The Extraordinary Bill Clark

Remembering Uncle Bill

(December 1920 – August 2022)

I was probably closer and more aligned with my Uncle Bill than any other person in my family. I cherished every second I spent with him, and I have more memories of taking advice from him than even my dad.

The Early Years

Charles William Clark was born on December 30, 1920, in a log cabin to Della Helvey and Clarence Wheeler in Doe Run Valley near Ellington, Missouri. His siblings are my Aunt Bobbie (given name Velma), my Aunt Billy (Mayme), my Aunt Betty (Grace), my Aunt Nancy, my Aunt Bernice, and my dad, Harold Luther Clark.

In June of 2011, Uncle Bill and his second wife, Aunt Joanne, 94 and 88, respectively, and a couple of my cousins came to St. Louis. My cousin, Carol, and I rented a big SUV and drove down to Uncle Bill’s birthplace, in Reynolds County near Ellington, Missouri, to locate the exact site of the log cabins where he and some of my aunts and my father were born. We found the cistern, the old schoolhouse (more on that later), and several of our ancestors’ cemeteries and headstones. Finally, on that trip, we learned more about Francis Clark, my fourth great-grandfather, who homesteaded in 1804 near Piedmont, Missouri. 

From the bits and pieces I know about his life, I can say that Bill Clark loved living in the valley as a kid. He enjoyed the rural life, hunting, fishing, and swimming. Uncle Bill told me one story about when he and Aunt Bobbie walked to Ellington to check in at the post office and buy supplies. He was seven or eight years old, and it was about an hour-and-a-half journey both ways. They were walking through the woods when suddenly they heard a wild noise in the sky and looked up to see a giant silver tube. It was the first airplane they had ever seen, and they had no knowledge of such a contraption. In 1929, when things got really tough on the farm because of the Great Depression and bartering was no longer possible, my grandfather, known as Wheeler, took the entire family to St. Louis to seek work. Everyone was struggling, and Grandpa Wheeler ended up shoveling coal at the Venice, Illinois power plant. It wasn’t a great opportunity, but it was the only job he could find. 

Uncle Bill attended Bates Elementary School in St. Louis, but at 15 or 16, he ran away from home with two friends, Ray “Champ” Hunt and Bob Clark (no relation), to join the military. (Note: Hunt had a distinguished military career. See here.) They hopped on a freight train and traveled across Missouri and into Oklahoma mostly by rail, working odd jobs and stopping at shelters for food. Eventually, they made their way to Texas. One of the boys became ill with a high fever and a severe earache, so the three boys sought shelter at what was then called Randolph Field, an Army Airbase/flight training facility near San Antonio. This airbase was established before the Army Air Corps, part of the Army from 1926 to 1941, and was later spun off as the Air Force.

The boys stayed under the wing of one of the officers who obtained medical support for the ill boy and gave all three of them jobs. Hunt and Clark were a little older than Uncle Bill and ended up enlisting in the Army Air Corps and staying on the base. Uncle Bill had a medical issue and had to return to St. Louis for treatment. Afterward, he returned to the airbase until he reached the age of enlisting like his friends. They enjoyed a lot of camaraderie with the officers, the maintenance people, and the pilots on the airbase. Uncle Bill made fast friends and became a star baseball shortstop on the officers’ team. Back then, baseball and golf were important pastimes for enlisted men and officers.

As things were heating up in the years before World War II, the pilots were split up for various types of training. One group went to the South Pacific, and the two boys who had run away with Uncle Bill and enlisted went with that group of pilots as their maintenance team. Because he was their star shortstop, the officers kept Uncle Bill with them when they went to Puerto Rico for further training.

Like the first officer they had met, a few other officers wanted to help Uncle Bill, so they got him his high school equivalency test. They saw that he furthered his studies to the point where he could show his skills in the academic testing offered to everyone on various bases. One of the officers coached him.

The top performers from each airbase on these tests could attend an eight-week study camp at The United States Military Academy West Point. Thanks to the mentoring he received, Uncle Bill did so well in the study courses that his test score qualified him for West Point. Uncle Bill was an "alternate" for the Missouri appointment, and when the primary candidate was unable to attend, he was appointed. However, he faced a challenge: he had to get letters of support from at least two members of Congress from the state of Missouri. Harry Truman would not sign the sponsorship because he did not believe Uncle Bill was from the right type of stock to attend West Point. One of the officers at West Point had a good relationship with a congressman from southern Missouri and got the second letter of support. My Uncle Bill was admitted to West Point in 1942, and his class was fast-tracked through in three years due to the war. He did well and graduated from this prestigious institution in the Class of 1945. It’s an unbelievable and unlikely story indeed, but the story gets even better.

Post-WWII: Stanford and the Air Force

On December 15, 1945, shortly after graduating from West Point, Uncle Bill married Arlene Louise Sudfeld, whom he had met in St. Louis through one of his sisters. Uncle Bill loved, cherished, and was married to Aunt Arlene for over 60 years. Soon after the wedding, he was deployed to Japan to fly surveillance missions between Japan and Korea. After the war, in 1948, he returned state-side to Menlo Park, CA, where he attended Stanford University, focusing on a master’s degree in Industrial Engineering (and golfing). The curriculum emphasized Applied Mechanics, and world-renowned Professor Timoshenko strongly influenced him. This background later helped him design and build the small plant that did sandblasting and painting of metal parts for the Alyeska Pipeline and all the Nuclear Power plants being built around the US in Joliet, Illinois. The automation allowed for quick turnaround and only needed a few people. Around 1950, he was assigned to Wright Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio. His family lived in a converted farmhouse near the base. There was even a grain silo near the house.

Uncle Bill earned his MBA on the Air Force’s dime. Eventually, he became a critically important Lieutenant Colonel, managing the European goods inventory for all the air bases. He was briefly transferred to Liverpool, England, and then to Wiesbaden, Germany, where he reconnected with my Aunt Arlene. He maintained flight proficiency and occasionally made flights to other European countries; he even brought back a camel saddle and a round brass table from Morocco. Uncle Bill was assigned to improve the efficiency of the European PX liquor operation, which covered all forces. He created a plan that significantly reduced costs by removing the middlemen between distillers and the PX. 

Around 1957, Uncle Bill was assigned to Republic Aviation, near New York City, for a year-long training program to integrate military officers into defense companies for aircraft procurement. San Diego was the next stop as Uncle Bill was involved in aircraft procurement related to Corvair Aircraft beginning in 1958. It was a golfer's paradise for Uncle Bill, who spent many weekends on the courses.  Three years later, he was transferred to Los Angeles to serve as Air Force Plant Representative at Northrup Corp., where the T-38 fighter trainer jet was produced. He maintained proficiency with periodic flights out of El Toro Marine Base and Edwards AFB. Uncle Bill flew back east occasionally to deliver T-38s. He loved flying that airplane. Around 1964, for most of the summer, he attended an intensive Management Leadership course hosted by UCLA that included top management of some large corporations. The final stop with the Air Force was back to Wright Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio, in 1965, where he was on the contract team evaluating the C-5 cargo aircraft bids from Lockheed and Boeing.

The delivery of milestone T-38, number 500 (Uncle Bill on the aircraft; CEO of Northrup on the tarmac).

The T-38 inflight.

Uncle Bill beside his assigned P-51.

The Brothers’ Falling Out

My dad, Harold Luther Clark, six years younger than my Uncle Bill, served in the Navy when Uncle Bill was in the Air Force. The two had become estranged while they were in the military over my father’s often bad behavior. My dad was known as Little Dillinger, while Uncle Bill had the highest integrity and ethical standards. At one point, he had written a letter to my father asking him to reconsider his terrible behavior and telling him that he was a disgrace to the family. This was around the time when dad was on the brig in Hawaii before the Navy shipped him to the South Pacific to fight at Okinawa.

After the war, Uncle Bill settled into his Air Force career, where he was known for his stellar performance. My dad settled into various artistry performances, working for unsavory people like Buster Wortman, running a casino, working as a bartender, and so forth, until he met my mother, Jewel Parker, around 1954. He turned himself around and got a legitimate job at the Stanley Hanks Painting Company. Stanley Hanks took a liking to him and taught him the business. After straightening out, my dad decided to work for himself and started his own company about the same time I was born, in 1959. He had a seventh-grade education, no accounting or business experience, and, by all appearances, virtually no chance of being successful in painting or any other kind of business.

A Painting Company is Born

In 1960, my dad took mom on their first vacation and drove all the way to New York City. (Mom was pregnant with Kim, born on May 15, 1960.) They got into a car accident and were stranded there, and although he hadn’t spoken to my Uncle Bill for 17 years, my dad reached out to him. While stationed on Long Island, Uncle Bill was the only person he knew in the area. Uncle Bill came and picked my mom and dad up.

Once Uncle Bill and my dad reunited during the couple of weeks that it took to repair the car, the two could not stop talking. They spent every night gabbing into the wee hours of the morning, catching up on their childhood memories. They recalled Uncle Bill’s time on the road before he ended up at the Army airbase and all of my dad‘s trickery and turn-around, and they compared notes about each other’s strengths. My dad was very enthusiastic and ambitious, and he had a remarkable ability to articulate his vision for what would become Clark Painting Company. But he said he’d only do it if Uncle Bill would retire from the Air Force and use his finance and accounting background and other business skills and relationships to help my father and be his 50-50 partner.

When the car was repaired, my dad went home. Uncle Bill lost sleep thinking about the opportunity his long-lost brother Harold had presented to him. Uncle Bill decided to eventually leave the Air Force, join my dad, and help create one of the most successful industrial painting companies in the United States. 

While Uncle Bill was closing out his career in the Air Force, he would stop into St. Louis in his fighter jet for some business planning with dad. I vividly remember watching my Uncle Bill get permission from the control tower at what is now the St. Louis Lambert International Airport and flying the jet straight up into the sky until it disappeared. Incredible. In 1966, when he finally retired, the whole Bill Clark Family, Aunt Arlene and Cousins Christy (born 1947), Chuck (born 1948), and Donna (born 1952), moved in with the Harold Clark family. It was very crowded, but it was a happy time. We lived in a 1,200-square-foot, 3-bedroom, split-level home at 4612 Brookfield Drive in Bridgeton, Missouri.

Chuck had a VW Bug with a Corvair engine that squirted oil everywhere, and following that, he owned a yellow ‘57 Chevy we called Sunny. Chuck recalled several stories about my dad and the painting company, including “In the company’s first year, I was doing cleanup work in the hallway of one of the schools where the painters had just finished. The school inspector found some defects when he and Uncle Harold arrived for a walk-through. Uncle Harold was wearing a suit and tie, dressed as well as I had ever seen him. He removed his jacket but left his tie on. Then he asked me to set up a pail of paint and a fresh brush. He and the inspector went into a classroom, and Uncle Harold fixed "holidays” for about 5 minutes. Then they came out and went into the next room. Same thing. And then a third room. After that, the inspector said they were done. I was thinking… ‘only three rooms?’ I loved it!”

As told by cousin Chuck Clark, “Another time, I was in the back of the painting company shop cleaning brushes, pails, and so forth. And Uncle Harold asked me if I knew where Cousin Ronny was. He said, ‘When I find him, I'm going to kick his ass.’ He mentioned something about Aunt Billie. I liked that he was helping the family.”

From my cousin Chuck, “Dad loved his brother Harold. Dad knew when someone ‘had’ him. One of his favorite stories was that, after work one day, a few painters, Harold, and Dad headed to a tavern. Dad (Bill) chose that moment to try to convince Harold to cut back on drinking. Harold said, ‘We'll just have a couple.’ Dad told Harold to show some maturity. Several rounds finished, and each time Harold asked dad to join, dad said no. Finally, dad gave in, and when the drinks arrived, Harold held up his glass and toasted, ‘Here's to maturity.’ Everyone laughed. Harold could wear anyone down!”

While in some ways, my dad and Uncle Bill were not perfect business partners, they were perfect for the business. My dad had the strength and moxie. He understood how to work with people, run crews, win work, and get the job done. My Uncle Bill benefitted from having excellent relationships from his many years in the Air Force, where many of the officers had gone to US Steel, Bechtel, and Fluor Corporation. The two were a great combination.

The painting company, which worked on commercial properties, did well, and Uncle Bill moved to Concord, CA, where he managed the west coast office the painting company purchased to support jobs involving Alaskan pipeline work. The painting company won a bid to sandblast and paint "shoes" for the pipes along part of the Alaskan oil pipeline.

Bill Clark designed and built a small plant that did sandblasting and painting of oil pipeline "footings" in Joliet, Illinois, which was adjacent to a railroad near Chicago where the large metal parts were shipped on rail cars. Uncle Bill built a sizable horseshoe-shaped monorail from which electric motors hung and pulled the parts through sandblasting and painting sections. He installed a railroad spur so that rail cars could be removed from the train and positioned below one end of the monorail where the shoes were attached to the monorail. When they finished, the “shoes'' were dropped back onto the rail car from the other end of the monorail. There were also multiple blasting nozzles in the sanding and painting sections so that all surfaces of the metal shoes could be treated. Only a few people were needed to attach and detach clamps, perform minor sanding, and paint touch-ups.  That was the beauty of the operation.


I don’t think my Uncle Bill had the same zest for the business as my dad, so around 1977, he decided to sell his half of the business and fully retire. He had a short stay in Texas, where he moved to help avoid taxes and because I think he genuinely had good memories of the state. Eventually, he migrated to the West Coast. He bought a place in Rancho Santa Fe, California, on the Rancho Santa Fe golf course, where he and my aunt Arlene spent the rest of their days together, enjoying good weather, playing golf, and winning championships at the club.

On one golf outing, he was paired up with a stranger who, after learning that Uncle Bill had just retired, said he looked pretty young to retire. Uncle Bill said he retired for health reasons. The stranger asked if he had health issues, and my uncle said, "No, I just want to keep it that way.” Aunt Arlene recorded four holes-in-one, and Uncle Bill had three or four before they retired from the sport. Golf courses were like magnets to Uncle Bill. He was a good player and played many courses. He knew much about the game’s history (players, courses, equipment, and stories). Perhaps the highlight for him was when he finally played the Augusta National course, home of the Masters Tournament, with friends from Rancho Santa Fe.

In 2006, my Aunt Arlene passed away. My Uncle sold the house in Rancho Santa Fe and moved to Sunnyvale, California, to be close to his children. He moved into an assisted living luxury apartment complex there, and I was able to visit many times. He was always in very good spirits and enjoyed the complex. He also enjoyed walking with a new acquaintance, a woman named Jo Ann Lundquist. Coincidently, they had attended Stanford at the same time but had not known each other there. The two became romantically involved and married on December 27, 2010, Uncle Bill’s 90th birthday.

Uncle Bill Flying on his 90th Birthday

Yet More Memories

My wife, Ellen, whom I had a relationship with for over 35 years since we were in junior high school, passed away in March 2010. Afterward, I went on a big walk-about overseas and visited Uncle Bill before I left the country. I was thrilled to hear about his relationship with Jo Ann. I was on a Christmas holiday with my kids in Cancun, Mexico, where I was absolutely miserable without Ellen. I woke up the morning of Uncle Bill’s birthday at 5 a.m., packed my bags, and made my way to Dallas, Texas, and eventually San Francisco. I walked into the wedding 15 minutes before it began at 2 p.m. Pacific Time and witnessed a joyous occasion ― Uncle Bill’s second marriage. He was 93, and Aunt Jo Ann was 87. I feel very fortunate that I visited both Uncle Bill and Aunt Jo Ann a handful of times after their marriage and that I saw Uncle Bill a couple more times before he passed away at the age of 101 in 2022.

(L to R: Bob Clark, JoAnn Lundquist, Bill Clark)

When I was 16 or 17, my dad let my friend Karl Ebinger and I take one of the company cars and go for a wild road trip. We drove to Oklahoma City and then to New Mexico. We crossed to Phoenix and then drove over to see the Pacific Ocean. Uncle Bill was not there, but he let us stay at his house. We woke up at 5 a.m. to some rumbling by the pool, and it appeared there was a burglar out there, so my friend Karl and I hurried out and jumped the guy, got him down on the ground, and tied him up with the garden hose. It took us a while to figure out that he was there to clean the pool because he only spoke Spanish. Uncle Bill thought that was pretty funny. Then we went from SoCal to San Francisco and had an amazing reunion with Donna and Chuck.

Also, when I was 17, I worked at the Palo Verde nuclear power plant. I had made some great friends, Mark Kelly and Jimmy Georgiades, attending Arizona State University in Tempe. We decided to do a West Coast swing from Phoenix, drove over to Rancho Santa Fe, and ended up staying with Uncle Bill and Aunt Arlene for a few days. We arrived late, and when he learned my fellow travelers had never seen the Pacific Ocean, Uncle Bill insisted we go to the beach right away. While my buddies were swimming in the ocean, my uncle and I talked about philosophy, religion, heroes, and family. We spoke of deism and how we thought that the world could actually be perfect the way it is. We discussed finding happiness and joy in a world with pain and suffering close by our door. Jimmy and I are still good friends and frequently look back on that time with Uncle Bill as a moment we will never forget. He had that kind of impact on everyone he met.

When I was 23, I sold my equipment business back in St. Louis and had an opportunity to work for the new Clark Painting Company, which my dad had sold to Hatco. They needed a project manager to build a sandblasting facility in Point Loma on the southern tip of San Diego, not far from Uncle Bill and Aunt Arlene. I took the job, visiting often, having dinner with them, learning how to play golf, and introducing them to my girlfriend. Ellen came from Missouri to live with me before we got married. From the time they met Ellen, Uncle Bill and Aunt Arlene both treated her like she was already their daughter-in-law.

I also remember a time after Aunt Arlene passed away but before Uncle Bill matched up with Jo Ann when he commandeered his large Lincoln continental town car and drove to St. Louis without telling anyone that he was leaving. He checked in behind some tractor-trailer haulers, recalled his old pilot days, and just locked into formation and drove all the way to St. Louis. We had an awesome reunion, but I don’t think we let him drive back alone.

A year after he married Jo Ann, Uncle Bill was 93 years old. He called me and said he would like to visit the old homestead in Ellington, Missouri, in Doe Run Valley. I told him to come on out, I would take some time from my busy schedule, and we’d buzz down to see if we could find the old log cabins.

Uncle Bill had terrific energy and navigated the woods and weeds like a pro tracker. After we found where the old log cabins had been, he was convinced the old school was only about 500 feet alongside the gravel road. We drove the 500 feet, and Uncle Bill said, “This is where it’s at.” It had to be 98° out and very humid. I was afraid of poison ivy, and the weeds were thick. I donned a raincoat with a hood and put gloves on. As we started making our way through the woods, we found a fence that said, “No Trespassing.” I told Uncle Bill, “Maybe we shouldn’t trespass.” He said, “No, let’s go. I know the school is right up here, another hundred yards or so into the property.”

So, I started climbing the fence, and just as I had it completely straddled, it started shocking the hell out of me. I realized it was an electric fence, so I jumped off and landed flat on my back in weeds on the other side that seemed four feet tall. All I could think about were snakes and poison ivy. I was totally freaked out, and I yelled to Uncle Bill, “It’s an electric fence.” I heard him screaming, “Ouch hick ouch eke,” as he climbed over the fence as fast as possible. I looked over at him and said, “I TOLD you it was an electric fence.” 

He started laughing and said he thought I was kidding. “Why would I kid about an electric fence, and why would I be laying on my back in poison ivy?” I asked. We laughed our asses off. We tried to step into the woods only to find out we were wrong about the location. We returned to the car and drove another 500 feet to the schoolhouse right up against the road. We had to laugh.

When we found Francis Clark’s Homestead, we decided to drive up the driveway, but there were multiple signs warning interlopers about trespassing. One said, “Keep the fuck out,” and another said, “Turn the fuck around.” Finally, the last one said, “Prepare to meet thy Lord.” When I saw that one, I told Uncle Bill, “I think these guys are serious.” He said,” Oh, come on. Let’s go on up there, and I’ll knock on the door.” It turned out they were nice people who just didn’t want any visitors. They took us up to the old cemetery where we believe Francis Clark is buried. After 200 years, the stones had no markings, but we’re sure we found his cemetery. We also found the exact land at “Clark Creek” and other evidence of the Clark’s landing in Missouri.

A Final Goodbye

My Uncle Bill passed away on August 25, 2022, at age 101. In the last years of his life, I heard he was not in very good shape, and I did not want to see him like that. He had declined mentally. In the last photo I saw of him, he was in the pilot seat of an airplane. His daughter Christy had arranged to take him up for a flight. He looked thrilled and happy and had wings on his hat. That’s how I’m always going to remember Uncle Bill.


Service Medals Uncle Bill Received:

Good Conduct Medal, American Defense Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Army of Occupation Medal (Japan), National Defense Service Medal w/1 Bronze Service Star, Air Force Longevity Service Award Ribbon w/1 Silver Oak Leaf Cluster, Air Force Commendation Medal.

Favorite Aircraft:

T-38 Talon (trainer for F-5)




Uncle Bill’s Mind:

Uncle Bill had an incredible memory for all kinds of topics. Chuck said Trivial Pursuit games at home were easy to win if he was on your side.

In addition, Uncle Bill was self-taught in accounting, bookkeeping, and legal research. He consulted with lawyers and engineering experts before starting major tasks.

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