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February 2004
Thomas D. Clark of Kentucky
edited by John E. Kleber

From the first edition hardcover (University Press of Kentucky, 2003):

In 1990, the Kentucky General Assembly honored Dr. Thomas D. Clark by declaring him Kentucky’s Historian Laureate for life, at which time Governor Brereton Jones described him as “Kentucky’s greatest treasure.” Thomas D. Clark of Kentucky: An Uncommon Life in the Commonwealth is a celebration and exploration of the unparalleled life and career of a man who has both recorded the history and shaped the future of his adopted home state.

Born on July 14, 1903, in Louisville, Mississippi, to a cotton farmer and a public school teacher, Clark was the oldest of seven children. Before enrolling in high school at the age of eighteen, he worked on a farm, in a sawmill, and as a cabin boy and deck hand on a dredge boat. After attending the University of Kentucky and Duke University, Clark joined the faculty of the University of Kentucky in 1931. There he chaired the history department from 1942 until 1965, influencing the lives of thousands of students.

Though many think of Clark’s influence as solely in Kentucky, his career also encompassed a wide variety of service in other states and countries. He taught at institutions such as Harvard, Duke, North Carolina, Chicago, Wisconsin, Stanford, and Indiana and lectured in England, Greece, Yugoslavia, and India. Clark held national leadership posts in the Southern Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians, and for four years he served as the editor of the Journal of Southern History.

In addition to being a popular lecturer, Clark became nationally known for his research and writing on topics ranging from Southern to American to economic to environmental history. Of the 32 books he has written or edited, some of his seminal works include A History of Kentucky, The Great American Frontier, Travels in the New South, The Beginnings of the L&N: A Pioneer Southern Railroad, and Pills, Petticoats, and Plows: The Southern Country Store. At the age of 99, he continued to research and publish, co-authoring the book The People’s House: Governor’s Mansions of Kentucky.

Outside of teaching and writing, Clark is equally engaged with and dedicated to a number of preservation and advocacy issues. He was directly responsible for the creation of the Special Collections and Archives at the University of Kentucky, the Kentucky Library and Archives Building in Frankfort, and the Kentucky History Center. In 1943, Clark helped establish the University of Kentucky Press and oversaw, two decades later, its transformation into a statewide consortium, the University Press of Kentucky, representing the majority of Kentucky’s institutions of higher learning.

What most people know Thomas Clark for today, however, is his remarkable capacity for friendship, continued learning and teaching, and an active engagement with public life. As former Governor Edward Breathitt notes, Clark “probably has more credibility than any other Kentuckian in the field of history, public affairs, and political reform.” In Thomas D. Clark of Kentucky, a selection of Clark’s many colleagues, students, and friends mark and honor this centenarian’s unsurpassed achievements as a scholar, educator, preservationist, agrarian, advocate, and mentor.


John E. Kleber, emeritus professor of history at Morehead State University and a former student of Thomas D. Clark, is the editor of The Kentucky Encyclopedia and The Encyclopedia of Louisville.



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