Richard W. Clark, president of the Class of 1963, reflects on his time at Cornell, what binds him to the university today, and how volunteering keeps his Cornell connection strong.
Dick’s alumni activities and positions:
- Class of 1963 President
- Class of 1963 Class Council member
- Class of 1963 Vice President
Cornell is a big place. How did you find your corner of the university?
I “stumbled” onto Cornell, with limited background on what a momentous choice it was, and how much my accidental choice would affect my life.
I was born into a rural, African-American family, and lived in a community with many immigrants. I had close relations with each of the neighboring families. From birth to age 11, we lived in a house with my grandparents—a house that had no indoor plumbing, no electricity, and a wood stove for cooking and coal stoves for heat. We had chickens, a cow, pigs and a horse for plowing a huge garden.
Until my teenage years when we got electricity, I studied by candlelight and kerosene lanterns in an unheated room. Cornell was recommended to me by the president of the local Trenton, New Jersey, Cornell Club. My father, a landscaper, was building a Japanese rock garden for the Cornell Law School graduate when my father was asked about his children. When my father got to me, one of six offspring, my father informed his client that I was attending a local prep school on scholarship, and that I was third in my class academically, class president, captain of the football and basketball team, and a National Merit scholar.
My father was asked where I was applying to college, and had I considered Cornell. I had never heard of Cornell. Later, I did some cursory research, and decided, what the heck, I might as well apply, not really expecting it was a viable choice since by now I knew what “Ivy League School” meant. To my amazement, I was accepted and offered an academic scholarship.
While I came from a very large family [my father had 11 siblings], only one member of my extended family had attended college. I had no significant guidance on what college was about, what to expect, and how hard I would have to work. I was a “lost puppy” my first semester, went on probation, and just barely got off of probation my second semester. By then, I was much more acclimated to college life, knew what was expected, and got on the right track.
Given my personal experience, I am a strong supporter of the Class of 1963’s commitment to the Tatkon Center, including our nearly $350,000 endowment.
What was it like for you as a member of the Class of 1963?
Freshman year, I was 50 percent of the African-American student body in my class—a situation that subjected me to some extraordinary experiences, good and bad. While I had to deal with racial discrimination, including two major incidents of university discrimination, on balance, my experience was positive. Positives included serving as a personal campus guide for Malcom X, and co-hosting Martin Luther King Jr. Fortunately, I had a waiter job at Phi Sigma Delta fraternity, and I bonded with a number of the frat brothers even though I was not a member.
I was also blessed in having been assigned a roommate with whom I immediately bonded, and with whom I have had a lifelong relationship. The social relationship with my roommate was not only characterized by him by the cliche, “my brother by another mother,” but was complemented by multiple professional involvements. I hired my former roommate as a staff member for a national lobbying training program that I directed; at a later date, he was responsible for arranging a consultant contract for me with the U.S. Department of Labor. If that weren’t enough, my former roommate also connected me to a national education organization, for which I was on contract for 16 years as a Washington lobbyist.
Between my friends at Phi Sigma Delta, my roommate, and some of my freshman dorm mates, I had an initial grounding that carried me through all four years. Being a member of the freshman and varsity football teams was also an important part of my social grounding —a backdrop to successful academic performance.
What is the tie that binds you to the university?
Cornell provided me one of the most fulfilling and exhilarating experiences of my life—perhaps at the top of the list. My inspirational college experience provided a connection to Cornell for life. Upon graduation, it was difficult for me to leave Ithaca. For decades after graduation, I returned to Ithaca and campus one or more times every year to reminisce and recharge. My Cornell experience was that endearing to me, and still is.
What has been your proudest moment as a Cornellian?
Besides graduation, my proudest experience was having gained enough respect of my classmates to be elected class president. Prior to being elected president, I served as Affinity Group Outreach Coordinator with responsibility for promoting Reunion attendance. I took pride in achieving success in the return rate for the Class of 1963’s 50th and 55th Reunions.
How has your experience as a Cornell volunteer impacted other areas of your life? Who or what inspires you?
My experience as a volunteer, especially as Affinity Group Outreach Coordinator, was very impactful. In the latter capacity, I was in direct contact with a cross-section of scores of classmates that I never knew during campus days. Engaging them in conversations beyond discussion of the upcoming Reunions was exceptionally rewarding. The outgrowth of that experience, as well as that of class vice president, and now president, has included new friendships.
My whole life, and most notably my professional life, has involved government and community, social service. My commitment to both people related causes and to helping people one-on-one, has consumed my personal and professional life since my teenage years.