carhartt, that coverall.
The garment certainly gave the impression, at a glance, of being a Carhartt.
Although I don’t believe the company has patented that particular loamy shade which is its trademark.
Possibly Don himself didn’t know on that chilly October evening in Pullman, Wash., whether he was, as they put it in the high-fashion business, “wearing Carhartt.”
(As in, the model is “wearing Dior.” Whenever I hear that grammatical construction I envision a waifish woman lurching along the runway with Christian himself riding horseyback.)
What I am sure about is that Don cared not a whit “who” he was wearing, or whether his clothes bore an appropriate label and were dyed the correct color.
He was a true individual, which is a fine thing to be.
Better, anyway, than surrendering always to conformity, which veers as wildly as the wind, and has as much substance.
Don was made of sterner stuff, and for that I admired him.
He died Sunday at age 87.
I don’t recall when I met Don, and my memory is murkier still about the circumstances.
The reason we became acquainted, though, is no mystery: We both graduated from the University of Oregon.
The way I figure it, Don found out I was a Duck in one of two ways.
Either his friend Jack Turner, who was publisher of the Herald when I started working here in 1992, told him, or else Don read the column I wrote after I came home from the 1995 Rose Bowl.
Our friendship was I suppose an unlikely one, if only because of the age discrepancy.
Don was close to half a century older, a gap which is no great impediment in the relationship between grandson and grandfather, but is rather more so for two people who share neither blood nor history of a non-genetic sort.
We got on well just the same. It helped that we never lacked for topics to kick around — when it’s not football season it’s getting ready to be football season, after all.
I doubt, though, whether Don and I would have built more than a passing acquaintance had we been incapable of conversing about anything but Duck football.
(Well, there’s always Duck basketball, too.)
Besides having five decades on me, Don grew up in Baker. I’m intrigued by the area’s history and Don told me much about the town that I, being a native of someplace else, didn’t know.
We also shared an interest in, and love for, cars.
Fast cars, in particular — a subject about which Don had considerably more knowledge and personal experience.
(My childhood, if you’ll pardon an analogy that’s decidedly non-automotive, was rather like that of a boy who yearns to be an artist but never gets anything to work with but crayons and those watercolors that come in a plastic case with a lid and a brush with maybe a dozen bristles. The first car I drove was a 1977 Nova, a four-door the color of — and this just occurred to me — the classic Carhartt coverall. The first car I bought was scarcely an improvement: a 1978 Mercury Zephyr which despite its name didn’t go like the wind but sounded like it, especially when it was afflicted with carbureted emphysema. Which was often.)
Don had raced cars. And although his competitive era was well past when I knew him, I glimpsed its remnants in the way he twisted the steering wheel and manipulated the shift lever, a manner that was a peculiar mixture of elegance and authority. When he switched gears it reminded me of a sniper working the bolt on a rifle.
Don drove a white Nissan Maxima when I met him. I rode in it once to La Grande, where we attended a U of O alumni dinner. His attitude as regards freeway speed limits was, well, indifferent.
Don had owned quite a lot of other makes but his affinity in his later years was for Nissans.
He replaced the Maxima with a dark green Altima. In September 1997 I rode in the Altima with Don to the Boise Airport. We flew to Reno and watched the Ducks beat the Wolfpack with a fourth-quarter comeback.
Don later spurned Nissan for a brief dalliance with Mercedes-Benz. We drove his Benz — an M-class SUV, in silver — to the valley in the fall of 2000, when the Ducks played UCLA.
We stayed at my parents’ house in Salem on that trip.
A few weeks later we drove up to Pullman for the Wazzu game. My dad, Alan, and my brother, Michael, went along, as did the Herald’s intern, Dylan Darling.
Don was of course the oldest in our group — he would have been about 78 then; my dad was but 55 — yet he drove the whole way, at least 400 miles I guess.
My parents didn’t know Don as well as I did but they both liked him, and appreciated, as I did, his utter lack of pretension. Pretension is an unpleasant trait in most people but one which, it seems to me, is more typically abundant than scarce.
My mom thought Don’s laugh especially endearing. It was indeed one of his distinguishing characteristics, a unique sound that melded the staccato rhythm of a witch’s cackle with the infectious innocence of a child’s giggle.
I was slightly surprised that I didn’t hear that laugh last week. I hadn’t seen Don for several weeks but I sort of expected he would amble into the office on Monday the 7th, chortling about the Ducks denying the despised Beavers the Rose Bowl for the second year in a row, and knowing I had been at the game.
I wouldn’t have been shocked either had Don suggested we drive down to Pasadena in a few weeks to watch the Ducks play Ohio State. We would have traveled in his current Nissan, of course, a bright red Murano that replaced the 350Z sports car that supplanted the Mercedes.
This season’s Rose Bowl is the first for the Ducks since that ’95 game I wrote about.
I would have enjoyed watching this Rose Bowl with Don, just sitting on the sofa in my living room or in his.
We would have laughed.
And probably muttered a few curses when the Buckeyes pulled off a good play.
The convention at times like these is to wish the person godspeed.
But I don’t think there’s any need of that here.
I rode many miles with Don Clark, you see.
And he was not one to drift along with all the rest, as anonymous as a single mackerel in a school so big it makes a cloud in the sea.
Even when he dressed drab you could always pick him out.