The only exception to an exceptional guy

Last week, reading Clark Knight’s obituary, I was hit with both sorrow and joy.

The sorrow is obvious, but the joy? Well, Clark had a life well-lived, and that counts for a lot in my book.

Clark and his siblings were raised by his grandparents, and when his grandfather died, Clark stayed on to maintain and run his grandmother’s boarding house, as well as to take care of his grandmother. And stay on he did, since his grandmother lived to the ripe old age of 95.

Once free of those obligations, he set out for his own life. He sold the house, moved to Florida to live near his sister and brother-in-law, and thrived in his new environment. Being the helper he was, he became a CNA, a job that suited him perfectly. Then at the tender age of 65, he fell in love, married and stayed that way till the end of his days.

A runner’s small world

I always knew Clark, but for a long time I knew him only from a distance since he was one of “the big boys.” He graduated from high school before I was out of sixth grade, when to me those guys were already senior citizens.

In the mid ’70s I got to know Clark due to our mutual interest in running. Back then, schools had track and cross country teams, but very few people ran in their leisure. So naturally the few runners in town gravitated toward each other. Then at some point, there were weekly summer fun runs. I don’t know for sure, but I think Clark was the force behind them. Certainly, he was the guy who ran them and as a result, often couldn’t run in them.

I talked a lot with Clark, but I can’t say I knew him well. And aside from running, I’m not sure we had a lot in common. For instance, he loved opera. My feelings on opera are best summed up by the classic Ed Gardner quote: “Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and, instead of bleeding, he sings.” Clark also loved classical music. Classical music to me is the works of Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis.

But ultimately none of that mattered. Clark was enormously warm and friendly and his company itself was enough. Plus he was one of those rare birds with a constantly sunny disposition. I’m sure he had down times and melancholy, but if so, he never vented in public. All in all, I always walked away from an interaction with Clark feeling far better than I had before. Or at least, I almost always did. There was one noticeable exception.

The wages of sin

Anyone who knows me, even slightly, knows my favorite religious holiday is Winter Carnival, and always has been. In the early ’80s, a Winter Carnival inspiration hit me: We needed an official Winter Carnival fun run.

Of course, coming up with an idea is one thing. Putting it into action is an entirely different one. Me, I’m an idea man – getting things done is not my forte. But it was Clark’s, so I prevailed upon him to get “our” Carnival fun run organized. And being the good-natured (and organized) guy he was, he did. It took place early on Saturday morning.

Back then, when I was of sturdier constitution, when the town had dozens of bars, and when Winter Carnival was a serious ethanol-fest, I hooted and howled till the wee hours. And the Friday night before that fun run was no exception. When I got up the next morning, I felt like the world’s only living brain donor. Shakily,I swilled a bunch of coffee, ate some eggs and toast, and headed off to the putative fun run.

It was a miserable day – cold, gray and windy. More like a day out of Jack London than Currier and Ives. Nonetheless, I trudged into the town hall to register.

Clark was doing registration and when he asked me what I wanted to do, I said I’d run with him. It was a sure thing: I was in good shape and was a lot faster than Clark, so running with him would be a breeze.

The course was a good 2-and-a-half-mile one: It started at the town hall, went up LaPan Highway, then on Ampersand Avenue to Broadway, ending at the town hall. As I said, a good course and an easy one for the runner I was. Unfortunately, due to the ravages of John Barleycorn, I was no longer the runner I was.


being paid in full

We all lined up and took off in the usual mad rush. Clark and I were at the back of the pack, chillin’. And once we started up the highway, the chillin’ was literal: A wind that came directly from Frobisher Bay howled down the road, about bowling me over.

“Holy mother of God!” I yelled, as I suddenly saw the world through icicle-fringed lashes.

I looked over at Clark. He was smiling.

I clenched my teeth, put my head down, and kept putting one foot in front of the other.

Somehow I made it up the highway and over the Ampersand hills without stroking out. Then we were on Broadway, back in the welcoming confines of My Home Town. The finish line was just a hop, skip and stumble away.

Finally, with the town hall in sight, I went into my legendary kick, flying over the asphalt with such style that when I passed the Waterhole, the few hardcores on the porch cheered me mightily.

I finished, elated, and waited for Clark cross the finish line, which he did. But then he kept running.

“Hey, Clark,” I gasped. “Whattaya doin’?”

“Going on the second lap,” he said.

“Second lap?” I asked. “What second lap?”

“For the five mile.”

“The five mile?” I asked, boggled.

“Yeah,” he said. “You said you’d run with me, and since I signed us up for the five miler “

His said no more, because he didn’t have to.

Dutifully, I caught up with him and we took off on the second lap. It was far worse than the first. The wind, hills, and misery were the same, but this time Clark talked the whole way about opera. Before the last lap was half over, I was on the verge of either homicide or suicide, but didn’t have the energy or wherewithal for either.

Ten or 12 hours later, we finished.

As I stood there, bent over and gasping, I wanted only two things: One was to regain my breath. The other was not to lose my breakfast. Somehow, I did both.

When I finally looked up, there was Clark, huge smile plastered on his mug, chatting away with some of the other runners, having a great time. It was obvious he was a guy who didn’t just love running – he loved life itself.

As I said, with his passing, I feel sorrow and joy.

But when I think of what a loveable sunspot of a guy he was, I feel a whole lot more joy than anything else.