As a teacher for 38 years, a founding member of Harvest Table, a library clerk and former Benedictine sister, Portia Clark’s passion for helping others less fortunate and teaching others is evident.
Clark, 68, Washington, said her years as a Benedictine sister were pivotal in shaping her values and work ethic.
Having attended a Catholic high school, Clark said several teachers were inspirational to her in becoming a sister.
Similar to St. Francis Borgia Regional High School in Washington, Clark’s school was regional. Local Catholic parishes with grade schools each sent two sisters to teach at the high school. This enriched the learning experience, she said, by providing students with sisters from varying religious traditions.
“I was particularly drawn to the Benedictines and their philosophy and way of life,” she said. “They’re very progressive, extremely well-educated women who wanted to make a significant difference in the world. I was drawn to that.”
Originally from Oklahoma, Clark attended Oklahoma State University after high school.
One year and much contemplation later, at age 19, she requested to join the Benedictine order. Soon after, she began a two-year training.
“It had one of the most profound influences on my life and career,” Clark said, adding that it shaped her values, work ethic and fostered her interest in social justice, care for the environment and simple living.
Following training, Clark made vows for three years, then one additional year.
During her time as a sister, Clark spent one year teaching eighth-grade math at Monte Cassino in Tulsa, Okla., and then taught third and fourth grade at St. Mary’s in Okeene, Okla.
As the only young sister at the convent, and with a background in violin, Clark taught herself to play guitar on a “beat-up four-string guitar.” The battered instrument was missing two strings, but it didn’t stop Clark from using it to sing with the children during music each day.
During her time in the order, Clark went back to Oklahoma State University.
At the time, there was no Catholic college in Oklahoma, so Clark helped form a “house of studies” on campus.
She earned her master’s degree from the college, and for about four years she taught freshman and sophomore composition there.
After six years in the order, Clark decided she ultimately wanted to marry and have a family.
“I loved my time there. I was very, very happy during the six years I was in the order,” she said. “I think it helped shape who I am as an adult.”
Even though she left the order, she remains in contact with many of the sisters.
“I think a lot of people think of the ’60s as a decadent period,” she said. “I think it was also an extremely idealistic time. People in my generation wanted to change the world.”
Clark guesstimated that about 10 percent of her high school graduating class went into a religious order, joined the Peace Corps, served as papal volunteers or joined other humanitarian organizations.
Job-seeking brought Clark to St. Louis, where she taught junior high at St. Justin the Martyr in Sunset Hills for six years.
One day, Clark’s bicycle was stolen. She wandered into a bicycle shop, The touring Cyclist, that was holding a drawing for a bicycle.
Clark entered the raffle, and though she didn’t win the bike, she fell in love with the shop owner, Mike Clark, who later became her husband.
The two were perfect for each other, as Mike had studied in a monastery for several years. Both had the same aspirations, as well as a love for social justice, books and religion.
The couple was married Dec. 28, 1974.
After they married, Mike attended law school.
During that time, the couple fostered school-aged children who, for one reason or another, could not be placed elsewhere.
After finishing law school, Mike got a job as a public defender. With the job, he was required to live in Franklin County, which is how the Clarks planted roots in town.
The couple have four children: David, a professional musician; John, a guidance counselor at Wright City High School; Katie Mitchell, who works at LensCrafter; and Danny, a part owner of “Live Alliance,” which streams live events online.
When Clark isn’t working or volunteering her time, she and her husband enjoy visiting their children and attending David’s concerts.
Once in Washington, Portia Clark began teaching at St. Francis Borgia High School, where she stayed for 26 years.
“I was lucky because I got to teach what I loved,” she said, adding that she enjoyed being a part of her children’s education.
“The camaraderie of the faculty was amazing,” she said.
Teaching in Catholic schools was a choice Clark made because she said the school had the values she wanted her children to have and she enjoyed practicing her religion daily.
She was originally hired to teach theology, but because her degree is in English literature, she gradually was moved to the English department. She also taught college credit to advanced students in literature.
At one time, Clark taught at Benedictine Heights in Tulsa, Okla., and Mount Saint Scholastica (now Benedictine College) in Atchinson, Kan.
Clark retired in 2008, after 38 years in the classroom.
At one time, Clark’s daughter worked at the library as a shelver.
“I joked with her that she had the best job in town, because she got to work with books, be surrounded by people who loved to read and loved books and didn’t have to take home any work,” she said.
After her retirement, Clark knew she either wanted to work in a library or bookstore.
“I absolutely love working at the library,” she said.
Clark has been a clerk with the Washington Public library for five years, where she helps process books and waits on patrons at the front desk.
She also facilitates two of the library’s book clubs, including a literary classic club and another simply called “the library book club.”
In literary classics, which meets the third Monday of the month, those who haven’t read the classics by authors like Charles Dickens, Jane Austin, Ernest Hemingway and others meet and study the books. Even some children classics are included in the club’s readings.
“It’s a fun activity for someone who is interested in literature,” Clark said, adding that classics are often free on the Kindle tablet.
The library book club, which was already established when Clark began at the library, focuses on more modern books, and reads both fiction and nonfiction. The club meets the third Wednesday of the month from 6:30 to 8 p.m.
Clark said she’s looking forward to reading “Founding Mothers,” a book about the mothers of various U.S. presidents.
Encouraged to read from a young age, Clark said she’s always had a love for books.
“As a child my mother read to us every day, and I always loved reading,” she said. During the summer months, her mother would set aside a certain time to either rest or read.
Of course, she and her two brothers chose to read.
In high school, Clark had several teachers who had a love for the classics. In college, she decided to major in literature.
Like many bookworms, Clark couldn’t choose one favorite book, but she could narrow it down to two.
Growing up, the book that influenced her the most was “Jane Eyre,” by Charlotte Bronté.
“It had a strong character who learned to stand up for herself,” she said, adding that she was a shy child. “She said what she thought, regardless of the consequences, and I really admired that. She faced life on her own terms, in spite of opposition she faced.”
Another favorite is “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens, who she said has the ability to write fun, interesting, stories that also inject social criticism.
“I think his books had a profound effect on his readers in terms of changing social attitudes and even the law in some regards,” she said.
Overall, Dickens remains one of Clark’s favorite authors, along with Jane Austin.
“I think the important thing is to keep reading and keep your mind alive,” she said.
Clark is a founding member of the Harvest Table, an ecumenical group that provides a free, nutritious meal to the community every Saturday evening from 5 to 6 p.m. at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ at Fifth and Jefferson Streets in Washington.
Guests do not have to prove a need to receive the free meal. All are welcome.
Harvest Table began from a discussion group that was based on Scripture with a social justice component. The group found that “food insecurity” was a big need that was not being met.
Between 60 and 80 people attend each week.
“One thing we hadn’t anticipated is how neat it is for people from all the different church groups to work together,” she said.
Clark said people in the community are generous.
“Nobody has ever turned us down if you ask them to make a meal and tell them there’s a need,” she said. “Everyone knew someone who was touched by the great recession.”
Harvest Table has now expanded outside of churches and many community members and businesses help in any way they can.
Clark also delivers Meals on Wheels.
Stemming from her love of literature, Clark also writes reflections on Old Testament and gospel Mass readings for “Daily Bread” which is published by Celebration magazine. For one week out of each month, she writes about Mass teachings, what they meant at that time and how it still pertains to issues today.
Clark said she received an email from a priest in Nicaragua who had read and enjoyed one of her readings, which was one of the most exciting things that’s stemmed from writing the reflections.
Her reflections can be read at http://celebrationpublications.org/dailybread.