Born: July 14, 1903
Died: June 28, 2005
Thomas Dionysius Clark was perhaps Kentucky’s best-known historian. He was as a professor, preservationist, lecturer, dynamic public speaker, researcher, and a skilled writer and advocate for improving life in Kentucky. Clark devoted his life to the preservation of Kentucky’s historical records. He rescued vast stores of Kentucky’s military records from the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Civil War. His tireless efforts resulted in the Commonwealth’s first archival system and the subsequent creation of the Kentucky Library and Archives, the University of Kentucky Special Collections and Archives, the Kentucky Oral History Commission, The Thomas Clark Kentucky History Center, and the University Press of Kentucky.
Clark dropped out of school after seventh grade to work at a sawmill and then on a canal dredge boat before realizing he needed to resume his formal education. His account of that was recorded in an interview: “I left the boat in September 1920. Without a job. Without a future, really. I accidentally met a boy who told me about an agricultural high school, Choctaw County Agricultural High School. I went down and within 10 minutes of getting off the train I’d registered. The old superintendent didn’t ask me one thing about my education. He didn’t know if I could read or write. Said you look like a big, stout boy. You look like you’d make a good football player. So, I was admitted as a football player. I went to that school for four years [and obtained] reasonably basic preparation.”
He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree (with honors) from the University of Mississippi
(1928), a master’s degree from the University of Kentucky (1929), and a doctorate from Duke University (1932). He taught history at the University of Kentucky for 37 years and served 23 years as department chair until 1968, when he retired from the university. He also served as a visiting professor at Harvard University, Duke University, Stanford University, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Tennessee, the University of Washington, and the University of Chicago.
Clark authored or edited more than 36 books on a wide variety of historical topics. His most popular book was A History of Kentucky (1937). In 1990, the Kentucky General Assembly appointed Clark as Kentucky Historian Laureate for life. At the time, Governor Brereton Jones called him “Kentucky’s greatest treasure.” Clark’s honors included several awards for his writing, a Guggenheim fellowship (1963) and eight honorary degrees. He was active in professional organizations, serving as president of the Southern Historical Association (1947) and as editor of the Journal of Southern History (1949–52). Later he was president of the Organization of American Historians (1956–57) and was executive secretary (1970–73). He received the AHA’s Award for Scholarly Distinction in 2004.
He married Mary Elizabeth Turner on June 10, 1933 and they were together until her death in 1995. His first marriage produced two children, Elizabeth and Bennett. In 1996, he married Loretta Gilliam and they were together until his death in June 2005.
Clark died a few days short of his 102nd birthday. James Klotter, another great Kentucky historian, said of Clark upon his death: “He will be remembered as a person who took history to the people and didn’t just stay in an ivory-covered tower somewhere writing books in the dark of the night, but got out and taught history all across the commonwealth. All across the world, really.”
In the years after his retirement from the university, Clark also was a tireless crusader for improving education and the quality of life in Kentucky. He wasn’t shy about criticizing politicians who he thought stood in the way of that goal. Andy Mead, a Lexington Herald-Leader reporter, once described Clark in print as “a sort of unofficial state grandfather — but not the kind who spoils you.”
Clark is buried in the Lexington Cemetery.
Beginning of the L&N, From New Orleans to Cairo. Chicago, IL: The Illinois Central Railroad, 1933.
A Pioneer Southern Railroad from New Orleans to Cairo. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1936.
A History of Kentucky. New York: Prentice Hall, 1937.
The Rampaging Frontier: Manners and Humors of Pioneer Days in the South and Middle West. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1939.
Exploring Kentucky. New York: The American Book Company, 1939.
The Kentucky (Rivers of America Series). New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1942.
Simon Kenton, Kentucky Scout. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1943.
Pills, Petticoats, and Plows: The Southern Country Store. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1944.
Southern Country Editor. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1948.
The Rural Press and the New South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1948.
The Emerging South (with A. D. Kirwan). New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.
The South Since Appomattox. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Kentucky, Land of Contrast. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.
Three American Frontiers. Writings of Thomas D. Clark. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1968.
Pleasant Hill and Its Shakers. Pleasant Hill, KY: Shakertown Press, 1968.
Agrarian Kentucky. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1977.
History of Indiana University (4 volumes). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1970.
Pleasant Hill in the Civil War. Pleasant Hill, KY: Pleasant Hill Press, 1972.
South Carolina, The Grand Tour. 1780-1865. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1973.
A Century of Banking History in the Bluegrass: The Second National Bank and Trust Company. Lexington: John Bradford Press, 1983.
What I Saw in California (with Edwin Bryant). Lincoln, NE: The University of Nebraska Press, 1985.
Frontiers in Conflict: The Old West. 1795-1830. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.
Footloose in Jacksonian America: Robert W. Scott and His Agrarian World. Frankfort: The Kentucky Historical Society, 1989.
Kentucky Bluegrass Country (With R. Gerald Alvey). Folklife in the South Series. Jackson, MS: The University Press of Mississippi, 1992.
Clark County, Kentucky, A History. Winchester, KY: Winchester Clark County Heritage Commission, 1995.
The Old Southwest, 1795-1830: Frontiers in Conflict. Norman, OK: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.
The People’s House: Governor’s Mansions of Kentucky (with Margaret A Lane). Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002.
Restoring Shakertown. The Struggle to Save the Historic Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005.
My Century in History: Memoirs. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006.
Bluegrass Cavalcade. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1956.
Travels in the Old South. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956.
Travels in the New South. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.
Gold Rush Diary: The Diary of E. Douglas Perkins. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1967.
Off at Sunrise, The Diary of Charles Glass Gray. San Marino, CA: California Huntington Library, 1976.
The Voice of the Frontier: John Bradford’s Notes on Kentucky. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993.