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)
I am so glad I took the time to post these two stories about Miss Kate Clark, who left no heirs to speak well of her. Somehow I just felt it my duty. Maybe St. Peter at the Golden Gates will mark it in my favor, outweighing some things we might have done in the earliest sixties at Lanier! Thanks to y'all for following up!
Roman Lee Weil, Jr. (1958)
Adapted from an essay I wrote for my high school junior grandson whose assignment was to get his grandfather to describe an episode from his life when he was about the age grandson is now. I had no idea what I’d write about until I sat at the keyboard and started to think. Here’s what came out.
My father was a good student who studied several years of Latin in high school—how many I no longer recall, but at least four, likely more. No doubt that if I were to be a match for him, I needed to study Latin, all our public high schools had to offer, five years’ worth, staring in 8th grade, with two years of vocabulary and grammar, preparation for graduation to Senior High School and Caesar [roll the drums] with the infamous Miss Kate Clark, known to the whole city as the stellar teacher of Caesar [10th grade], Cicero [11th grade], Vergil [12th grade]. I didn’t realize until years later that in our segregated school system that the Black students didn’t have a Miss Kate Clark, maybe didn’t even have Latin. The other segregated White high school, Lee, didn’t have Latin either. If students there wanted to study Latin, they could enroll at Lanier. A few did.
For as long as I can recall, my father told us how difficult was the study of Latin and the H A R D E S T of all was translating the chapter of Caesar’s Gallic Wars wherein Caesar “built the bridge.” I heard this so many times, I lost track of how many and how boring was his rant. I wanted a chance to have a go at building the bridge.
So, along comes 1955 and we graduate from junior high [9th grade in those days] and head off to senior high [10th – 12th] at Lanier. I get to first day of Latin class with Miss Clark, who hands out the Latin textbook, sure enough, based on Caesar’s Gallic Wars. I can’t pay attention to Miss Clark; I start riffling through the pages looking for the pictures of the bridge. Can’t find. Then I look at the English text for mention of a bridge. The index. Nothing. That night I go through the Latin page-by-page looking for the Latin words for bridge. Nothing.
I go to Miss Clark in despair the next day and tell my story.
All my life, I say, my father has told me of the challenge of translating Caesar’s bridge-building chapter. I suspect I can do it too, but I can’t find it. Where is it? “Well,” she says, “The authors of your textbook thought that chapter too hard for today’s students, so they took it out.”
“Omigod. I will never live this down. My father will poke endless fun at me for not being able to translate the chapter where Caesar builds the bridge. ‘We were tougher than you,’ he’ll say.” Except I never would have used that first word, such blasphemy, in public high school in Alabama in 1955. I expressed some equal amount of dismay.
“Don’t worry,” continued Miss Clark. I’ll find you an old version of the textbook and you can translate the bridge chapter. When you’re done, and we get to that part of the history, I’ll call on you to read it to the class.” Others who remark here have let you know what a mixed blessing that is.
Miss Clark never raised her voice at me, but I can recall her once reprimanding me for embarrassing a substitute teacher in another teacher’s class. It wasn’t sufficient that I was right and the substitute was wrong; I needed to be mindful of not embarrassing someone in public. Too bad I didn’t learn that life lesson then. …
So, I have the chapter in Latin [no trot, which is the slang word for a translation; the way one cheats in Latin class (all the famous Latin works have English translations, trots, easily available to cheaters)] and soon see I have to get a more powerful Latin-English dictionary than I have because building a bridge uses technical words not common in fighting a war. The dictionary in the back of our textbook didn’t have the engineering words Caesar used in describing the bridge building.
About Latin. Now, understand something about Latin. Some sentences are straightforward: subject, object, verbs, maybe an ablative absolute at the end. Latin is an inflected language so the same word can have different forms depending on its part of speech and how it’s being used: pullus [nominative case] means chicken as the subject of a sentence, while pullum [accusative case] means the object of the verb as in, the fox ate the chicken. In English “the fox ate the chicken” and “the chicken ate the fox” mean different things, so word order is important. In Latin “Vulpes pullum comedit” and “Pullum vulpes comedit” mean the same [the fox ate the chicken] because the words themselves tell you which is subject and which is object. Because of the inflections of the words, the order of words in a sentence doesn’t much matter, the way it does in English.
Caesar presents fewer challenges because most of the sentences are straightforward: subject object verb. Few irregular verbs. The vocabulary is impossible without the dictionary, but I had borrowed from Miss Clark a dictionary with most of the words. If that dictionary didn’t have a word, Miss Clark’s bigger dictionary did and there was no embarrassment in asking if I could peek inside hers. She liked that I was being thorough, not guessing.
Cicero is harder than Caesar because of the irregular constructions—he’s giving speeches, using flowery oratory. Vergil is worse still because it’s poetry written in dactylic hexameter. Try to figure out where the subject of the sentence is in four lines of that stuff. Ugh.
One comes to appreciate how easy Caesar is so long as one has a good dictionary: subject object verb. Even if you have to look up all the words to understand meaning, you rarely have doubt as to what is the subject, what is the object, and what is the verb.
Chapter finished. Miss Clark didn’t give me the opportunity to debug my work with her before she had me read it to the class—just like a regular translation assignment. She kindly corrected my slip-ups and errors in real time as I was reading the English translation. This caused no embarrassment because I hadn’t been expected to produce polished material.
Then, drum roll, I took the translation home to my father and told him the story. “Here is my translation of the Caesar-builds-the-bridge chapter.” I did it all myself with the aid of a good dictionary. I understand why you have said all these years that it is hard: the vocabulary is impossible, but Caesar mostly writes in regular sentences with regular verbs, so we can recognize the structure. I call your bluff. He laughs, but I don’t hear any more guff about how hard Caesar is. My brother didn’t feel compelled to translate the bridge chapter. Nor, did my daughter, who won a Latin prize in high school. Nor, has any of my grandkids, none of whom has had the pleasure of studying with a Miss Kate Clark. When, recently, I review this episode with my siblings who sat at the same meals with me and heard the same stories from my father, not a one of them recalls hearing a word of this.
For me, this story encapsulates Miss Clark’s nurturing and challenging, all in one.