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Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017 12:00 am

Citizen Clarke

JOHN PATRICK CLARKE: Oct. 29, 1930 - Dec. 9, 2017

Courtesy of the State Journal Register


Jack Clarke reigned over the State Journal-Register when newspapers mattered.

People believed what they read in newspapers when Clarke was publisher of the capital city’s daily paper. Newspapers were strong businesses, with profit margins that exceeded 25 percent and publishers who were players, sitting on influential civic boards and bestowing make-or-break endorsements on candidates for public office.

You have to go back to Henry Clendenin, editor and part owner of the Illinois State Register from 1881 to 1927, to find a top newspaper executive in Springfield who lasted as long as Clarke, who was 37 when he became publisher of the Register and its sister paper, the Illinois State Journal, in 1968. He retired at the end of 1996 after nearly 30 years as publisher, first of the city’s two dailies, then the State Journal-Register, created when the two papers merged in 1974.

Clarke was born in Mattoon and grew up in central Illinois and Chicago. After earning an undergraduate degree at Indiana University in 1958, he moved to New York to take a job with the Ethyl Corp., which makes gasoline additives. After earning a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard, Clarke was hired by Copley Press, owner of Springfield’s two daily papers.

Clarke was a newspaper neophyte when he arrived in Springfield in 1962 to become assistant business manager for the two papers, both owned by Copley Press.

“I had never thought about newspapers,” Clarke told the State Journal-Register in 1996. “I’d never been through a newspaper plant before.”

Patrick Coburn, who succeeded Clarke as SJ-R publisher, believes that James Copley, who hired Clarke, was looking for a business person. “Jim Copley was a Yalie, and so he was sort of impressed by Ivy League types, and Jack, he had done his undergraduate work at Indiana and went on to get an MBA at Harvard,” Coburn says. “I think Jim appreciated that. He took a liking to young, bright people, I think.”

It was a meteoric rise. Less than six years after coming to Springfield, Clarke became publisher of the Register, the afternoon paper that leaned Democratic, and the Journal, which was published in the morning and was considered a Republican newspaper. James Copley resisted Clarke’s proposal to merge the papers, but after he died, Clarke persuaded Helen Copley, James Copley’s widow, to turn the two newspapers into one.

“The public was confused by one ownership publishing what was seen as a Democratic in the afternoon and a Republican newspaper in the morning,” Clarke told the SJ-R upon his retirement 21 years ago. “As publisher, I was as confused as the public.”

Coburn recalls that Clarke delivered on the business side while giving the news side of the paper the freedom to pursue stories objectively.

“He was a tough businessman,” says Coburn, who joined the newspaper staff as a reporter in 1966 and became managing editor in 1971. “He didn’t know much about the editorial side, but he was a quick study. … He pretty much left us alone (on the news side).” Clarke was infamous for banning microwave popcorn at the SJ-R, reportedly because he disliked the smell. The ban ended upon his retirement.

Clarke threw himself into civic affairs, helping put together a consortium of purchasers who bought land to allow the construction of Lincoln Land Community College and Sangamon State University, which became the University of Illinois Springfield. He also encouraged the establishment of the Southern Illinois School of Medicine via a partnership with St. John’s Hospital. A lover of golf, Clarke helped bring the Ladies Professional Golf Association to The Rail for an annual tournament – he was president and chairman of the tournament board as well as chairman of the tournament itself. Clarke also held power over lawyers statewide, serving nine years as a member of the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, which considers allegations of wrongdoing by attorneys and makes recommendations for discipline to the state Supreme Court.

Clarke was known as an establishment Republican, and he was not universally popular. “He thought that he ran the city, and he thought, because of his position at the newspaper, he could dictate what the city should or should not do,” recalls Frank McNeil, a former alderman and a plaintiff in a landmark voting rights lawsuit that changed the city’s form of government from five commissioners who were elected at large to the present mayor-aldermanic form. Under the old form, no black person ever had been elected to citywide municipal office.

When the city council considered settling the lawsuit, the paper’s editorial page initially urged a court fight. The editorial page in 1986 blasted a mayor-aldermanic form of government, “which, as all of us know, has proven to be one of the most argumentative, inefficient and back-stabbing governing bodies in existence.” Five months later, however, the editorial page reversed course, recommending a mayor-aldermanic form of government as the best choice for the city.

“At the time, the paper could make or break you,” McNeil recalled. “Instead of using the paper for good and trying to promote what was right for the city, he used it because he was trying to maintain the status quo.”
Coburn says controversy came with the job.

“He had his detractors, but anybody in that position is going to have detractors,” Coburn says.
After retirement, Clarke moved to Florida, where he lived in Naples with his second wife, Sheila, whom he married in 1995. He also maintained a residence in Chicago. He is survived by his wife, two daughters and three stepdaughters.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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