“Alice Thompson Clark, a Life in Focus,” Ensign, Mar. 1985, 51
Alice Thompson Clark,
a Life in Focus
For this university Vice-president, service is more than academic
“How much larger your life would be,” observed philosopher G. K. Chesterton, “if your self could become smaller in it.” Every now and then you meet someone who has discovered the secret to a more expansive life—a life with more room for loving and serving, more room for caring and accomplishing. Alice Thompson Clark is one of those people.
At fifty-seven, Alice Clark holds one of the most responsible positions in the field of higher education in her state. As vice-president of academic affairs at the University of North Dakota, she speaks before legislatures, travels extensively, and coordinates the academic activities of a university with more than eleven thousand students. Yet she maintains an open-door policy, meeting with deans, faculty, and students alike to hear grievances and help solve problems.
On one typical Sunday, she challenges her Gospel Doctrine class to reach out to those not attending. After her meetings, she might visit a friend who needs extra care—one who is homebound, hospitalized, or discouraged. Or she might contact those she loves another way. A faithful letter-writer and postcard-dropper, she maintains regular contact with children, grandchildren, and a long list of friends.
As a member of the ward finance committee, she spent one recent Saturday morning counting chocolates hand-dipped as a ward fund-raising project. Another Saturday saw her manning the till at a ward-sponsored garage sale. And she is the kind of never-failing visiting teacher who opens hearts because her visits speak more of love than of her sense of duty.
Sister Clark is an energetic woman who mows her own lawn and always takes the stairs. Her mornings start early with scripture reading, meditation, and exercise. For relaxation, she loves watching a good play, writing a poem, painting in oils, and playing with her computer.
Yet Alice Clark is not a compulsive overachiever. Although she is clearly a woman of diverse talents and vast organizational ability, her real secret is a matter of focus.
Chesterton described the effect of focus: “You … break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and … find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.” (Orthodoxy, pp. 20–21.) Alice Clark has made her life roomier by learning to focus beyond herself.
Some of the events in Alice’s life might have made it easy for her to become self-absorbed. At twenty, her life seemed to be leading surely enough to a happy conclusion. She had grown up in Salt Lake City, had graduated from seminary, had been a bright and popular student at the University of Utah, and was newly married in the Salt Lake Temple.
Sixteen years later her path diverged when her marriage ended in divorce. At a time when self-pity might have bogged her down, the necessity of supporting six children kept her moving. Having already completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees, she turned her energies to pursuing a doctorate in educational psychology. Studying under a National Defense Fellowship at BYU, she took three years to finish her degree.
The rigors of academic life imposed new demands on Sister Clark in her role as a mother. “I would study until twelve or one o’clock in the morning,” she recalls, “and then get up early the next day.” She became committed to sharing her life with her children as much as possible.
The children would sometimes help their mother tabulate research data, and her daughter Sherrie Wieland remembers that Alice would have her read aloud chapters from a psychology text. “She said she could understand it better when I read it.” She recalls, too, that her mother would sometimes read the children entire books when they were sick. “The ideal of greeting the children every afternoon with bread or cookies didn’t always work out for me,” says Sister Clark, “but I would always call to check on them.”
By 1965 Alice Clark was prepared to seek a college professorship, a career she felt would offer the security and flexibility she and her children needed. Once again, she had to act decisively and independently, for the position she was offered was in Grand Forks, North Dakota, far from home, friends, and her parents’ family. Taking five of her children along with her (the oldest stayed with his father), she traveled to accept a position teaching psychology at the University of North Dakota.
Looking at her now, it would be difficult to imagine Alice Clark bemoaning the difficulty of such a step. She has a sprightly, well-disciplined air. Her intelligent blue eyes alternately reflect twinkling good humor, thoughtful analysis, and genuine concern for others.
And Alice comes from a heritage of people unafraid to leave familiar places in search of a better way of life. Her English great-grandmother walked the whole distance except one hundred miles from Florence, Nebraska, to the Salt Lake Valley, wading all the streams except the Green River. And her Danish great-grandfather moved first to Copenhagen, then to Germany and England, and finally to distant America, where he joined the Saints in Iowa for the journey west.
Alice’s own pioneering took her from the mountains of Utah to the fertile valley of the Red River of the North, which meanders to form the border between Minnesota and North Dakota.
Even though she was busy in North Dakota with her family and career, Sister Clark describes the transition as “a lonely challenge.” It took almost five years after her divorce for her to realize that, emotionally, she must get on with her life. For five years she had prayed for a change of circumstance. Now she saw that she was making herself miserable by refusing to accept the possibility that marriage might not be in her future.
“I decided that I had a right to be happier than I was,” she recalls, “and that if this was the way life was going to be, I had better discover its potential and take charge of my future.” At that point, she decided to turn over that aspect of her life to the Lord.
The Church in Grand Forks—a branch of seventy-five or so that met in a small home—gave her a ready-made sense of community. It also provided home teachers to take her boys on camping trips and many friends to lend support. But being a single mother with a large family in a “family church” was not without some special challenges. To combat the loneliness, she regularly invited missionaries and branch members over for dinner.
Alice has had many opportunities to serve in North Dakota—as Relief Society president in her branch, and later in her ward and stake. But the depth of her concern for others is revealed best in her voluntary and spontaneous service. She dropped by almost every week for four years to visit Marie Holley, a sister dying of cancer. “Things are kind of gloomy right now,” said Marie shortly before her death, “but nothing could be more valuable for me than to have the kind of friend I have in Alice. She has shared her family with me, and I have shared my worries with her. I don’t feel reluctant to discuss anything with her.”
You would never hear about Alice’s achievements from Alice herself. New members of her ward often don’t realize for months or even years that Sister Clark is considered an important woman in the state. And she serves with the same lack of fanfare. Roger Davis, Alice’s bishop for several years, recalls that when one sister lost her job, Alice was there to buy food and help cook meals. She maintains contact with many inactive sisters—taking some to lunch each month, calling others to invite them to church. When Bishop Davis’s kids wanted to help Sister Clark by shoveling her walks after a North Dakota snowstorm, she in turn shoveled someone else’s.
It would be difficult to find anyone—in the Church or the university community—who doesn’t speak admiringly of Alice. University president Thomas Clifford describes his nationwide search in 1981 for a vice-president of academic affairs. “I selected Alice because she was absolutely the best person in the nation for that job. And I have not been disappointed. She has sound professional judgement—with just the right dash of compassion—and an enormous concern for people.” He describes her as a superb coworker—able to state her point of view articulately, but totally cooperative when a decision is reached.
Coordinating the interests of twelve strong-willed deans has been a challenge Alice has met well. “She can build coalitions,” says President Clifford. “She always gives credit where credit is due, and people love her and work with her.”
Alice’s associate vice-president, Gene Kemper, says that Alice is a straight-forward administrator. “She doesn’t waffle; she’s consistent in applying policies. And the faculty respect her.”
Dave Vorland, university relations director, recalls that shortly after her appointment as vice-president, a local newspaper decided to do an in-depth feature story on Alice Clark. Because she had come up through the ranks of university administration—serving as dean of the graduate school and acting vice-president—the reporter was assigned to find out whether she had enemies on campus. When the reporter turned in the story, the editor said, “We can’t use this. It’s a public relations piece.” Returning to do a more “well-rounded” profile, the reporter failed to find even one person who would say a disparaging word about Alice Clark. In the end, the story took the angle of Alice’s experience as a single parent going back to college and establishing a successful career.
Sister Clark’s secretary for five years, Dean Van Voorhis, describes Alice’s unegotistical style of management. “When she calls another office, she doesn’t say, ‘This is Vice-President Clark,’ or, ‘This is Dr. Clark.’ She thinks of herself as Alice Clark, and she never uses her title or her degree for any reason other than the good of the university.” Dean laughs that sometimes she has better results getting through on phone calls than her boss does simply because of her first name. “Alice is a real friend,” Dean says, “one who motivates others by expressing confidence in them.”
Sister Clark is well-known on campus for her religious commitment. When Bishop Rodney Smith joined the faculty of the law school, he found that members of the Church are automatically respected because of Alice’s integrity and openness about her religion. “Oh, Alice is Mormon, too,” is a common response from university personnel. Brother Smith tells of the first time the university president became aware of his religious affiliation. “That’s wonderful,” said President Clifford. “We can use more LDS people.”
Learning to deal with the pressure of her heavy responsibilities has been a challenge for Sister Clark. “When I first realized what a big job the vice-presidency was, it reached me on a physical level. I began having pains down my neck and shoulders. I knew I couldn’t function in this job if I continued to experience this extreme stress.” Praying for health, for the ability to meet the expectations of her job, she has been able to find peace in her responsibilities. “Many of the things I am doing are far beyond my own ability,” says Sister Clark, “but I know I am serving some important function right now, and I have learned that the Lord will sustain me and make me big enough to do the job. I don’t always come home and get answers that help me solve the next day’s problems, but I know it is through the power of the Lord that I am able to do what I need to do.”
Making God the center of her life, the source of her strength, has always been Sister Clark’s recourse in difficult times. “Good people have bad things happen to them,” says Sister Clark. “It’s part of the refining process of life. And it takes time to work through a problem like divorce, which isn’t just your problem, but your children’s problem, your parents’ problem, even your neighbors’ problem. It takes time to heal, to mend. You have to have patience, and you must work to rebuild relationships, regain confidence, and overcome guilt.”
But it has been the moments of feeling close to Heavenly Father that have been the saving grace in Sister Clark’s life. “These times heal the wounds. They make you realize that someone truly understands what’s happened to you and really cares about how you’re feeling. That knowledge allows you to feel that you’re not facing everything by yourself.”
Of course, those feelings of closeness are not always present. “At times you really wonder if He hasn’t forgotten you or put down the phone and gone away.” At such times, Sister Clark has found that she must move on faith. “If you’ve prayed and said all you can say, and the answers still don’t come, you have to get up and go forward, trusting that our Heavenly Father has heard you and will bless you and that things are going to work out all right. If you do, and don’t let doubt defeat you, your prayers will eventually be answered.”
The great joys of Sister Clark’s life are her family. Sister Clark also acknowledges that much of her strength has come from them. “Without the constant encouragement and unconditional love of my children and my parents and brothers and sisters, I would never have had the joy in the journey I have known,” she says. Her children—Selby Clark, Gordon Clark, Sherrie Wieland, Terry Clark, Riley Clark, and Laurie Ann Carleski—all have children of their own now. “I get a lot of joy from my children’s achievements,” she says. “Of course, I still feel some pain with some of their choices. But family times are always good times for me.” Crayon pictures covering her refrigerator and bedroom door attest that her grandchildren are also a wonderful part of her life. “I just love those little kids.” She laughs, “I think maybe it’s a blessing for them that I work. If I didn’t, I would probably go from house to house telling their parents how to raise them.”
Does Sister Clark ever weary of her intense commitment to serving other people? “One of my own needs is to give service, so in a sense serving meets some of my needs. As you mature, you realize that, just as you’ve been helped along the way, it is now your turn to be the helper. So I do a lot of listening to people whose lives are so full of hurt and heartache. I really understand how much people need to be heard.” Sister Clark feels that people can make legitimate demands on others in times of need, and she is always ready to respond.
Her current bishop, Rodney K. Smith, describes Sister Clark as one who is conscientiously striving to be a Latter-day Saint in the best of ways. “If we had about two dozen more Alice Clarks in the ward,” he says thoughtfully, “I think we’d have Zion.” He tells of visiting an inactive member of the Church in the hospital only to find that Alice Clark had already been there with flowers. Over the years Sister Clark has become an indispensable part of her ward. But her humility is genuine. “I suspect she doesn’t really understand how deeply we love her and appreciate her,” he says.
Alice Clark has been nominated many times as a university president, and many people in education circles assume that she will eventually be president of a university. But Alice’s own plans for the future are less well defined. She would like someday to serve a mission. And she would like to improve her piano skills and get back to flying lessons.
But her major focus is simply on being in tune with God. “Seeing our district become the one-thousandth stake in the Church [the Nauvoo Illinois Stake], has given me a powerful sense of seeing the kingdom go forth in this area. It has been a wonderful thing to be part of this process. Surely if I hadn’t come and been faithful, the Lord would have sent someone else. But I have a testimony that the Lord’s plan will be achieved, and if I try to be faithful, I will have an opportunity to be part of that plan.”
With Alice Clark’s steady focus on how she can best serve, her opportunities will no doubt be many.