A Life: Donald Clarke; ‘That was Don — he worked with everybody’

  • Donald Clarke, at right, stands with with his father Syd, center, when they won New Hamsphire's Outstanding Farm of the Year award in 1957. (Family photograph) Family photograph

  • Donald Clarke with his grandsons Derek, Brian and Cory Thibodeau in 2003. (Family photograph)

  • The Clarkes host the annual Sullivan County Sportsmen Club's fishing derby in Claremont, N.H., including this event in 2016. (Family photograph) Family photographs

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 11/7/2021 7:03:25 PM
Modified: 11/7/2021 7:03:27 PM

CLAREMONT — It was the kind of gesture — a Republican paying tribute to a Democrat — that in today’s polarized political world likely would have invited a barrage of nasty, and probably anonymous, comments on social media.

In 2002, staunch Republican Don Clarke was a big part of the state Senate campaign of Bob Odell of Lempster, who went on to upset the popular and highly regarded George Disnard, a Claremont Democrat, in the November election.

While pleased with the outcome, Clarke understood the respect and gratitude people had for Disnard, who he knew well. So a few months after Odell’s victory Clarke was back at work, helping to organize an appreciation for Disnard that brought friends, family and politicians of all stripes from across the state to the Newport Opera House.

“He helps get the guy beat, then he becomes one of the organizers to honor him,” said County Commissioner Ben Nelson, who served a few years on the commission with Clarke. “But that was Don; he worked with everybody and respected everyone.”

His focus on getting the right thing done was more important to him than someone’s political party, said Robert “Moose” Phillipson, who served with Clarke on the Fish and Game Commission in the early 2000s as the Cheshire County representative.

“Whatever party you were with, I don’t think it mattered to Don,” said Phillipson. “It was your ideas. He always listened to everybody and always tried to do the right thing for the sportsman and the resource.”

Phillipson remembered his mentor and friend as a dedicated public servant.

“When he got on a board or something, he was there to be a participant. He didn’t do it for the title,” Phillipson said, adding that as interim director of Fish and Game for nine months in 2007 Clarke did more than keep the seat warm.

Clarke died at his home on August 22, 2021, at 86 after a period of failing health.

A farmer from childhood into his 50s and a lover of the outdoors all his life, Clarke also had a lifetime of civic commitment that began at an early age and continued into his 80s. He served in numerous capacities, from the Claremont school and planning boards and Claremont’s Industrial Development Authority to state Fish and Game, serving several months as interim director, and as a county commissioner.

As a member of the IDA, he helped create the Syd Clarke Industrial Park, named for his father, along River Road in Claremont.

Despite the long and early hours required to be a dairy farmer, Clarke had the energy and staying power to spend evenings serving his community as a volunteer.

“As a farmer, he would sometimes get up at 4 in the morning, come home, shower in 10 minutes and be right back out the door to a meeting,” said his son Jim, who lives in Bedford, N.H.

Clarke was born in Jaffrey, N.H., and when he was a child the family moved to a farm in Connecticut where his father worked.

Clarke’s widow, Shirley, said when her future mother-in-law came into an inheritance, the family used the money to buy a farm in Claremont in 1945. Clarke graduated from Stevens High School and earned a degree in agricultural engineering from the University of New Hampshire before returning to the farm.

“At first, he didn’t think he would come back to the farm but eventually decided to,” Shirley said at the Clarkes’ home on Chestnut Street.

Shugah Vale farm, which was on Case HIll Road in Claremont, started with about 50 to 70 milking cows but father and son increased the herd to around 350. By the early 1980s it was the second-largest dairy farm in New Hampshire.

“I remember when they built a big barn. It was the first of its kind in the area,” said former Agriculture Commissioner Steve Taylor, a Meriden resident who knew Clarke as a fellow farmer from Sullivan County. “People came to see the milking parlor.”

Taylor and others referred to Clarke as a “progressive farmer” who adapted modern and innovative techniques to improve the farm operation from breeding to milk production. “They built a digester for manure that captured methane and used it to produce power,” Taylor said.

Jim Clarke said his father began using computers in the early 1980s on the farm, a time when personal computers were in their infancy.

“He automated the farm early on with computers,” Jim said, adding that is what spurred his interest and led to his career as a software engineer. “In the milking parlor, there were machines that measured the milk from each cow so he could keep track of that, and he would feed that information into a computer.”

The improvements in efficiency, which were taking place at dairy farms throughout the country, may have been a factor in the decision to sell the farm, Shirley Clarke said.

Milk production in the mid to late 1980s was so strong there was a glut and to keep prices up the federal government was paying farmers not to produce.

“It was so sad,” Shirley said. “Nobody wanted to cut back so they decided to sell.”

The Clarkes ceased the dairy operation in 1987 and ran a sod and crop farm for another seven years before getting out of farming altogether.

“He just loved the outdoors and it was a challenge,” Shirley said about her husband’s farming life. “And he loved anything that was a challenge.”

Today, the property is the MacGlaflin Dairy Farm.

In his late 50s, Clarke obtained his real estate license and sold real estate for more than 20 years, earning awards and serving on the Greater Claremont Board of Realtors.

Among the recognition Clarke received for his community service dating back to the mid-1960s were Outstanding Young Farmer of the Year Award (1969), Realtor of the Year Award (1999) and Claremont’s Citizen of the Year Award (2006). He was also a member of the Soil Conservation Board, a longtime member of the Sullivan County Sportsmen Club and was on the New England Farm Credit Bank of Springfield, Mass.

“They were mostly all-volunteer except for the Farm Credit,” said Shirley. “He never spoke about why he volunteered. I know he watched his dad become quite involved. I don’t think there was board he got on that he didn’t end up being chairman at some point.”

“He led by example,” said his son.

Clarke’s passion for being outdoors was well known.

“He was fun to hunt with and he was always very safety-conscious,” said his longtime friend and fellow farmer Gary LeClair of Claremont.

LeClair recalled being out in the woods with Clarke when it seemed catching game was not the priority. LeClair remembered the time they treed a bobcat in Lempster in about five minutes but Clarke, about 17 at the time, thought they had not pursued it long enough so a well-aimed snowball brought down the cat, which took off again.

“We went after it until dark in knee-deep snow, but we never saw it again,” LeClair said.

Jim spent a lot of time in the woods with his father.

“I have great memories of deer hunting and bobcat hunting with my father,” Jim said. “We would strap on snowshoes and track bobcat through the woods.”

Clarke was not a fisherman, but holding the annual fishing derby for youngsters at the family home for about a dozen years to share his love of the outdoors with children was a highlight for him.

“I had a young daughter and he made sure I brought her up each year,” said Phillipson, his Fish and Game colleague. “If you ever saw the look on his face all day when that derby was going on, you couldn’t find a happier guy. He would be smiling like you wouldn’t believe.”

Clarke worked tirelessly over the years to bring additional boat access for the public Lake Sunapee, a debate that went on for 25 years.

“To him, it was about fairness,” Shirley said about Clarke’s commitment to the added access, which was never built.

County Commissioner Nelson, who owns Beaver Pond Farm in Newport with his wife Becky, said Clarke was a mentor to him early on.

“He was a great mentor for a lot of things,” Nelson said. “I got to know him from 4H and the farm bureau since I was a kid.”

During their few years together on the Sullivan County Commissioners board, Nelson remembers Clarke as being “active on the state stage,” during the sometimes “wild” years of the tenure of Republican Gov. Craig Benson in the early 2000s.

“The state was trying to roll stuff downhill to the property taxpayers and the county and Don was very active in county and state finance meetings,” Nelson said. “He was really active trying to keep the state paying for state stuff.”

The Clarke’s daughter Sue (another daughter, Julie, died in 1998 from cystic fibrosis) said her dad followed in his father’s footsteps of community service but also forged his own path.

“He led a very full and purposeful life,” Sue wrote. “Throughout his life he demonstrated the values of dedication, hard work and commitment in everything he did.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.

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