BRISTOL/VERGENNES — Classes might have been cancelled, but school was definitely in session on Tuesday afternoon at Mount Abraham Union High School, where students, teachers and community members packed the auditorium to bid farewell to one of their most beloved teachers, Greg Clark.
Clark, who taught at Mount Abe for more than 18 years and served a decade in the Vermont House representing the Addison-3 district, died on Friday, Nov. 30, after being struck by a car while clearing his windshield at the side of Route 7 in Waltham. His death, at age 65, reverberated from the Statehouse in Montpelier to his native Vergennes to the hallways of Mount Abe, where he was remembered as a gifted teacher and dedicated lawmaker who could disarm you with a smile and brighten your day with a joke.
“He was probably the truest of friends,” said MAUHS senior Andrew Rainville, one of more than 600 people who viewed Clark’s funeral at a remote video feed in the school auditorium. The funeral, held at the Congregational Church of Vergennes, was also shown on a big screen at Vergennes Union High School, where Clark’s widow Eileen worked as a paraprofessional.
“It didn’t matter your political persuasion, male or female, good student or bad student,” Rainville added. “He wanted to be your friend. I think that’s what most people cherished about him was his willingness to get to know you and be a part of your life.”
Testimonials flowed with the tears throughout Tuesday afternoon as Clark was recalled fondly by family members, friends, fellow teachers and legislative colleagues.
Among them was the Rev. Gary Lewis, pastor of the Congregational Church of Vergennes. He said he admired Clark, a longtime parishioner, for being comfortable in his own skin and for always “living in the moment,” taking every opportunity to make a friend, exchange a salutation, or simply hug someone.
“Greg elevated the moment, and those moments are what we should be living in,” Lewis said from his pulpit at an overflowing funeral service.
Veteran MAUHS teacher Rick Desorda, who also spoke at Clark’s funeral, marveled at his late colleague’s way with people, his ability to liven up the school day and the way he marched to his own tune. He joked that while he was supposed to be Clark’s supervisor, “in the 20 years I’ve known him, I never supervised anything Greg did.”
He said Clark, who primarily taught an “Age of Legality” course to 12th graders, did not have a home room, but instead pushed a cart chock full of books, educational materials and personal belongs — “like a street vendor” — from class to class. As such, he got to see a lot of students and established a rapport with most of them, whether they were taking his course or not.
“Every day he brought an attitude of, ‘Today will be a better day than yesterday, and tomorrow will be even better,’” Desorda said, his voice cracking with emotion. “He brought this (sentiment) to his most important constituents — his students.”
He assigned most of his students a playful nickname, Desorda recalled, usually a rhyme with their given name or their initials.
“You became a somebody in the world of Greg Clark,” Desorda said.
Perhaps the ultimate sign of respect for “Clarkie,” as students called him, came when word of his death spread last Friday morning. Students spontaneously poured into the lobby and just stood, or sat, without making a sound.
“There were 100-plus students absolutely quiet,” Desorda said. “This was an amazing moment.”
Clark’s character and the way he dealt with people, Desorda said, rubbed off on all the students and colleagues with whom he crossed paths.
“In the end, Greg Clark taught kids and the community much more than they could have ever imagined,” Desorda said.
Legislative colleagues, relatives and friends added other bits of Clark lore.
Former Republican state Rep. Connie Houston of Ferrisburgh was Clark’s district mate in Addison-3 and worked in the real estate business with him during the 1970s. She recalled him as a very positive person who loved to talk about his family and “his kids” at Mount Abe. Houston shared some humorous stories from the campaign trail, which she and Clark traveled together a decade ago. She recalled how Clark enjoyed the baked goods occasionally offered up by constituents and how she pranked him with a fake campaign flyer bearing a Halloween photo of Clark dressed as an elderly lady.
“Greg, I love you and I will miss you. Thank you,” she said.
Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, was a close colleague of Clark’s at the Statehouse. He said word of Clark’s death last Friday “shook me to the core. I knew nothing would be the same after that phone call.”
He recalled Clark’s speeches from the House floor that were passionate, well-reasoned and invariably witty.
“We were always waiting for the punch line,” Wright said of Clark’s oratory.
He occasionally marched with Clark in the Vergennes Memorial Day parade. There, Clark was truly in his element.
“He really worked the crowd,” Wright said. “It was incredible. I view Greg Clark as ‘Mr. Vergennes.’”
He described Clark as the “funniest guy you’d ever want to meet” and also “the most caring man you could ever meet. He had the biggest heart of anyone I ever knew. Greg always wanted to make people happy. He wanted to leave them laughing and he always did.”
Clark’s résumé included four years as a city councilor, including a term as deputy mayor. Vergennes Mayor Mike Daniels called Clark “a politician that could see both sides of the issue.” He recognized Clark’s many friends and constituencies and said, “Thank you for sharing Greg with us.”
Mary Jackman Sullivan, a childhood friend of Clark’s, regaled the audience with anecdotes epitomizing Clark’s warmth, strength of character and playful nature. She joked about how Clark, her “fourth brother,” tried to trick her into standing under a dart (but he got stuck instead); left his parents’ car in neutral, resulting in it rolling down a slope into Lake Champlain; and ended up taking her to the junior prom after they practiced dancing for a week.
But always beneath his mischievous exterior, Sullivan said, was a guy who would be the first to greet a new student or lend a kid some lunch money.
“He just plain loved people,” Sullivan said, a quality echoed by family, including his beloved wife Eileen and his two grown children, Gretchen Beaudin and Aaron Clark.
And the love was returned, according to those who knew him.
Mount Abe senior Haley Krampetz was in Clark’s Age of Legality class this semester, but got to know him long before she became his student. She became known as “H.P.K.” to Clark.
She recalled how he would warmly greet every student whenever he would see them.
“That is representative of his huge heart,” Krampetz said of Clark’s impact on students. “I think that is what he will be remembered for.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]