On a warm Saturday afternoon in March, it’s crowded at Dino’s Steakhouse, where customers are taking in breakfast and lunch.
Bill Clark sits across the table and spins yarn after yarn about Douglass School’s athletes. He speaks slowly, and his sentences often trail off with a gentle laugh.
A former Columbia Missourian and Columbia Daily Tribune sports reporter, Clark looks the part of his other profession, a Major League Baseball scout. He is wearing an Atlanta Braves warm-up jacket, and his glasses, which are broken in the frame, sit off-center.
The waitresses occasionally flirt with him and the staff seems to know him well. Clark gives the impression he is a regular at Dino’s. He has that type of personality.
He gives the impression he is a regular in many places. Perhaps it’s this sense of ease he exudes that made him so successful in covering Douglass’ teams in the late 1950s, during the period of voluntary integration in Columbia.
“He was just the most honorable guy in the world,” says James Nunnelly, who played quarterback for Douglass in the late 1950s.
“He came down and covered us during that time period, and he made our teams feel like we were really athletes and not just castaways.”
Nunnelly and other Douglass players say Clark did more than cover Douglass’ teams. He rode the bus with the players, gave players rides to games and nicknamed them. It’s an experience that Nunnelly describes as different for the time period.
“That was an experience because obviously at that point in time race relations weren’t as integrated as they are,” Nunnelly says. “So, he found a way to fit in and we found a way to accept him, and after a while we kind of forgot that he was a reporter.”
Clark’s quiet actions certainly left their mark on former Douglass players.
“We loved old Bill Clark,” says the Rev. Raymond Hayes, who played football at Douglass and Hickman. “He was one of us.”
Says Nunnelly, “There was a time when there were a lot of color barriers. And those color barriers were, let’s say, eroded away, or at least chipped away by people like Bill Clark who took a stand whether it was just by covering us, or by painting our athletes in a very positive manner, or just riding on the bus and letting us know that we were worth being printed about.”
Clark, 71, was born in Clinton. He walks with a limp; the result of five artificial joints in his knees, hips and right shoulder that he says came from the wear and tear of a life in sports as a weight lifter, referee and umpire.
When he was not reporting, Clark refereed Douglass’ basketball games, and in 1958, he helped students at Hickman and Douglass create the Columbia Athletic Club, the city’s first integrated boxing team.
For all of his activism in sports, most people remember him because of his clothes, or, depending on how one sees it, lack thereof.
In the middle of winter, Clark stood on the sidelines of football games wearing a T-shirt, pants and shower sandals. It was an outfit that was more or less the same one he wore when he returned from Korea in 1954.
“His mother, when he went to the Army, gave his coat away, and I don’t know if he was trying to punish her for doing that without his permission, but he always claimed that he didn’t have enough money to buy another one,” says Dolores, his wife.
“But it’s amazing how many times you’ll run into somebody that remembers primarily that he would go around without a coat in the winter time.”
Says Nunnelly, “He always wore shower thongs, and he wore a white T-shirt, which probably had been repeated time and time again, but always the same dress and a beard. … He was a different personality, but in that difference, I think he matched with us perfectly.”
Clark’s story about creating the Columbia Athletic Club is much like his crooked glasses. It’s not the prettiest, but it gets the job done.
Clark says he was a reporter for the Columbia Missourian when Pat Mitchell, the captain of the 1958 Hickman football team, approached Clark about starting a boxing team. Clark says he had no idea of where to go or what to do in order to make it happen.
He started the club without a gym and without equipment. The boxers would train in different places throughout town, but most notably, in a part of town called Sharp End that was in the area of Fifth Street and Walnut.
“It was a bunch of black businesses, bars, pool halls, whatever, and the reason they called it Sharp End was that usually there was a cutting in there every night,” he says.
“That’s where our boxing club got started. Land clearance condemned those buildings because they had to get them out of there. So for a year we had free run of those buildings: No heat, no lights, nothing. We had to sneak in and hook up electricity from somebody else.”
Clark says the team originally began with only white athletes, but that it integrated “almost immediately.”
In 1959, the club’s first year, Clark took 12 fighters to Kansas City. It’s a trip Clark remembers fondly because as he says, “the kids integrated themselves.”
“We had a mixed group of fighters racially,” he says. “It was a tremendous experience for the kids that were involved because we took 12 kids up there and they were half and half: half white and half black. And I thought, ‘How in the world am I going to put these kids two to a room?’
“So I let them make the decisions, and as far as I know it was the first time anybody ever integrated anything in this town. The kids integrated themselves. The guys who were the lightweight fighters stayed with each other, and the guys who were the heavyweights stayed with each other and essentially they integrated the boxing team.”
That was Clark’s style. He was never overt, but he quietly created social change.
“I think in his heart he knew that there were grave injustices in this system, and it had spilled over into his sports,” Nunnelly says.
“He didn’t really do anything actively to demonstrate. He just showed the better side of our world, and made sure that the other side saw it.”
Clark is something of an eccentric. He has spent 36 years as a professional baseball scout, discovering major leaguers Andruw Jones and Rafael Furcal and almost putting Cardinals’ All-Star Albert Pujols in an Atlanta Braves uniform. He continues to scout for the Mid-Missouri Mavericks.
He is an avid birder and a member of Columbia’s Audubon Society. He interviewed with the Peace Corps this winter, and he owns a gym for weightlifters.
Perhaps it takes a person such as Clark, who has lived a life beyond definitions, to break through a strong cultural barrier in this country such as race.
“When we went to Louisville, Ky., after he graduated and he covered the black high school down there, I think we must have been the first white people to ever go to their banquet,” Dolores Clark says.
“The ladies treated me wonderfully.”
Clark says his role in Columbia’s integration process changed his life.
“It greatly affected my life, basically being involved with the black community at the time of integration,” he says.
“You didn’t think of it at the time; you didn’t feel like you were some great social mover. You were just having fun and being with the flow. You only feel important about it later on when somebody asks you questions.”
Says Nunnelly, “Whatever his motivation, whatever his contribution, he made us make us proud, and I think that’s where I would like to certainly remember Bill Clark.”
Sit with Bill Clark long enough, and he will undoubtedly spin a yarn about the 23 sports he has officiated, the time he tried to organize a baseball tryout in the town of Ballclub, Minn., the Korean orphan he took in when he was in service, or how he played in Mickey Mantle’s last Legion League game.
He says his experience working as a sports reporter during Columbia’s integration transition most affected his life.
“It’s something that you really appreciate and through the years, I’ve had lots of people who were involved in that time either as boxers or weightlifters or as neither one, just people that you came to know, say thank you for what you have done over the years,” Clark says.
“They appreciated a white face when not many of them showed up.”