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Friday, February 27, 2009

THE COUNTRY PARSON

Recently, while paging through some old, old newspapers I had saved, I had the pleasure to rediscover a simple, one panel comic strip I used to follow during the mid to late 1960s in my local newspaper called "The Country Parson." It featured an old-fashioned, kindly and thoughtful-looking senior preacher, usually holding a Bible, or standing outside his country church, giving us readers a one or two line sermon chockful of common sense, wisdom, and/or morality. His "sermons" touched on a wide range of topics, from economics to social mores to religion to basic simple truths. They were priceless little jewels. I was so pleased to re-find this strip that I decided to do a little research. I went to our public library to view other old copies of our newspaper on microfilm in hopes of seeing many more samples of this strip. My search yielded example after example of these gems. I decided to Google "The Country Parson" and there I learned some things I never knew before about its author, Frank A. Clark, and the two artists who drew it during the strip's 30+ year run. The fact that Mr. Clark had managed to author 6 panels each week of continual simple truth and wisdom for all those years astounded me.

Frank A. Clark was born in 1911, and was the son, of all things, a banker later-turned insurance man. He was never a preacher, though it is evident from his life and work that he thought like one. He did undertake Divinity studies for a time in college, hoping to become a Disciples of Christ minister, before finally majoring in math and minoring in physics. In Depression-era 1933, he landed a job at the information desk of the Des Moines Register and Tribune, eventually managing to rise in its ranks to become Managing Editor. He once recalled, "most of the good things that happened to me in my career, happened by accident, when I was trying to help someone else." And so it was with "The Country Parson." Cartoonist Wally Falk had the idea for the comic feature and asked for Clark's help as a writer. Their collaboration began in 1955 and continued until Falk's death in 1962, at which time Dennis Neal took over illustration duties. At its height in 1963, the strip appeared simultaneously in 79 newspapers, although over the course of its run it appeared in more than 200 overall. Clark continued producing the feature until well past normal retirement age. When asked about how he was able to keep doing it, he remarked that he had heard a lot of sermons and read many more and just boiled them down to one sentence, "which probably was all they should have been in the first place." He also recalled that, over the years, many preachers would take his one-liners and then expand them back into full-blown sermons again. I loved his simplicity and Midwestern sensibility. His was no fire-and-brimstone message, but rather one of soft wit or an observation on human folly. Clark died in 1991 and donated his body to science.

Like Will Rogers before him, the man had a real gift for clever condensation. He often ingeniously melded conservative values into liberal or progressive themes of the day. He was an early critic of the Vietnam War and often seemed to promote egalitarian economic and social thought. He was able to give those of all political or religious persuasions food for thought. Some of his most memorable thoughts and observations, as featured in his comic strip, I list here below:

"Kindness makes a fellow feel good whether it's being done to him or by him."

"A man's conscience - like the warning line on the highway, tells him what he shouldn't do - but it does not keep him from doing it."

"A Bible that's falling apart usually belongs to a person who isn't."

"Modern man is frantically trying to earn enough to buy things he's too busy to enjoy."

"The reason there's so much ignorance is that those who have it are so eager to share it."

"Sins are kinda like rabbits - turn a couple of 'em loose and the next thing you know there's a whole bunch of new ones."

"A leading authority is anybody who has guessed right more than once."

"If you haven't time to help youngsters find the right way in life, somebody with more time will help them find the wrong way."

"Gossip needn't be false to be evil - there's a lot of truth that shouldn't be passed around."

"We find comfort among those who agree with us - growth among those who don't."

"Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man's growth without destroying his roots."

Clark was a remarkable man. His thoughts exhibited profound introspection and an appeal to humankind's more noble instincts and better judgment. He often displayed more civility and genuine Christianity in simple phrases than we have seen in entire volumes by James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, or Pat Robertson. As I ponder the deep thought and gentle, understated wisdom in Clark's work, I am startled by the contrasting shallowness and shrillness of those purportedly wise (yet very harsh and impulsive) attack-dog pundits of today's far-right factions of the Republican Party like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Alan Keyes, Bill O'Reilly, Rick Santelli, and similar short-sighted people. Were I seeking information on morality, or meaningful insights into the human condition, I would unhesitatingly take 1 of Clark over 5,000,000 of them.

Frank A. Clark, the pen of "The Country Parson", was a rare national treasure. Our country needs more men and women like him today. Regrettably, we have very few of his caliber, for each of us needs our own personal Country Parson. Always.

7 comments:

Max's Dad said...

Thanks for introducing me to this man. His witicisms were cracking me up and so true. If all people of faith were like Mr. Clark, this world would be a fine place to exist. Unfortunately, the other list of freaks you listed dominate the "morality" end of the spectrum. Hopefully, in these hard times, we will come together. I am not holding my breath.

Jack Jodell said...

Thanks for the comments. I know what you mean about today's "'morality' end of the spectrum." If you ask me, these authoritarian types, who support persecution, war, greed in business, and strict conformity, are the truly immoral ones. I think Mr. Clark was representative of the good side of spirituality in this country which was so prevalent in our churches and social mores back in the BC times (Before Conservatism). Today's crowd have unfortunately given churches and spirituality a bad connotation. But in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, churches were much more socially conscious and were activists for justice. Martin Luther King, Jr. personnified this healthy trend, which I think and hope is slowly starting to reappear today. When churches fight for social justice, hard core conservatives don't stand a chance!

Thankful Paul said...

Hello! :)

Jack Jodell said...

Thanks for visiting, Thoughtful Paul.

Richard Welch said...

Hello Jack. Very nice reporting and commentary on the Country Parson and Frank Clark. I came across Mr. Clark recently while investigating my own little mystery, which is the background of a person named Bethania McKenstry, to whom is attributed the following widely-quoted wisdom: "I'm not sure I want popular opinion on my side. I find that the people with the most opinions often have the fewest facts." I suspect a connection to Mr. Clark, whose mother's name is reported to be Bethania McKinstry Clark. I post here to ask if you would share the source of your information on Mr. Clark. Regardless, nice sharing your space.

R. Welch, New Jersey

Mark Clark said...

Mr. Jodell,

I am moved to tears by your detailed appreciation of my late father. He was exactly the man you found him to be. Wise, generous, loving, and tolerant.

A friend on a discussion board found your blog entry and gave me a link to it. Now I'll need to follow your blog to learn what other gems you've uncovered.

Bethania McKinstry Clark was indeed his mother. She died in childbirth in 1917 when dad was only six. She had been a student at Oberlin but as far as we know, left no written wisdom for us. The name “The Country Parson” was and is owned by King Features Syndicate. In later years, as the feature's popularity declined, dad would write for publications that wanted his quips. He used pseudonyms often taken from his own life such as Bethania McKinstry, Mark Walters (Walter is my middle name), and Carny Ford (a swimming hole in Iowa's Skunk River where dad and his brother swam as boys).

I see it's been more than five years since your blog entry but you seem still to be active so perhaps this information will be of value.

Mark W. Clark, Iowa, USA

Tim McGuire said...

Mr. Clark,

Thank you for posting this. I had been searching to find out who Bethania McKenstry was. I'm sure the fact that the spelling of the last name has been changed subtly made it more difficult to track down.