September 30, 1890 - August 1978
David Bagwell (1964)
MISS KATE CLARK
by David Bagwell, Class of 1964
Miss Kate Clark taught Latin at Sidney Lanier High all of her career and, after she retired, at
Montgomery Academy. She was always known by everybody at Lanier, student and faculty, as
“Miss Kate Clark”, and was deeply respected as a teacher. Miss Clark was probably born about 1888, the daughter of Alexander Humphreys Clark and Sallie McGehee Graves.
Her father Mr. Clark was born in 1843 or 1844 in New Orleans, graduated from New Orleans
High School as Valedictorian and addressed the class in French. He served in the Confederate
Army, going in like so many did, with his local unit the Orleans Cadets, probably lying about his
age to get in. He served in the light artillery, in Fenner’s Louisiana Battery. In 1877 in New
Orleans he married Sallie McGehee Graves, who was the granddaughter of Abner McGehee, an
early Montgomerian who was a founder of the Alabama Bible Society and who owned about ten
thousand acres in Montgomery County, including a plantation near Hope Hull, near the present
intersection of US Highway 31 and I-65, now an industrial park and just south of the present
Hyundai plant. There Abner McGehee had built a large house in about 1840, and the Clarks
moved into that house. The plantation was called “Tentagil” after the castle in the Arthurian
legend in which Arthur was adulterously conceived. Alexander and Sallie lived there until their
ninth child was born, and then tore down the old house and replaced it with a “modern” one, with
running water from a cistern, indoor plumbing, and an acetylene lighting system. Nothing
remains of either house now but the nearby Abner McGehee Burying Ground, which was a part
of the Church which Abner McGehee endowed on his land, and named the “Hope Hull
Methodist Episcopal Church”, after a preacher named “Hope Hull”. The L&N Railroad called
the junction McGehee’s Switch” but the name “Hope Hull” has stuck.
Kate attended school on the Clark Plantation, started college at Auburn and graduated from
Agnes Scott in Atlanta. The photograph of Miss Clark is from the Yearbook of her senior year at
Miss Clark remained single, living for some years with her sister, later Mrs. Nicholas H. Holmes
of Mobile, both living with their other sister Mrs. Robert Teague, in the Teague Home. Mr. Teague was founder of Teague Hardware.
Miss Clark was highly respected as a Latin teacher.
By the time I got to Sidney Lanier in the fall of 1961 I think Miss Kate Clark had already retired
as a teacher, but I knew that she was a legend. This year while I was looking at Lanier’s online
history site, I saw that the biographical entry on her was empty. Since she had been “a maiden
lady” and had no children, I figured– hard to say just why– that it was my duty to post something
on her. I live near Mobile and I knew that Mobile architect Nick Holmes, Jr. was Miss Clark’s
nephew, and I got some papers about her from him. Included were the typed versions of some
programs which Miss Clark had given to the Tintagil Club, a Montgomery ladies’ literary club.
Included in it was a transcript of an essay on her, which Miss Clark told the Tintagil Club had
been written by one of her former students as a college freshman essay. Miss Clark said to the
Tintagil Club, likely in the 1950s, that while she had been the subject or the butt of many poems
"The best thing I have ever had written about me, and the one which I treasure
most, is a theme written by [name not disclosed here by request] during his freshman year at Vanderbilt.
It think it is beautifully written and I cannot resist the temptation to read it to you, even though it will probably make you think I am more egotistical than I really am. Now, please don’t think I take all that he has said at full face value. I realize that [he] is displaying that wonderful gift of a story teller to bend the truth considerably in order to make a good story. It is “a most unforgettable character” kind of thing, which makes me not so much unforgettable as unrecognizable. I never did actually leap from the window sill, no more than Miss Terry ever broke her arm while hanging out of the window to illustrate a dangling participle”.
Here’s that former student’s college freshman essay on Miss Clark:
"THE LAST OF THE ROMANS
Latin is a dead language
As dead as can be
It killed all the Romans . . . . .
that is, except one. In a certain high school in an Alabama city, there survives a member of that vanished race that once ruled the world. She is more than a Roman, though. Indeed she is a matchless combination of the greatest of them–Cæsar, Cicero, Virgil, Aeneas, and someone even more wonderful, a great American lady. Miss Kate Clark has for the past several years been reviving that dead language known as Latin and making it live for her students. I can never forget the first time that I met her class. Being late, I had to take the only vacant seat in the room which most disastrously was just beside her desk. When she strode into the room, waving her handkerchief, I was surprised to say the least. She was one of the loveliest ladies I had have ever seen– dressed attractively and fresh despite the intense September heat. Her black hair was soft and wavy and flecked with gray, and her nose was a thing of beauty in itself and Roman to the roots. There was something else about Miss Clark that no written description, however detailed, can fully portray. That certain thing was her smile. I couldn’t recall ever having seen a smile quite like it–such a perfect mixture of deviltry and sweetness; of gentle scorn and love. I knew when I saw that smile that I had picked the lucky seat of the house, and I was never forced to reverse my decision. The student, whether he be on high school or college level, seldom finds a teacher so full of enthusiasm for her subject. We, as a class, first fought Caesar’s
Gallic wars in detail– from the day when we carefully dissected Gaul into three distinct parts until that triumphant hour when Caesar, with the largest single step I have ever seen a skirted woman take, crossed the Rubicon. That re-enactment of the great Julius’s conquests consumed the greater part of a rugged year. Cæsar had a bad habit of galloping around the classroom on a two-legged horse and of occasionally climbing a mountainous chair to survey the floor of battle. Upon one occasion, the invasion of Britain, and the crossing of the channel, I believe, the Roman cause seemed almost lost, and indeed it would have been had not our undaunted Leader seized the famous eagle of the tenth legion and leaped from the prow of the window sill,2 ejaculating the famous cry – “Leap down, Comrades!” We hated to see that school year end, but the Gallic Wars were over and Cæsar had been assassinated. His death, however, left us free to study the life and works of Marcus Tullius Cicero, and there followed nine months of brilliant and forum that a new personality appeared on the scene– noble Æneas, leading his gallant crew across the storm tossed Mediterranean, seeking that promised land where he was to fulfill his destiny and found a new race. Miss Clark gave poor Æneas a terrible time. How our “Mother” Neptune did flail the sea with her four pronged fish gig, better known to her more intimate friends as a “quadrutant”. How our Dido with starry eyes did woo earthy pleasures. We might have remained in Carthage for several years but Æneas had only nine months in which to reach Italy, so on he sailed, and Dido perished one somber day atop her kneehole funeral pyre. Thus, Miss Clark’s enthusiasm made Latin live. There was something so fresh and fine in that enthusiasm. It seemed to be the very embodiment of her smile which I soon came to realize was the very embodiment
of Miss Kate Clark. Far too many times, first impressions are contradicted by later and more genuine ones; not so with Miss Clark. With every day I knew her, she rose a little in my estimation. She was a great teacher but a greater friend. Hers was a personality dominated by a strong character and a devotion to goodness, yet
spiced with God’s greatest gift, a sense of humor. She didn’t always smile, though. Far too often that impish twinkle in her eyes gave way to the blaze of righteous indignation or worse, to a certain sadness–a sadness, not for herself, but for others. She felt that we students had a far too materialistic outlook on life. When we didn’t prepare our lessons well, she worried; when we made light of the more serious things in life, she worried; when the attitude of the student body seemed to be misdirected, she worried. But all this worrying was for others and not for herself. It was difficult for her, the perfectionist that she was, to accept some of the viewpoints of her small minded students who hid their laziness behind a false front of being practical. She tried too hard to change us, and her effort brought her many heartaches, but I believe now that she did accomplish her purpose. No one leaves her classroom and looks back on his years with her without feeling a deep admiration and a genuine affection. Now, as a student looking back, I see that my acquaintance with Miss Clark is one of those rare beauties that is more deeply appreciated as time passes. She did far more than teach us Latin. She somehow taught us how to live." [end of essay]
Miss Clark told the Tintagil Club “Isn’t that a beautiful thing to have written about you, even though it is grossly exaggerated?”
That essay is a suitable epitaph on Miss Kate Clark for the Lanier web site. She almost chose it herself.
Rae Venable (Calvert) (1948)
I also was fortunate enough to have been one of Miss Kate Clark's Latin students. The essay posted about her is really very accurate!
Rae Venable Calvert Class of 1948
MISS KATE CLARK’S PANTIES ON THE FLOOR AT SIDNEY LANIER HIGH
David Bagwell, a 1964 Lanier Graduate
Maybe one of the two most famous oral non-athletic legends at Sidney Lanier High in the 1940s and 1950s was about how Miss Kate Clark’s panties fell down around her ankles during her Latin class. [The other is that Miss Terry broke her arm while hanging out of the window to illustrate “a dangling participle”. Miss Kate Clark told the Tintigil Club that the dangling participle legend of Miss Terry was false. Even though false, it is a good story].
In the summer of 2011 I was given a collection of Montgomery history stuff by Miss Clark’s nephew in Mobile, Mobile architect Nick Holmes, Jr., and in it was a typed collection of papers which Miss Clark had given over the years to the Tintagil Club, a Ladies’ literary club in Montgomery founded in 1896 by Miss Mary Elmore, and which in 1920 and 1948 published excellent pictured guidebooks of Montgomery.
Here is Miss Clark’s own version of the panties story, as given to the Tintagil Club on a date which we cannot yet identify:
"Some embarrassing things can happen in the class room. I remember two quite vividly, embarrassing at the time, but rather funny now as I look back upon them. I have already told you in another paper about the time I went to sleep in class and talked in my sleep so I shall not repeat. The other, I don’t talk about much, but as time goes on I see only the funny side of the most embarrassing moment of my life. In my old age, I had trained myself to do much of my teaching sitting at my desk, but when we came to something very interesting which I wished to discuss with the class, I had a way of jumping up from my chair. One day, while teaching a Vergil class of thirty-four very bright girls and boys, such a moment arrived. I jumped up and stood beside my desk, not behind it. I heard two little girls on the front row gasp. I felt something around my feet. I looked down. There draped around my feet were my pants. Thank heaven they were clean and showy white and, except for the elastic, in a pretty good condition. I looked up into thirty-four horror stricken faces. One would have thought that I was Laocoön and my panties were the sea serpents. I picked up my panties, put them in the desk drawer amid dead silence. I looked again at those awe stricken faces and said, “This is most embarrassing for me, but we might as well enjoy it.” With that all thirty-five of us burst into peals of laughter. We laughed and we laughed for full five minutes by the clock. Then I said “Let’s get back to the lesson. Mary, you may translate.” They all turned back to their books, and except for the sound of Mary’s voice translating Vergil, there was once more utter silence in the room."
Kathy Williams (Coxwell) (1965)
Miss Clark began her career when my mother was a senior at Lanier. In the class was Miss Annie Wilson Terry, notorious for the story about the dangling participle. The way I heard it was that she stood on a chair, dangled from the transom and subsequently fell. She was still teaching when we were at Lanier! Nothing that exciting ever happened in Mme. Armstrong's French classes did it, David?
Dr. James "Jim" Shelburne (1950)
Miss Clark's home room status was the stuff of legend. Proud as I was to be there, the memory of her scrolling down the roll to choose the next reader hits me in the marrow to this day. And you could not count on her; she might take the student beyond your name and double back! The room was filled for 45 minutes before school started as she would read from "Winnie the Pooh". She and her sister lived right next door (that had its pluses and minuses) and she was not averse to a bit of bourbon in the late afternoon with my parents. Being neighbors did not spare me her wrath for misbehavior in class. A good grade from her, which did not happen often, was a prize to be savoured She is easily one of the finest teachers I ever knew.
Jim Shelburne '50
Stan Robinson (1970)