A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
Pennington Football Player Still Is Tackling Life
Since he retired in 1983, ‘Dick’ Clark has been working part-time at the Getty station, Route 546 and Reed Road
Arthur “Dick” Clark was there when Pennington Central’s football squad beat Bordentown 6-0 for its last win in 1932.
Since he retired in 1983, ‘Dick’ Clark has been working part-time at the Getty station, Route 546 and Reed RoadFranklin Roosevelt was elected to his first term as president. Charles Lindbergh’s baby was kidnapped. Amelia Earhart became the first woman to make a solo flight across the Atlantic. Babe Ruth made his famous “called shot” as the New York Yankees swept the Chicago Cubs in the 29th World Series.
The year was 1932, which also happened to be the last year in which a public school football team from Hopewell Valley won a varsity game.
Over 70 years later, on Oct. 17, the long wait finally came to an end, as the Hopewell Valley Central High School football team defeated West Windsor-Plainsboro North 28-6 at Timberlane Middle School.
Then a freshman at Pennington Central High School, Arthur “Dick” Clark was on the sidelines when the 1932 football team beat Bordentown 6-0 for its last win. To this day, Mr. Clark, 87 — who still can be found pumping gas part-time at the Getty station on Pennington-Washington Crossing Road — remembers how he felt when his high school football career was brought to an end.
“All through grammar school, I was looking forward to getting to high school, so I could play football,” said Mr. Clark, who has lived on Dublin Road since he was 1. “It wasn’t until that fall that I found out that was the end of football. It felt like someone had kicked me in the teeth.”
But Mr. Clark wasn’t about to let the school district’s decision to eliminate its football program chase him away from sports, as he earned eight total varsity letters — including the one for football — before graduating from Pennington in 1936. He went on to have a successful landscaping career, most of which was spent with Howe Nurseries, before retiring from full-time work in 1983. And he made a difference in the community, becoming the first African-American member of the Hopewell Valley Regional Board of Education and serving as a member of the local chapter of the Association for Equal Opportunities.
Although he’s seen and accomplished many things in the last 73 years, he vividly recalls what football meant to him in 1932.
“I inherited my uniform, and I was so proud of my uniform, I wore it home from school after the first day of practice,” Mr. Clark said. “My mother was sitting in the window, and she glanced up at me, and she started crying. Like it was yesterday, I remember I walked in the door and saw my mother was crying. I asked her what was wrong. She was trying to talk, and she was smiling and crying at the same time. She finally let it out that what she was crying about was the uniform. She said it looked like it belonged to a 250-pound lineman, and I weighed 125 pounds.”
Although Mr. Clark stood just 5-foot-7 and weighed 125 as a freshman in high school, he never let his lack of size stop him from chasing his athletic goals. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
As the youngest of 12 children in his family — which first moved to the Valley in 1898 — he always aspired to match or exceed the accomplishments of his older siblings. Chief among these was his desire to emulate his older brother Bill’s achievements on the football field. Bill was an all-state halfback for then-Hopewell High School before going on to play collegiate ball for Lincoln College in Pennsylvania. Mr. Clark recalls that Bill, while playing for Lincoln, scored two touchdowns in a game that was played at the Polo Grounds in New York, then the home to the New York Giants of Major League Baseball.
“He was the one who inspired me,” Mr. Clark said. “I was a brash little kid, who decided I wanted to outdo my brother. People were talking about Bill Clark and what a wonderful football player he was. I decided I was going to outdo him.”
So, naturally, when Mr. Clark reached Pennington Central, he signed up for the football team, which played its home games on a field behind the high school on South Main Street. And, true to his aspirations, he made an immediate impression in a preseason game.
On a kickoff during the course of the game, the Pennington coach sent Mr. Clark onto the field for his first varsity action. The kickoff was received by a large lineman from the opposing team, but that didn’t stop Mr. Clark.
“I tried to make an impression on the coach, so I tackled him,” Mr. Clark said, laughing. “When I tackled him, I passed out. Everything went black for a couple of seconds. When I came to, everyone was picking me up and saying, ‘Nice tackle, Dick.’”
But the glory was to be short-lived. Because of the safety risks that became obvious after his one and only tackle, Mr. Clark did not get into another game that season.
“I think the coach realized I was going all-out, no matter what the situation was, so I rode the bench from then on,” Mr. Clark said. “But I put my uniform on and traveled with the team to away games. was all set to play, but I didn’t get the chance.”
Since he wasn’t able to get into any of Pennington’s games as a freshman, his football career ended prematurely. After that season, the program was cut due to funding, and the Valley was without a public school football team until the current Hopewell Valley Central High School program started up three years ago.
Even before the official announcement was made that the program was being cut, Mr. Clark said it was obvious that the district had no interest in funding the program.
“There wasn’t really that much interest in football when I was playing,” Mr. Clark said. “This might have been because our team wasn’t that good. At the end of my freshman year, they terminated football. They knew this was going to happen, so they weren’t buying uniforms or hiring people to coach. They weren’t pushing the program.”
When the season came to an end, Mr. Clark hung up his oversized uniform and leather helmet and moved on to a successful career in the sports that were being offered by Pennington. While he was an enthusiastic baseball and basketball player, he played soccer simply because it was his only option in the fall. Soccer had been the sport that was chosen to replace football, and since his graduating class numbered in the ’80s, most of Pennington’s athletes played on all the school’s teams.
“I played soccer for three years, but I never liked the game,” Mr. Clark said. “I played because it was physical.”
Mr. Clark’s love for physical activity translated into his choice of profession, as he began working at Howe Nurseries at the age of 19. By the time he left Howe in 1975, he had risen first to foreman and then to salesman. In 1975, he started his own landscaping business before retiring from full-time work eight years later. Since then, he has been working part-time at the Getty station that is owned by the Zeberg family.
He was equally successful as a family man, raising six children with his wife, Winifred, who died unexpectedly of an undetermined ailment — the Clark family doctor said it might have been a ruptured artery — on early Mother’s Day in 1970. Mr. Clark’s six children, Richard, Ronald, Judy, Karen, Marsha and Michelle, all have had successful lives and careers, with Karen, Marsha and Roger still living within 20 minutes of their father.
In the 1960s, Mr. Clark served six years on the Valley school board before leaving his post due to the demands on his schedule. But his place in history was assured by the fact that he was the first African-American to hold a position on the board. “Underneath a lot of trivial things I’ve done, I’ve made an effort to improve the lot,” Mr. Clark.
Despite undergoing triple-bypass surgery for a heart ailment in 1983 and suffering from a bout with pneumonia last year, Mr. Clark is still going strong, and can usually be found filling gas tanks from 6-10 a.m. weekdays.
While Mr. Clark can identify with the desire of high school students to have a football team, he is a man of principle who is not afraid to admit he does not support the current program. Among his reasons for opposing the return of football was his belief that district funds should be spent on programs or facilities — such as a pool — that better benefit both boys and girls.
In 2001, his athletic accomplishments received long-overdue recognition when he was inducted into the inaugural class of the Hopewell Valley Central High School Athletic Hall of Fame. Mr. Clark was inducted alongside such local luminaries as former Major League Baseball player Steve Braun and former WNBA president, Valerie Ackerman.
“It was a real thrill — unexpected,” Mr. Clark said. “I had no idea there were any thoughts to doing something like that, and I had no idea that I would be considered. It was thrilling.”