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Thornton Clark

Profile Updated: October 15, 2014
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Class Year:
1955
Residing In:
Montgomery, AL USA
Spouse/Partner:
Patricia Clark
Occupation:
Retired
Yes! Attending Reunion
Biography / Comments:

After graduation from Lanier, graduated from Harvard in 1959. Until returning to Montgomery in 2005, I lived most of my life in Boston, plus working a few years in New York City and Munich, Germany and nine years in Savannah after retiring. Lived full time (with no home ashore) with my wife on our sailboat for a year and a half, traveling just over 15,000 miles. Great fun and quite an experience.

Am probably one of the few people who has been to over 100 countries. Frequently had to go to the major business cities such as London, Paris, Frankfurt, Milan, Zurich, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Singapore, Sydney, Beijing, Tokyo, Stockholm and Toronto many times.

Had an interesting mother who founded the Montgomery Women's Golf Association and, as a result of being a friend of Zelda Sayre, took F. Scott Fitzergerald as her guest to play golf at the Montgomery Country Club.

Have worked on many non-profit organizations such as serving as President of the Savannah Symphony, the Montgomery Art Guild and the Vaughn Meadows Neighborhood. Also, on the Board of the Alabama World Affairs Council. If you read this, hope you will come to an event I have to chair in 2015, the opening of a great exhibition of Alabama artists that will open the evening of June 12 at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.

School Stories:

I have too many old stories, causing my wife to say she has heard many of them too many times. There is one I am not sure is true, but the famous Morris Dees says it is.

During season, we used to go hunting after Lanier, usually in the fields way out east of the Carter Hill Road. It wasted time to go home and get our shotguns before heading out to hunt. To save time, we began bringing our guns to school and storing them in our lockers. I don't think they allow this anymore.

I'm going to add another one, not directly about Lanier, but a story about three evil men who were in the Class of '54. Written for inclusion in my book of old stories, it is long, but especially if you know the guys, you may find it amusing. At the end, it includes a brief story about a '55 classmate, Vivian Butler.

THE BOX
A Gift From Home

PACKAGE DELIVERY
Freshmen at Harvard live in antique brick dormitories that surround the old original area of the college, “Harvard Yard,”usually referred to by students as simply “The Yard.” Founded in 1636, Harvard is the oldest college in the United States, and the historic area is quite crowded by current campus standards. With the exception of The Yard, there is almost none of what a less historic college would consider a campus. It is almost entirely comprised of buildings packed tightly around narrow old city streets, crowded with parked cars and during the day clogged by traffic. Harvard, with a few exceptions such as The Business School and the Medical School, is squeezed into Cambridge, Massachusetts, a close-in suburb of Boston.

Cambridge is so far left politically that my friends and I frequently referred to our city as “The People’s Republic of Cambridge.” When asked to list the major communist governments in the world the typical answer was the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and Cambridge. Sadly, at least to me, it is reported to have drifted much farther to the extreme left.

There are a few small freshman dorms that sit off in a small grassy corner of the freshman dorm area, with the buildings about ten feet from the heavy traffic on Massachusetts Avenue instead of overlooking the “Yard,” where most of the freshman dormitories are located. Upon arrival at the start of my freshman year, I was assigned to Lionel Hall B-31, which meant it was on the third floor of the B entrance, one of two entrances to the building. The other of the pair of twin dorms was Mower, which also had two entrances, but had a basement in which the maintenance manager’s office was located. The guy was the Superintendent of both buildings, but academic issues were handled by a Procter in Lionel A.

As an unknowing young kid from Alabama, I did not know to arrive and check in at the earliest possible time on the first day allowed and claim one of the two single rooms in B-31. As a result, I got last choice and had to share a double. Also, because of arriving last, I was stuck with the upper bunk. My roommates were a great bunch of guys. Pete Bragdon was an avid hockey player from Exeter who went on to become the headmaster of an excellent prep school, Governor Dummer (bad name, it was for smart kids, and the school eventually abandoned the unfortunate name). Roger Peirce was a handsome, active (and highly successful) girl chaser, who went on to become a partner of a major CPA firm in Milwaukee. Dave Davidson, my bunkmate, went to California. I used to enjoy watching him play the violin on his brother’s annual Christmas TV Special, which included all of John Davidson’s family.

Coming from a public high school in Montgomery, it may not have been terrifying, but it certainly was intimidating. I was suddenly injected into the midst of hundreds of guys who had gone to top-rated prep schools and, as a result, already had many friends who were also in the freshman class. Many had family names that made it obvious they were from some of the richest families throughout the world.

Mail for residents of Lionel was put in mailboxes at each entrance, one small mailbox for each room. The arrival of packages was noted by recipient’s name on a scrap of paper posted on a bulletin board near the mailboxes. Not expecting a package, I did not look at the list and nobody bothered to alert me that my name had been on the list for weeks.

One day there was very loud banging on the door of B-31. It was the Superintendent and he was hopping mad. I guess a better word would be uncontrollably furious. He was so agitated that it was difficult to understand what he was screaming about. When he calmed down (at least a little) enough to be understood, he demanded to know why I had not picked up my package and demanded that I come get it immediately. This did not make sense. So what if I was late picking up my package. I knew once we reached the package pickup point in the basement of Mower Hall.

THE DISCOVERY
One of my best friends at Harvard, Roberto Juan van Tienhoven, from Argentina just up the river from Buenos Aires, for some reason went with me to pick up the package. Boxes for people in Mower A and B were in the basement against the wall on the left, followed to the right by boxes for students in Lionel A and finally B, with my stairway’s packages assigned spot on the right, next to the door into the Superintendents office. The hall names and the A and B designations for each were painted on the bricks above each area on the floor. Lionel B Entry was the farthest to the right, immediately beside the door into the Superintendent’s office.

When we opened the outside door into the basement of Mower, the stench was bad. When we got downstairs the smell was really awful. It was probably the worst single smell I encountered in my entire life. We saw that a good portion of the brick wall between the hallway and the Superintendent’s office had been smashed down. There were bricks all over the place. Ordered to do so without delay, we started from upstairs, took a deep breath, grabbed the package addressed to me and rushed up the stairs to the open air.

When you read that it smelled awful, that does not adequately describe the situation. When you tried to carry it, the box was below your nose and there is no way that the written word can describe how bad it was. I carried the box, sat it down in the small courtyard between Philips Brooks House and Mower.and ran twenty feet or so before inhaling. After discussion with Rob and a few deep breaths, I ran back, picked up the package and, for some reason I do not remember, decided to move it out into the middle of the main Yard, on a crosswalk in front of the statue of John Harvard. This trip required deep breaths, returns to pick up the box, runs with the box, followed by running away before taking another breath. Robbie watched but did not help. During those step-by-step movements, I managed to read that the box was correctly addressed to me and that the name and return address were that of my mother in Alabama. I could not figure out what in the world it could be.

Under the circumstances, I am not sure why we decided that we had to open the box. It was going to be awful, but we had to know what was causing the smell. Rip, the name by which many people knew Robby, had a knife, with which we cut open the cardboard box and folded the top flap open. If the stench was awful with the box closed, it was beyond belief once the contents were exposed to the air. Our sorties to the box began to require running farther away from it before exhaling and taking another deep breath.

We were in the middle of a heavily-trafficked crosswalk that angled across Harvard Yard, right in front of the statue of John Harvard. People began to avoid the area, resulting in the arrival of a Harvard Policeman. He did not want to stand very close, but he did begin to direct people not to approach.

We knew it was bad when we saw a snake curled up on the top of what appeared to be a box of horrible looking gooey yellow cheese. Digging a bit (again between departures, deep breaths, and returns) we determined that the box contained a bunch of badly decomposed large dead rats, that had been disguised under what had originally been a layer of cookies. The intent had been for me to open the box from my mother, see the cookies and not even discover the rats hidden below until later. The culprits could never have imagined how differently their “prank” would turn out.

REMOVAL
The campus policeman pulled out his radio and called for a Buildings and Grounds Department truck to come pick up the box, a request that took some explaining on his part. By this time, the pedestrian traffic through The Yard had increased substantially, the cause of which was discovered later.

After what seemed like an eternity, the gate at the north end of The Yard opened, a large truck with high sides drove into the Yard and stopped near Massachusetts Hall, slightly uphill and directly across from where the odiferous box sat. The policeman walked up and talked to the driver, who told him to have me toss the box into the back of the truck.

It took about three moves to get the box up the hill, repeating once again the deep breath, run, pickup, run, sit it down and run away scenario. When we reached the truck, the driver told me to throw the box over the high side of the flatbed truck. My guess is the top of the side was about seven feet above ground, so it was very scary trying to make the toss. I certainly did not want to miss the top of the truck and have the mess splash back down onto me.

With a huge heave, the box rose into the air, coming apart as the gooey mess passed over the rail of the truck. The driver, having no idea what was in the box, had not bothered to mention that there was a guy sitting in the back of the truck. As the horrendous mess of rats, cookies and a dead snake fell into the truck, the man cleared the side in one leap, landing hard but uninjured on the pavement. Needless to say, he was quite furious, in addition to smelling awful. We wondered how he got home or wherever he had to go to get washed up.

THE MAJOR EVENT OF THE DAY
Now, here begins the coincidence that provides me with the exact date this all happened. It was easy to remember what day it happened because December 1, 1955 was the day that the Harvard Freshman Union had a big fire. This resulted in Harvard Yard’s having much heavier than usual pedestrian traffic. At that time, the Union was where all freshman had their meals. It was a fairly big blaze, destroying much of the large old brick building. The building sat on a small hill, so as the firefighters fought the blaze, water ran down the street and across the major thoroughfare, Massachusetts Avenue, which was the main artery running through Harvard Square, connecting Cambridge with downtown Boston.

The bus line in those days was called the MTA, which is why the great old song was about Charlie, not having enough change to pay for a ride, was questioning whether he would “ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston” cause he could never get off the MTA. He was “the man who never returned.” The bus system is now the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Company, but that does not matter.

It was freezing, cold enough that the wide sheet of water flowing over Massachusetts Avenue froze, turning the side-sloping avenue into a large tilted skating rink. An MTA bus, heading out from Boston in the right lane (the uphill side of Mass. Ave.) lost control on the ice and slid fast forward and downhill, smashing a few cars, crossing the sidewalk, knocking down a parking meter, blasting through the front windows of a restaurant, and hitting a few people who had been peacefully sitting inside. Everybody was OK, but it must have been a terrifying moment.

The Freshman Union was rebuilt and renamed the Barker Center, is at the corner of Harvard and Quincy Street.

It had not been one of the best days in Cambridge.

A CONFESSION

I do not remember how we determined the guilty party who had sent the box from Montgomery, but we did. There was at least one obvious suspect. Some friends had gone out shooting rats in the city dump and thought it would be cute to send them to me. They put them in the box and covered them with cookies..

The primary culprit was a man who became extremely successful as a medical research scientist, Dr. Porter Anderson (more on him later). Porter and his close friend, Sterling Culpepper (a “friend” who I knew was a co-conspirator), claim to this day that they did not put the small snake in the box. He must have been swallowed alive by one of the rats, climbed out after the rat was shot and placed in the box, and then died after awhile in the box. It was fifty years later that a third person, Jim Scott, admitted that he had been out shooting rats that night and was one of the guilty parties.

MOWER HALL
For days, the Superintendent had dealt with the steadily increasing odor. When it became unbearable, the University’s Buildings and Grounds staff decided that a rat or something must have died in the wall beside the entrance to the Superintendent’s office. They began to sledge hammer the wall down. After a few feet, having failed to locate any source of the smell in the wall, they reached the point on the wall labeled Lionel B. To keep knocking the wall down, they had to move the boxes from that area. When they did, they discovered when the box was moved the smell moved with it. Weeks later, Harvard tried to bill my parents for the repair of the wall. The bill was $800, which does not sound like much today, but in 2011 dollars that would be more close to $20,000 and possibly a good bit more. As an example of inflation, looking through an old record book I discovered that my freshman year tuition had been $800. As we had not caused the problem and the damages, we ended up not having to pay.

I don’t know of other Mower Hall residents over the years, but two that became famous were actor Tommy Lee Jones and Vice President, Al Gore. Another interesting residential result was Bill Gates of Microsoft fame and his CEO of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer. That pairing resulted from their living in a Harvard dorm on the same floor. As of this writing, it appears Ballmer is about to be the owner of the LA Clippers basketball team, having purchased the team from the Sterling, the disgraced former owner, for a staggering two billion dollars.

A WELL KNOWN GESTURE
Don’t give up yet. There is a sequel. About the same time the next year, a very small box arrived. It is less than four inches long and a little less than an inch wide and deep. This time we are suspicious. As sophomores, Rip and I are now living in an upperclassmen’s dorm, Adams House. When freshmen moved to Houses, where they would remain for the next three years, they got to select which House they wanted. Other houses (dorms at most schools) shared a central kitchen. Food was sent on carts from the central kitchen through underground passages, most several blocks in length, to the various dining halls in each of the Houses. Adams had its own kitchen and, as a result, the food was much better than in any other House. We picked Adams and, once again, more on that later.

Back to the small box. With hesitation, we opened it, but could not figure out what was inside. There was no smell. The object was hard, round (about three quarters of an inch in diameter) and about three inches long. No it is not what you are thinking. After a thorough inspection, we determined that the part on one end was a fingernail. Porter, at that time studying at the Harvard Medical School, had, literally, given me the finger.

EPILOGUE
We had a telephone in our room, as did almost everyone we knew. The cheap guys on the floor below us in F Entry (out of the back door of my bedroom) wanted to share the cost and put one phone in the stairway between their two rooms. They put the phone on a small table on the landing.. This meant the people who slept in the rear single rooms of E Entry all got to listen to their phone whenever it rang and, in too many instances this also meant having to listen to the conversations that ensued. We decided that the best use of the finger was to give it to these guys. I snuck down the stair and placed the finger in the dial of their telephone. The only name I remember in that room was David Papermaster. We never said anything, but we always wondered if they had figured out we had given them the finger. It certainly gave new meaning to the act.

One of the culprits, Jim Scott, became a very successful lawyer and real estate developer in Montgomery, but he is best known for his incredible garden overlooking Lake Martin. His incredible gardens have been featured on national TV and in about a dozen magazines. This was not just mentions in magazines, there were long articles with loads of pictures. The gardens are a unique mix of beautiful plants, complex design and a good sense of humor.

Jim’s wife, Vivian, who died only a few years ago, had been a high school classmate of mine and a good friend. Jim admits that for his first date with Vivian he had taken her out to the city dump to shoot rats. How many young girls do you know who would appreciate that? Jim had a fun evening and asked her out again. She had enjoyed Jim’s company, so with some trepidation she agreed to go, but with just one condition…..that it not involve shooting rats again.