Arkansas may be thought of as less progressive than other states, even among southern states, but my eyes were opened to an Arkansas I had never known recently, when I made the decision to travel to the state capital, Little Rock, for the induction of outstanding women into the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame.
The annual induction had been delayed since 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic that put many lives and events on hold. The ceremony recognizing outstanding women was delayed no longer when eight outstanding women and three organizations were spotlighted on April 20, 2022.
Having a personal, lifelong relationship with one of the honorees, I made a last-minute decision to travel to my native Arkansas and found myself scrambling for tickets and identifying others who might join me in attending this historic occasion. I had been invited to attend in 2020 when the world was initially struggling with the pandemic and cancellations were the norm, but when I was notified that the event had been rescheduled for April 20, 2022, I felt it was a must that I attend.
It was important that I be there. You see, one of my high school teachers was to be an inductee.
I had kept in touch with this teacher from my high school days at Merrill High School in Pine Bluff, not as often as desired, but telephone calls, letters, visits, and school reunions over more than 40 years had allowed us to share news of our lives after Merrill High School.
Notification of my teacher’s pending honor caused me to reminisce on how fortunate I had been to spend my formative years in Pine Bluff, though I admit I did not necessarily feel that way at the time. I was indeed fortunate to have the community support from family, church, to school that nourished me and so many others who went on to greater heights.
I credit my educational experiences, which molded me as I searched for my niche in society, for becoming a productive citizen and contributing to a world as I was taught I should.
If you have ever spent a few minutes with me, you have heard the stories of my educational experiences in the segregated south in a segregated school in the 1950s and 60s. Some would think it was an unpleasant experience, but it was because of the teachers and principals of the elementary and high schools I attended that I had a memorable and sound educational foundation.
One of those teachers was Dr. Margaret Louise Sirman Clark, my Spanish and French teacher. Most colleges only required two years of foreign language credit for admission at that time. When I graduated in 1962, my high school transcript boasted four years of academic credit in foreign languages, an achievement for which I give credit to Dr. Clark. Her class lectures were thought provoking, challenging, interesting, and fun!
I felt it was imperative that I travel to Little Rock for the induction of Dr. Clark into the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame.
Accompanied by my grandson Andrew, off I went. I might add that when I spent those four years in Dr. Clark’s classroom, I didn’t just learn the languages she taught, I learned of and yearned to know more about, the world and the culture of others. She was a great teacher, and shared her knowledge with her students in the most original and creative ways.
My respect for her as a teacher alone was enough of a reason for me to travel on Crusader press day (which I might add, I very rarely do). My respect for her in other areas as well compelled me to witness and share in her momentous occasion.
ABOUT DR. MARGARET LOUISE SIRMAN CLARK
Margaret Sirman Clark was born on September 3, 1928, in Georgia, nurtured by her grandparents for the first 10 years of her life. In an article written for the souvenir book for the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame occasion, writer Melissa Tucker noted that, “she did not spend much time in the fields or working with animals, but she recalls her grandparents encouraging her to learn, and advocating for ‘doing her share’”.
Doing her share meant going to school, performing daily chores and “preparing for what might come in the future,” Tucker wrote.
Tucker quoted Dr. Clark as saying, “one of the things I learned was each person had something to contribute and as a child, I did that.” Saving for a rainy day and having something stashed away were other gems she learned. She said the latter was a necessity during the pandemic.
COMMUNITY SERVICE A BEACON
Another principle Dr. Clark learned, was caring for your community. She learned that, according to Tucker, “while watching her grandparents tend to those who were sick, or providing for others in need.”
Dr. Clark is quoted as saying, “I realized community means helping each other and this was the foundation for the service I have tried to provide to others all along the way in my life.”
She added, “I’ve always looked at service as the ‘rent you pay for living’, and that underscores what I got from the farm and knowing each person contributed in his or her own way.”
ACADEMIC PURSUITS AND TEACHING CAREER
Her last year of elementary, and junior high and high school were spent in New York, where she had moved. She attributes her experiences in New York where she became aware of the diversity of the world, and her desire to explore that world, to spurring her love of languages. Her love for the French language began when she studied the language in junior and high school. Later she studied the Spanish language.
In 1952 she graduated magna cum laude from Arkansas AM&N (now the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff). After her marriage to the late Oran Clark in December 1954, she began teaching foreign languages at Merrill High School in Pine Bluff. Her teaching style included starting French and Spanish clubs, as well as becoming the sponsor of the school newspaper. She was an active participant in an Accelerated Learning Program at Merrill.
The schools in Pine Bluff desegregated after the 1963 school year, but Dr. Clark did not stand idle.
She began in 1962, an impressive academic journey, initiating studies using a National Defense Education Grant, and registering for a Summer Level I French Institute at Rutgers University; a Summer Level II French Institute in 1964 with the University of Massachusetts; and a Fulbright Hayes Scholarship in 1964-65 to study French for one year at the Sorbonne University of Paris. She completed her studies with a Pedagogical Summer Institute at the University of Besancon, France.
During the summer of 1969, Dr. Clark began teaching at the University of Arkansas Fayetteville as a visiting instructor in an Elementary and Secondary Education Act summer foreign language institute. She was a trailblazer. In the fall of that year, she became one of the first two African Americans on the faculty, having been hired to teach half-time at the University.
Tucker pointed out in her feature on Dr. Clark that “her teaching style combined learning a foreign language with exposure to the culture of the people who speak it. . . she has always tried to incorporate physical elements from a country’s culture into the learning experience, including food, sports, the arts, and events.” Dr. Clark used a successful teaching style that engaged students and enhanced the curriculum.
In addition to teaching and developing innovative courses and workshops in English as a Second Language (ESL), she designed several courses created to provide ESL endorsement and development of a master’s degree program in ESL. She taught for 29 years and retired as Associate Professor Emerita; she continued teaching part-time until 2007.
A leader’s leader, she served as the first African American president of the Arkansas Foreign Language Teachers Association (AFLTA); the first African American president of the Arkansas division of the American Association of University Women (AAUW); the Fayetteville Branch of AAUW, the Fayetteville Business and Professional Women, the Iota chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma; the Society of Key Women Educators, and the Arkansas East Bolivia Chapter of Partner of the Americas (POA).
She served as president and chair of its education committee which has initiated educational exchanges to and from Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay, and Venezuela.
During her years as a teacher and organizational leader she has traveled to more than 55 countries in Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa, both in a professional capacity and for pleasure.
For several years Dr. Clark was on the Board of Hispanic Women of Arkansas, volunteered as a docent at the Walton Arts Center, acted as Chair of the Synchrony Committee for American Association of University Women, Chair of the Religion and Race committee of the North Arkansas Conference of the Arkansas United Methodist Church. She has been for many years on the Board of Directors and is the chair of the Diverse Settlers Committee of the Washington County Historical Society; a member of Delta Kappa Gamma’s Coordinating Committee for the Engineering Awareness Project and Chair of the AR A+ School Advisory Committee.
Among Dr. Clark’s many awards: a dormitory of the University of Arkansas campus was named Margaret Clark Hall; the University of Arkansas Panhellenic’s Faculty Sponsor of the Year; the Martin Luther King, Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award; the Outstanding Community Service Award from the Washington County Women’s Coalition.
She is the recipient of the Graduate chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Phi Alpha Omega’s “Hats Off” Award; the Silas Hunt Legacy Award; the Service to the University Award from the Black Alumni Society; the Lifetime Achievement Award from the NWA Democratic Black Caucus.
Additional awards include the Life Changers Award presented by Partners of the Americas; the Arkansas Alumni Association Service Award; the Machado Leadership Award presented by Partners of the Americas.
Dr. Clark was named a Citizen of the Year by the Washington County Historical Society.
CLARK JOINS OTHER LUMINARIES
Dr. Margaret Louise Sirman Clark joins other outstanding African Americans inducted into the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame: Daisy Gatson Bates, Civil Rights Crusader; Dr. Edith Irby Jones, Medical Pioneer; Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders, Champion of Medical Equality; Lottie Holt Shackelford, Political Pioneer; Maya Angelou, Writer and Activist; Brind J. Jackson, Groundbreaking Architect; Dr. Carolyn F. Blakely, Lifelong Educator; Dr. Raye Jean Jordan Montague, Groundbreaking Engineer; Florence Beatrice Smith Price, Breakthrough Composer.
A well-known non-African American inducted into its inaugural class in 2015 was Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Dr. Margaret Clark is still active, serving as the vice president and chair of the Education Committee of the Arkansas-East Bolivia Chapter of the Partners of America; treasurer of the St. James United Methodist Church; chair of the Global Impact committee of the Phi Alpha Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.; board member of the North Arkansas Jazz Society; and she serves on the Women in History Coalition Committee.
AT THE CEREMONY
When Dr. Clark was introduced at the induction ceremony, she received a standing ovation from the 660 attendees, and for an extended time. My love and gratitude to this outstanding woman overflowed as I stood a long minute with the audience, applauding with enthusiasm.
She was most gracious in her acceptance speech, even finding time to acknowledge my presence and the presence of my family members who joined me at the dinner. In her remarks she reiterated details of her life, and spoke of her love of learning about diverse cultures while giving service to the community, and promoting issues enhancing the betterment of the world.
This amazing woman is still thinking, doing, and walking under her own power at 93.
A truly deserving and still very active nonagenarian, Dr. Clark has lived up to the adage “Service is the rent we pay for living.”
Yours is a life well lived Dr. Clark. Thank you for paying your rent and then some.