Remembering UNCG’s Jim Clark and his glorious lies
James Lester Clark cooked the best ribs and told the best fibs of anyone I’ve ever known. He took the details with him when he died on Oct. 30, but the ribs started in his wood smoker, continued in his oven and finished over charcoal. His tall tales of staged crucifixions at Greensboro Primitive Baptist Church beside his house on Carr Street (“You should volunteer to be nailed up,” he told new students; “it’s a good experience for a writer.”) and crazed hobos in the University of North Carolina Greensboro steam tunnels (“don’t go near that big grate outside the library after dark”) were just as elaborate but more spontaneous. It’s hard to say which were more delicious.
I met Jim while earning my MFA from UNCG’s creative writing department, where he was the director from the 1980s until his retirement last July. We didn’t interact much during those two years. I was told he didn’t like talking about his then-recent past as 1970s hippie priest turned radical journalist (he had a Divinity degree from Duke and founded the underground Greensboro Sun). I later learned he gladly answered any question, but not everyone liked his replies.
After the MFA, the promise of a Teaching Assistantship lured me back for an MA in English Literature. When I told him this over coffee at the Pastry Museum, as we called Friar’s Cellar, Jim recommended teaching at night, saying smaller class sizes meant less work for the same money and undergrad night students were more motivated and less dumb. Once, standing outside his classroom, I heard him claim to be a very tough grader who never gave “A”s and only one “B” a year. When I later asked if this was true, he said: “Nah, I’m trying to get more to drop, so I’ll have fewer damn papers to read.”
We bonded during those evenings in McIver building when he told me tall tales of the year UNCG responded to increased student enrollment by temporarily housing some in the “old cholera ward” under Jackson Library, and how several “went insane down there” and vanished into the steam tunnels, where they might still lurk.
Thirty years later, I was looking for witnesses to the 1979 Biker Invasion of Tate Street, and Jim was the only one willing to go on record. When he described one café owner battling the bikers by blasting Beethoven at them from outside loudspeakers, I believed him, and still, do. A committed journalist as well as a merry prankster, Jim respected the profession too much to prank an old friend struggling to write a factual article.
I’ve not yet written that article, which I pitched over a year ago. I was too busy working on easier ones, and then Jim was too sick for an interview.
He seemed to get better. We talked about a cover story looking back from his upcoming UNCG retirement to his youth as a Snake Boy in Florida carnivals. And about his “College Hill Death Tours” of alleged murder and suicide sites near his house on Carr Street’s “MFA Alley,” a community which dwindled as incoming writing students became less tolerant of bohemian decrepitude. But his health worsened, and this time, he didn’t get better.
At the celebration of his life at Double Oaks Inn and Breakfast on North Mendenhall last Saturday, I cried when his daughter Josie Clark-Trippodo had a friend read her speech which she couldn’t read without crying, even though the part I best recall is her story of how Jim often made her late for high school by getting mad at other drivers and chasing them for 30 minutes and how, as she was going to be late anyway, she insisted he take out for a nice breakfast after each angry pursuit. Jim would have liked being remembered for that.
My love of Jim’s mythology has led me to neglect his greatest legacy, of which acclaimed poet and UNCG professor Stuart Dischell said this:
“Jim was a fierce advocate for his students—the only director I know who voluntarily bailed them out of jail in the middle of night, buried their pets, helped them find apartments, jobs, refrigerators, and gave them instruction in writing, editing, and Early American literature that would last a lifetime.”
To which I can only add: James Lester Clark was born in San Diego in 1945 and was raised in Florida, but spent much of life-enriching Greensboro, where he died on Oct. 30, 2017, after a protracted illness. He’s not telling his stories anymore, but we who were privileged to hear them will repeat them until we also fall silent.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.