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College surprises visiting veteran on return to campus

An 80-year-old Navy veteran, who withdrew from Pennsylvania College of Technology’s earliest incarnation just shy of graduation to ease his family’s financial difficulties, fulfilled one of his few remaining life goals on Tuesday: returning to campus to visit his Williamsport Technical Institute alma mater.

“They said it’s all different, and it is,” David A. Clark said. “For the better!”

As Clark exited the Student & Administrative Services Center for the 2½-hour solo drive back to his Gettysburg area home, he carried more than grateful memories of the campus that he recalls and the gleaming jewel that it has become.

His tears quickly drying in the warmth of the occasion, Clark beams while wearing the same honor cord given to all veterans for their Penn College commencement ceremony.
His tears quickly drying in the warmth of the occasion, Clark beams while wearing the same honor cord given to all veterans for their Penn College commencement ceremony.

He left as a Penn College graduate, presented with his long-delayed certificate and the red, white and blue honor cord worn by military personnel on their commencement day.

It makes for a November to remember for Clark, who recently moved back to Pennsylvania after two decades in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. With no regrets in the winter of his life, Clark is the definition of “thankful.”

“I’ve lived life to the fullest,” he said, regaling his Le Jeune Chef Restaurant lunch companions with tales of jitterbug contests he’s won, the 31 states he’s visited, the doo-wop music he enjoys, and the adventures (and occasional misadventures) that punctuate one’s candid autobiography.

He and his wife, Sharon, have enjoyed 52 years of marriage … and “enjoyed” is no exaggeration.

“I don’t think we’ve had 10 arguments in all that time,” Clark said. “I see it more as a partnership.”

It wasn’t always a smooth road to contentment.

Bouncing between divorced parents, and schools in Dauphin and Cambria counties, he graduated from what was then Lower Paxton High School. He joined the Navy in 1958 at the Reserve Center in downtown Harrisburg, barely 19 and not quite 100 pounds.

“Someone behind me put a foot on the scale to get me over,” he laughingly surmised.

He was assigned to the Seabees and attached to Marines in Florida and – with an invasion of Cuba looking more and more likely – was sent for three days of “survival training” at the snake-infested swamps of Parris Island, North Carolina. Serious military engagement never materialized, and Clark served until 1960, when he was placed on “standby” and eventually given an honorable separation “at the convenience of the government.”

Upon discharge, he said, he was asked, “How would you like to go to college?” It was a dream initially thought to be monetarily out-of-reach, but, due to a congenital hand deformity, Clark was given a sufficient package to attend WTI, his school of choice.

“The state vocational rehabilitation center paid all my tuition and bought my books,” he said. “I even got ‘recreational money,’ which amounted to two movie tickets each week for the Capitol Theatre.” (Coincidentally, the West Fourth Street venue is now the college-owned Community Arts Center.)

His plan was to get a business administration degree and join his father in home construction, and he fondly recollects both the campus – “going down the dirt road to one of the shops” – and the friends and mentors he met in his short time there. Among his most cherished cheerleaders were two men who died in 2012: longtime administrator William Homisak and Andrew E. Spuler, an assistant professor and librarian.

Those powerful connections were no match for “the rough times that Mom and Dad were having,” though, and Clark reluctantly withdrew from school within a month (and a couple of credits) from his goal.

He found success and happiness in the ensuing decades, both as a parent and as a businessman, raising children and “opening, closing and remodeling” discount stores for a number of companies that included the Town & Country, Zayre and Ames retail chains.

When he retired and moved back to The Keystone State, he said, he told his wife that there were only two things he wanted to accomplish: “See all of our family” and “Go back to Williamsport.”

The first has been satisfyingly accomplished, and, on a pleasantly sunny Tuesday, Clark scratched the other item from his bucket list. As a prelude to lunch in the college’s fine-dining establishment, he was treated to a VIP tour of campus. But the biggest surprise was yet to come.

Moving quickly behind the scenes, a coalition of college co-workers – from Alumni Relations to the Registrar’s Office; from Academic Affairs to the School of Business, Arts & Sciences; from Corporate Relations to Veterans Affairs – prepared the documentation that would transport Clark from nostalgic dreamer to full-blown alumnus.

Stopping by the Major General Fred F. Marty Veterans and Military Resource Center under the pretense of meeting kindred spirit Chet Beaver, coordinator of veteran and military services, he was draped in an honor cord and presented with his certificate in a traditional Wildcat blue diploma case.

Signed by Michael J. Reed, vice president for academic affairs/provost, the document reads:

“This certifies that
David A. Clark
has successfully completed the requirements for a Certificate in
Business Administration effective May 9, 1961,
as awarded by the Williamsport Technical Institute.”

It was an emotional moment; joyful tears at the end of a long road, giving way to a wide grin that signaled accomplishment. Not to mention the aforementioned gratitude.

“It’s not about what I learned here,” he said. “I learned how to learn here.”

Words of wisdom on this Veterans Day from Penn College’s newest graduate.

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