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chatWITH… Russell Clark

A chatWITH… Russell Clark

Russell Clark could have practiced law almost anywhere, but he chose his hometown of Alamo. Almost after a half century later, he has no regrets that he followed his heart. Sitting at the original desk in his original office at #4 Railroad Street, Clark reflects on the last 47 years with a wisdom that can only be acquired from experience and a contentment that comes from having lived a satisfying life.

When he began his law practice in Alamo in 1975, Clark was the community’s only lawyer. He still is, and he admits he is as busy now as he has ever been. And that’s just busy enough. He loves what he does and has no plans to retire. That’s a good thing. What would the community do without him? Many consider him irreplaceable.

Clark is the current attorney for the City of Alamo, which has offices just across the street, the Little Ocmulgee EMC, which is headquartered in the same block as Clark’s office on Railroad Avenue, and the Wheeler County Chamber of Commerce, which is located right next door to Clark’s office. He also serves as legal counsel for the Wheeler County State Bank, also headquartered in Alamo. Clark has handled the affairs of these organizations for about as long as he has been practicing law, and at one time was the attorney for the Wheeler County Commission, a role now occupied by his good friend attorney Perry Avery, who maintains an office in the county’s other municipality, the City of Glenwood.

Additionally, Clark is the community’s “go to” person for family law. He has drawn up hundreds of wills, powers of attorney, and more, but real estate transactions have become a dominant part of his practice now. With a small community like Alamo, which is located in sparsely populated, rural Wheeler County, one might not think that real estate would be such big business, but it is. Clark recalled that some of his most interesting clients, from distant parts of the world, expressed interest in the county’s most abundant and enduring assets, its rolling hills and wide open spaces. It has been claimed that land and water are the county’s biggest treasures. With major two rivers defining its boundaries, thousands of acres of prime farming and timbering acreage, and abundant hunting grounds, the county has drawn commercial and recreational investors for generations. Florida-based hunters, who are coming to Wheeler in amazing numbers, have been attracted to heavily-forested hunting lands with lower taxes, as have been a number of folks just looking to relocate from denselypacked urban areas and to live and work remotely in an uncomplicated setting. Clark quipped that one of his distant clients was from Switzerland, and a phone call to speak with the client was answered in French. Clark, who did not speak the language, was relieved when a translator was found. The client was looking to invest in farming acreage. Then, there was the fellow from “across the pond” who grew English peas and was interested in cropland in Wheeler County. While the Swiss deal was sealed, the English venture did not sprout, but the attorney representing the English client wanted to see the historic courthouse in Alamo to “see how we do things,” Clark said.

When Clark showed the English guests the famous courthouse, it was springtime and there was an avenue of stately oaks and vibrantly-colored azaleas lining Pine Street all the way to the building’s front entrance. The guests were amazed at the beautiful scene, but a few years later the trees and the flowers were gone. “Limbs started falling from the oak trees and people who lived along the street were afraid their property would be damaged,” Clark said. The same thing happened to the oaks lining Railroad Avenue and Main Street in downtown Alamo. “I actually met the man who planted those trees when I was only 16 years old. He was quite old when he was telling me this, so the trees were 60 to 70 years old at the time they were removed.”

Returning to his hometown was a natural inclination for Clark. His roots go deep in Wheeler County. His greatgrandfather, Fletcher, was a timber rafter on the Oconee River, which flowed into the Altamaha River and downstream to the mills in Darien. Fletcher was from North Carolina and moved to Montgomery County (later Wheeler County) in the 1800s.

Clark was born in McRae in Telfair County, but he grew up a few miles away and across the county line of the Little Ocmulgee River in Alamo where his father Lee Roy owned New City Market. Clark’s mother, Lucy, helped run the grocery store located in a two-story building on Main Street. Lee Roy Clark also served as Clerk of Superior Court in Wheeler County for24 years.

Clark and his two sisters, Gwen and Sue, grew up in a house on McRae Street across from the county courthouse where his father worked. He recalled that at the age of five, he was a frequent visitor to the community’s most prominent structure — even rollerskating on the landmark’s floors. No one minded him being around; in fact he made friends with the officials who worked there. Clark still has a “carry permit” for his Roy Rogers toy pistol issued by County Ordinary Dan Achord. Clark said he keeps the treasured permit in his official Roy Rogers billfold.

Clark recalls having started his early school years in an older, two-story school building in Alamo. “It had wooden floors and some kids would come to school barefoot. They would have to go to the principal’s office to get the splinters pulled out of their feet.”

He went to high school in the then-new school in Alamo, graduating in 1966. While in high school, he was a Governor’s Honors program participant, pitched and played third base on the baseball team, played guard on the basketball team, and ran track. Clark recalled that the old school gym in Alamo was condemned and actually collapsed during class time, but fortunately no one was inside. He noted, “We played our basketball games in the former Glenwood High gym for most of my senior year.” The school’s new gym was built when Clark was a senior in high school. “That year our team won 20 plus games and should have gone on to regional competition, but one of best players broke his wrist and actually played with a cast on his hand,” Clark said.

Russell Clark at his office in his law library.

Photo by Deborah Clark continued from page

Clark thinks his inclination toward the law might have been forged in his early days as he visited the courthouse where his father worked. “I wanted to become a nuclear physicist or a doctor because I liked math and science, but my dad talked me out of being a doctor because of the house calls which were common back then,” Clark said with a smile. He began his college studies at Middle Georgia, where he completed two years and earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Georgia and a juris doctor degree from the University of Georgia School of Law in 1973. Clark was offered the dream job of a full partnership with a law firm in North Georgia but chose to move closer to home. After he turned down the offer, he told a fellow classmate about the job opening. That classmate seized the opportunity and later became a Superior Court judge. Clark chose to join the Macon law firm of Westmoreland, Patterson & Moseley right after he earned his law degree. He had not yet passed the bar although he had taken the exam.

“I never regretted not having taken that job,” Clark said of the North Georgia offer. “I wanted to come home. There was no attorney in Alamo then.” Clark said he practiced in Macon long enough to know that he didn’t have the opportunity to really get to know his clients well. Alamo could offer him that opportunity.

For a year and a half, Clark worked at the Macon law firm to gain experience. While there, he also gained a wife, Marcia. Before they married, she was Clark’s secretary and he recalled they had a little disagreement about a Dictaphone. It was a device used then that recorded dictation which the secretary later transcribed. “She forced me to use a Dictaphone. I was intimidated by it. I couldn’t bring myself to talk to a machine. I wrote everything by hand,” Clark said.

Marcia stood her ground. Clark remembered that she told him, “I am not typing anything unless you use the Dictaphone.” He relented, and later, they married and both left the firm because there was a rule about employees being married to one another. It was the perfect catalyst for Clark’s transition into his next role.

The couple returned to Alamo where Clark’s parents, who were becoming elderly, still lived. He opened his law practice on January 1, 1975. He recalled that area attorneys Herman Warnock, Nicky Rawlins, who later became a Superior Court judge and Billy Walker, welcomed him to the Georgia Bar and to the area. “Billy Walker sent a plant to welcome me to the Bar. It was a split leaf philodendron. That was almost 50 years ago and I still have that plant. My wife keeps trimming it back. It’s a nice reminder of Billy.”

What Clark loves about being a lawyer in a small community is what some may consider a liability. He knows just about everyone in the county and has known them for years. In fact, he is usually familiar with several generations of a family and how they are related to other families. “I counted eight sets of Clarks in this county, and none were directly related to one another — as far as I know,” he joked. In fact, one of his legal assistants is named Crystal Clark, but she is not a family relation, although a lot of people assume she is Clark’s daughter.

Clark’s one venture into politics came about unexpectedly when current Governor Brian Kemp happened by his office. Kemp was running for Secretary of State and asked Clark to be his local campaign manager. Apparently, Clark’s sterling reputation had traveled outside of his hometown. Clark admitted to Kemp that he had no real experience with politics, but when Kemp reassured Clark that he was the man for the job, he accepted. Of course, as everyone knows, Kemp won that race and went on to a higher office. Much later, Kemp ran into Clark’s son-on-law Jody Wells in Athens, where Jody was involved in a charity 5K run. “He asked Jody how I was doing. I was surprised that he remembered me.”

Preserving the Past and Growing the Future

Clark is not only invested in his community by blood and profession, he is firmly committed to preserving local history and helping to facilitate the county’s future. Clark shared that his mother Lucy was a Hartley, another of the most prominent family names in the Wheeler County. He fondly recalled that his father’s brothers were also part of the county’s storied past. His father, Lee Roy Clark, was from Glenwood, the county’s other municipality. He had a brother known as Pot who had a service station in Glenwood. Brother Colon was a big farmer. Brother Lowell painted water tanks; he fell off of one and lived. Brother Harry, known as “Fuzzy,” was an avid big fisherman. There was also a sister, Normalene, who married a Hartley and wrote for the Wheeler County Eagle and the Macon Telegraph.

“Our Clark family is not related closely to any other Clarks in the county,” he said, noting he has checked land records for the eight Clark families he has identified in Wheeler County. “They seem to be unconnected from each other as far as I know.”

Clark laments that Wheeler County began changing when his father’s generation declined. The next generation held on for a while, but as the farming economy experienced a downturn and transportation enabled residents to seek employment and to shop outside the community, the handwriting was on the wall. “So many local businesses have closed. When I was a child and through my teen years, every building was occupied on both sides of the main street in Alamo. In Glenwood, it was the same.” Pot’s busy corner service station just faded away over time. As the years passed, many of the businesses began to close and were not replaced. The county’s only hospital closed, and, with Internet available—even if the connection is not so good everywhere—people began to shop online.

But there is still some sunshine to be had out there. A large prison inside Alamo’s city limits continues to contribute to the local tax base and a large timber manufacturing operation on the outskirts of town has just added a big sawmill and will soon fire up kilns to steadily increase its volume for statewide, national, and international commerce. Timber, straw production, and farming continue to be main industries in Wheeler County, and a new school — another big employer — projected to be completed by next fall will rival any state-of-the-art facility anywhere in the state. Residents located 15 to 30 miles from bigger towns still need to be able to buy gas locally, so chain-owned operations are thriving. Community health care still needs to be locally accessible and is offered through a corporatelyowned clinic in downtown Alamo. Local eateries seem to have more business than they can handle because local residents need a place close by for lunch and Sunday dinner. Recently, a silk flower supplier bought and moved into a local building vacated by another company during the COVID epidemic. Residents have been heartened by seeing an armada of delivery vans parked outside the former shirt factory that was a major employer in the 1950s and 1960s. At the edge of town, another chain retail store just opened. Wheeler County may not look the same as it did when Clark was a child, but there is reason for optimism.

And interestingly, the legal business has not declined. “People still have to have loans and to buy homes. Real estate is still going strong. Some people are looking for place to get out of the crowd, and people who love to hunt are not only renting but also investing in local land.”

Also, lately, Alamo and Glenwood are looking more and more like bedroom communities. “There are people who find peace and quiet living in the country and they don’t mind driving to Vidalia or McRae or Dublin to work.

Clark not only knows about Wheeler County’s history, he is also working to preserve it. He has in his office a bound album of handwritten City of Alamo council minutes from the early 1900s.They were recovered from a storage room. “I salvaged them to make sure they survived. I set out to scan them all in and got about half way into project. I still hope to finish,” he said.

When he is not happily spending time with his grandchildren, Clark continued from page

enjoys working in the yard. “Believe it or not, I bought one of those zero-turn lawn mowers and enjoy cutting the grass.” He and his wife just invested in a camper and took it out of the road last year, venturing into the West.

The Clarks have four children including two from Marcia’s previous marriage, a son, Breck Templeton who lives in Houston, Texas, and who is a CFO for a national food company, and Julie Betts, who lives in New York State. The Clarks have two daughters together, Alicia Probst and Emily Wells. Alicia lives in Jacksonville, Alabama, and is musically gifted. She once served as band director in Wheeler County before moving on to direct band programs in Warner Robins and Gadsden, Alabama. She and her husband, Chris, who is a trumpet professor at Jacksonville State University, have a daughter Isabelle, fondly known as Izzy. Emily and her husband live in Vidalia and lead the music program at First Baptist Church there. Emily also teaches at Vidalia Heritage Academy. Emily and Jody have three children, R.J., Laurel, and Lilly.

In retrospect, Clark agrees that he is a “happy camper,” not just in his personal pursuits but in his career, as well. A member of Alamo’s First Baptist Church, Clark said, “My relationship with church and the Lord are of the greatest importance to me. I have tried to counsel people in divorce situations. Being a Christian lawyer with an emphasis on Christian has been my guiding star through the years. The real reward is feeling like I have helped people accomplish their goals.”

Clark said that he has been privileged to participate in mission trips to Tanzania, South Africa, Germany, and Montana, and he has been involved in the Kairos Prison Ministry for 20 years at Wilcox State Prison. He has taught Sunday school for 48 years, and he teaches a children’s class each Wednesday. “If you want to know who I am, the picture is not complete without these service activities. My life and my family’s lives have been greatly enriched by our opportunities to serve the Lord.”

He observed, “I enjoy meeting people and helping them with their problems. I’ve got my practice tailored down to where it is not so stressful.” Transactional work is about all he wants to tackle now. “I have tried to handle cases with respect for both sides and in a way that is not antagonistic. Some of my courtroom cases have resulted in my being friends with both sides, and the opposing party becoming a client.”

ALIAS ROY ROGERS — When Russell Clark was about five, one of his heroes was Roy Rogers of movie and television fame. Clark recalled that he received an honorary permit to carry his Roy Rogers cap gun from Wheeler County Ordinary Dan Achord.

BASKETBALL DAYS — When he attended Wheeler County High School, Russell Clark was a member of the basketball team. During his senior year, the team won 20 plus games and should have gone to regional competition, but one of the players broke his wrist.

STAR STUDENT — Young Russell Clark was Star Student at Wheeler County High School in 1966. His “Star Teacher” was his Aunt Mary Hopkins, his favorite teacher, shown at right. Also in the photo are Russell’s parents, Lee Roy and Lucy Clark on the left.

AT THE OFFICE — Attorney Russell Clark has been practicing law in Wheeler County since 1975. He is still in his original office at # 4 Railroad Avenue and at his original desk, shown above. Flanking Clark are his assistants, Crystal Clark, left, and Katheryn Robbins, right.Photo by Deborah Clark

DAUGHTERS — Russell and Marcia Clark share a happy moment with daughters Emily Wells, of Vidalia, and Alicia Probst of Jacksonville, Alabama.

FAMILY – Russell Clark, far right, and his wife, Marcia, second from left, love spending time with their family. Shown above are the Clark’s grandson R.J. Wells of Vidalia holding his cousin Isabel “Izzy” Probst of Jacksonville, Alabama, and granddaughters Laurel and Lilly Wells of Vidalia.

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