By Bryant Boutwell and Charles M. Balch
This series honoring Lee Clark on the 75th anniversary of his appointment to build and lead the new state cancer hospital has included numerous stories about Clark’s life and times. Yet there is much more to know. Historian N. Don Macon (1915-1999) came to MD Anderson in the 1960s with a joint Texas Medical Center (TMC) appointment to preserve the history of both the cancer hospital and the medical center. His recorded conversations with Clark and other early TMC figures provide a treasure trove of history. Many of Macon’s conversations were reprinted as transcribed books, including his 1976 “Clark and the Anderson: A Personal Profile.” Interested readers can find a number of Don Macon interviews online that record a lifetime of memories and milestones.
John Tarleton Agricultural College
After graduating from high school in Wichita Falls in 1923, Clark went to John Tarleton Agricultural College in Stephenville, Texas, part of the Texas University A&M system since 1917. In 1949, it was renamed Tarleton State College, becoming a four-year degree-granting institution a decade later. Macon asked Clark why he chose a junior college.
“I had a scholarship at John Tarleton for being an Eagle Scout. At that time, Eagle Scouts were rare enough that you got a scholarship. Jimmy Allred, who later became governor of Texas, was my scoutmaster. He was a lawyer then, a very intelligent and interesting man. I remember one year our troop went up to Medicine Park in Oklahoma for our summer camp session. … It started raining and we were complaining and carrying on because our tents were leaking, the food was tough, a lot of our camp stuff hadn’t arrived. Mr. Allred finally called me aside, ‘Clark, he said, ‘I don’t mind your constructive criticism, but you’ve done nothing for the last two days but bitch. Now if you can’t do something about it, you can at least keep your mouth shut.’ I remember to this day what he said. … He and I stayed good friends for as long as he lived.”
During the Civil War years Lee Clark’s grandfather, Randolph Clark (1844-1935) co-founded Add-Ran Male and Female College with his brother, Addison. From Ft. Worth they moved to Thorp Spring, to Waco and back to Fort Worth where Add-Ran was renamed Texas Christian University (TCU) in 1910. Macon asked Clark for lessons learned from his grandfather, Mr. Randolph, as the family respectfully called him.
“When he finally retired from teaching, he went to this church in Stephenville and was the pastor for 15 or 20 years. … The old man always had an underlying concern, a warmth, about him. He was not one that you would ever impose upon his dignity. He was not like Grandpa Sypert [Clark’s maternal grandfather who Clark remembered as a great kidder and much less formal]. …You’d go to him [Mr. Randolph] for advice, consideration. You would not expect a sermon, you’d expect wisdom to apply to your problem. He was always wonderfully organized. He had his church and he had a whole series of notes for his sermons. He studied and worked every day, even when he was in his 80s. He always did an orderly precision thing. … Mr. Randolph was still doing things up until the time he died at 91, things that had to do with intellectual activities and programs, helping others get things done. … He always had great dignity and presence about him. He was taller than I am, about 6 foot 3.” [Lee Clark was 6 feet tall; his father was 6 foot 2.]
From Texas to the Carolinas
Clark left Tarleton State to complete his college degree at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, followed by medical school (graduated 1932) at the University of Virginia in Richmond. How and why did Clark get from Texas to the Carolinas?
“Doctor [Willis Duke] Weatherford was then president of the Southern College of the YMCA at Blue Ridge in North Carolina. He and my father had been roommates at Add-Ran College in the 1890s. I was drawn to some of the YMCA physical activities, so I ended up in North Carolina for the summer. It was a beautiful old colonial hotel where they’d have up to 700 people. … We had a swimming team, but it wasn’t very active. The water was discouragingly cold. But I played second and pitched on our baseball team. Took acrobatic dancing and did a lot of apparatus work — gymnastics. And I wrestled three or four days a week. I had become interested in wrestling much earlier, when I was 6 years old. I sold enough beer bottles and gunny sacks to buy Farmer Burns’ Wrestling Course. But that summer at the Southern College of the YMCA really crystalized it. … There was another fellow working there at Blue Ridge named William Pool. He was from the University of South Carolina. He was a student and great athlete. ... The physical director at South Carolina, an older man named Van Meter, gave Bill a job as assistant in the gymnasium, then they were both there at the YMCA in North Carolina that summer. Bill offered me a job at the University of South Carolina helping him teach calisthenics to the freshmen and sophomores, teach swimming and coach wrestling. They paid me to teach the psychology of athletics, so I could maintain my amateur standing and compete with the wrestling team. I talked it over with Dad and I told him that if the members of that school board back in Texas would forgive me, I’d like to go on to the University of South Carolina and complete my college work."
“My good teeth”
Clark was born July 2, 1906, in Hereford, Texas, in the Texas Panhandle about 50 miles southwest of Amarillo. The county seat of Deaf Smith County, Hereford was then best known as a cattle town. While Clark grew up in Midland and Wichita Falls, spending only his first two years in Hereford, Macon asked Clark what he knew about his birthplace. The answer was surprising as Clark pointed to his teeth with a smile. What’s the story?
Hereford gained the national spotlight in the early 1940s. A decade earlier, Alabama dentist Dr. G.W. Heard had moved to Hereford and realized that natives of the town had no dental cavities. Heard told his friend, Dr. Edward Taylor, the state’s health officer for dental care, and Taylor commissioned a study. The preliminary findings were impressive: no cavities among 43 native residents ranging in age from 2 years to mid-60s, with non-native transplants to Hereford seeming to have stopped developing cavities upon arrival.
The Journal of the American Dental Association published a larger, countywide study of schoolchildren (March 1, 1942 issue) and the once obscure cowtown of Hereford was in the national spotlight. Turns out the town’s water contained a high concentration of fluoride, 3 parts per million (ppm), compared to the Centers for Disease Control’s current recommendation of .7 – 1.2 ppm. Taylor’s findings in addition to other studies prompted the American Dental Association to officially endorse fluoridation of water across the country.
At the time, Clark was busy planning the new cancer hospital in the TMC, but his friend, Fred Elliott, dean of the UT Dental Branch, kept him apprised of the fluoride movement. Clark, thereafter, pointed to his teeth whenever asked about Hereford.
Clark became a national wrestling champion during his college and medical school years, winning the Amateur Athletic Union Southeastern Regional Championship. As a national amateur champion, he was eligible for the Olympic tryouts in 1933, yet he chose not to go. Macon asked why.
“I had to decide whether to go to the Olympic trials or take an internship. … I thought, since I’ve been National Amateur Champion, even though I want to go to the Olympics … medicine is here and I want to finish medicine. It was in the time of the Depression. I didn’t have any money. I would have lost a year. Also, I’d never had a coach, and I wasn’t a part of any organization that could pay my way [and] there were other things to do. So I went on with the internship … at Garfield Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C.”
Typical of Clark’s methodology, his success as a wrestler, a surgeon and builder of MD Anderson was due to thousands of hours of preparation. It was a lifelong habit passed on by Mr. Randolph as well as his parents. Clark’s description of his preparation to become a wrestling champion provides insight to the hard work and attention to detail that framed every aspect of his life.
“In our research we accumulated information describing some 700 different kinds of wrestling holds and counter-holds. This was all in world literature, ancient and modern. We became fascinated with the idea, as in playing chess, where you lead with one hold and, if that is blocked, you are prepared to attack with still another approach. I worked out a planned program the last few years I wrestled. For example, I’d start very fast and lead with a hold with the very first assault. It helped to work your energy off and, if you succeeded, you won in a minute or less. There were seven people at the national level in that championship year. I threw three of them in less than a minute. … If your opponent didn’t know each answer every step of the way and if you stayed ahead of him and he didn’t counter properly — well, he’d end up on his back.”
In 2008, author Malcolm Gladwell published “Outliers,” in which he shared his 10,000-hour rule, suggesting it takes at least that many hours of intensive practice to achieve mastery of complex skills. It would seem that Lee Clark already knew that.
Clark the rancher
The Texan who built MD Anderson was a cowboy at heart with a ranch in Bastrop County, just south of Austin. For years he had a ranch manager, H.A. “Snooky” Otto, who referred to his boss simply as “Doc.” Clark loved the ranch, and he happily traded in his surgical gloves for working gloves whenever time allowed.
In his youth he had worked odd jobs from cutting wheat and digging postholes to riding ranch fence lines on horseback working cattle and living under the stars. Those skills he learned from his father who was a cowboy himself when not building educational institutions and teaching Greek and Latin. Clark Sr. was an experienced cowhand working summers on the famed 3 million-acre XIT ranch in the Panhandle before his career as an educator became full time. “[Dad] had been around cattle all his life so he was familiar with what he was doing at the XIT. The other cowboys called him “Perfesser.”
Highly organized and always informed by data, Clark was no different in the operating room or standing knee-high in the coastal Bermuda grass that blanketed his ranch. In the early 1970s, Don Macon ventured up to the ranch to see it for himself, and Clark gave him the grand tour.
“This is just a working ranch, nothing fancy about it. We’re runnin’ about 350 head of cattle now. We tried out 11 grasses before we settled on the coastal. It’s pretty high in protein, grows fast if you’ve got your soil in the proper condition. The pH has got to be around 6.5, which requires some lime now and then. And you need moisture. We checked out some surveys before we bought the first part of the place in ’58. They indicated water at 300 feet. So we drilled some wells and found water at 308 feet.”
No matter the topic, Clark was precise, organized and always prepared. As a surgeon and as a hospital administrator, lessons learned throughout his life defined who he was and how he accomplished so much in one lifetime. One gains this insight best by learning from the man himself — in his own words.