A career spent cultivating connections

By Dick Mason, The Observer June 14, 2013 10:20 am

Dennis Clark, right, has led one of the most successful FFA chapters in Northeast Oregon over the past three  decades. (Chris Baxter/The Observer)
Dennis Clark, right, has led one of the most successful FFA chapters in Northeast Oregon over the past three decades. (Chris Baxter/The Observer)

UNION — The phone call was one for the ages. About 20 years ago, Union High School agriculture teacher Dennis Clark was awakened at 6 a.m. by a city official who had alarming news. 

The Union official told Clark that a pig was chewing up a man’s freshly planted lawn on Main Street. The homeowner was said to be upset, and people suspected the pig belonged to one of Clark’s Future Farmers of America students. 

They were right. The animal was owned by FFA chapter member Heath Richter. Clark jumped out of bed, picked Richter up at his house and drove to the Main Street home. 

“I told Heath, ‘I know he will be mad. We’ll apologize, put the pig a crate and then leave with it as fast as we can.”

Upon their arrival, Clark immediately told the man, “I’m sorry about your lawn.”

The five words, spoken with Clark’s disarming innocence, instantly defused the man’s temper.

“He looked at me and kind of melted. He said, ‘You know, that pig is kind of cute,’” Clark said.

A relieved Clark had done more than mend a fence. He had made a personal connection with his genuine concern. It is one of countless connections he made with the public, students and staff during his 34-year teaching career — a career now in its final days.

Clark is preparing to retire. The good-natured educator long thought he would never live to see the day when he would be turning in his keys and filling out retirement forms while he was still healthy and filled with vigor. 

“I thought I would end up teaching until I wasn’t capable of doing it anymore because teaching was my life,” Clark said.

That was before Clark met the “light of his life” two years ago, Karen Garrett, a music teacher in Yreka, Calif. The two were married in September but have continued to live separately. The 484-mile gulf between the two is about to be erased because Clark will be moving to Yreka this summer.

“I married the woman of my dreams. … Being eight hours and 22 minutes apart is not how I want to spend the rest of my life or even one more year,” Clark said in his retirement letter to the Union School Board.

Clark enjoys laughing at himself and does so when talking about how popular his wife, Karen, is.

“So many people in Yreka have told me, ‘Do you know how lucky you are to have her?’ that I feel like paying people in Union to tell her how lucky she is to have me,” he said.

Clark is no stranger to the Northern California area. He began his teaching career there 34 years ago at Fort Jones High School in Fort Jones, just south of the Oregon-California border. The high school closed four years later, prompting Clark to consider applying for a position as agriculture teacher and FFA adviser at Union High School. The position was open because Don Stewart, who had taught at Union for 37 years, was retiring. Clark was hired and the rest is FFA history.

Clark has led one of the most successful FFA chapters in Northeast Oregon over the past three decades. The chapter has produced 126 members who have received FFA’s highest state honor, the state degree, and won numerous awards.

So popular is the program that each year about half of the student body belong to it.

In the classroom, Clark has also been the foundation of the school’s popular agriculture program. The program’s popularity reflects Clark’s one-of-a-kind way of breaking through barriers to connect with students. 

“He is able to reach a group of kids many of us may not be as good at reaching,” said Mendy Clark, the Union School District’s deputy clerk. 

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