By Kandi Carper ’05
I’ve always wanted to write a celebrity interview. You know, the kind that appears in Harper’s Bazaar: “On a clear Saturday afternoon, Sandra Bullock, dressed in a bright pink sundress, met me in the lobby of a Beverly Hills hotel. She’s as witty and self-mocking as a fan might expect.”
I finally got my chance Nov. 30, when I interviewed EWU alumnus Doug Clark, newspaper columnist extraordinaire.
We met on a rainy afternoon at O’Doherty’s Irish Grille in downtown Spokane. He walked in dressed all in black, wearing his trademark Trailer Park Girls baseball cap. I hadn’t seen Clark in more than 10 years since we worked together at The Spokesman-Review. He hasn’t changed much.
We chose O’Doherty’s because that’s where Clark’s image is enshrined with a wall plaque commemorating his awesomeness as the first person inducted into the Eddie Gaedel Society’s Hall of Fame.
As a columnist for The Spokesman-Review, Clark has written for years about Spokane attorney Tom Keefe’s efforts in bringing Eddie Gaedel’s story to the masses.
Gaedel, a 3-foot-7-inch baseball player, became famous for participating in a Major League game for the St. Louis Browns in 1951. His jersey, with the number 1/8, is displayed in the St. Louis Cardinals Baseball Hall of Fame.
During Clark’s induction into the Hall of Fame in November, he was also honored by Spokane Mayor David Condon as he presented Clark with one of his prized Condon Coins in recognition of his role in making Spokane the “City of Choice” for the Northwest. The coin was something Clark had previously mocked in his newspaper column. While all in good fun, you could say it was a bit awkward.
Along with these amusing antics, probably the biggest event in Clark’s life in 2017 was the announcement that he was retiring from The Spokesman-Review, Spokane’s newspaper of record, after nearly 34 years. He estimates that he wrote approximately 4,500 columns during that time, with his final column appearing Aug. 17.
In his farewell column, Clark wrote, “I have reluctantly accepted an offer that I can’t refuse. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with finding the decapitated, bloody head of a prize racehorse under the sheets. Ownership calls its offer a ‘voluntary reduction in force.’ I use the word reluctantly because this is a sweet-and-sour bowl of pork. While leaving now is the right economic choice for a guy of my, um, vintage, I hate leaving the job that I poured my heart and my soul into.”
The Early Years
Clark was raised in Spokane, where he graduated from Ferris High School. His dad was an insurance salesman; his mom stayed at home.
“I had really nice parents,” said Clark. “Dad grew up in Chicago during the Depression. He had a good sense of humor, but he strongly believed in right and wrong. I came along six years after my brother, who had worn my dad out. I was pretty much a delinquent.”
From a young age, Clark was a good horn player, excelling in the trumpet. In the fourth grade, he played in the All-City Band Program.
“I came from a musical family,” said Clark. “My brother was a music major at WSU. He played first chair sax and clarinet. He still has a jazz band. So I took trumpet and started playing in fourth grade through college. Then I realized you can’t sing with a trumpet, and so I sold it to buy my first camera. I started guitar at age 11. My first guitar was an electric Fender Mustang, and I got an acoustic guitar later.”
After graduating from high school, Clark chose to come to Eastern.
“I took a lot of crap from fellow musicians that I went to high school with because I went to Eastern,” said Clark. “I heard, ‘Oh I’m at WSU and our band is great.’ I’m an Eastern guy. We were the Savages back then – EWSC. I still have some old T-shirts.”
While at Eastern, Clark studied music under Professor Jim Albert. It was the early ’70s – the Vietnam draft era when a college deferment could help keep you out of Southeast Asia. If Albert hadn’t recruited Clark, things may have turned out differently.
Clark left Eastern his junior year with a ton of music credits on his résumé. He and EWSC classmate Bob Hoover, ’75 BA music, made an album and went on the road. The duo, Hoover and Clark, played at camps, schools and churches.
“We played all over the country,” said Clark. “All I ever wanted to be was a singer-songwriter. That was my goal.”
But while touring, Clark discovered he had stage fright. He returned to Eastern and even though he was close to graduating with a music degree, he switched to journalism and earned his BA in 1977.
Clark, and his lovely wife, Sherry ’77, went through the journalism program together at Eastern with instructors Pat McManus and Dick Hoover.
“McManus was a character,” Clark remembers. “He was a lot of fun.
“Hoover was very sincere. He left me his jazz albums when he died and his old Sinatra LPs. I played tennis with him for a number of years. I always loved Dick Hoover, just a kind guy. He was the anchor, the rock of that teaching duo.”
Clark first got the journalism bug when his music tour took him to Red Bluff, California. He met a sports writer, Dave Oliveria, and went with him to cover a couple of games. Clark thought, “I could do this.”
“I had a lot of English classes and poetry in addition to music because I wanted to be a songwriter,” explained Clark. “I’d been writing since I was a little kid. It was an easy transition to make. I always thought that music helped my writing with the cadence and the rhythm. I really pay attention to how the sentences sound. It got me a career.
“Journalism is a trade that anyone can learn in six months to a year if you have any kind of command of the language. If you’re open to learning, you can get better and better at it.”
Clark actually finished his final quarters in the journalism program as a sports editor at that same paper in Red Bluff.
“Hoover and McManus were so happy that they sent my grades to me for my third quarter – straight A’s for on-the-job working,” said Clark.
Clark spent a year in Red Bluff before moving back to the area to take a job at The Coeur d’ Alene Press, where he worked for seven years – two as a sports writer, then as a city editor and the final three as managing editor.
Spokesman-Review Editor Chris Peck hired Clark to be a columnist in 1983, but because of a non-compete clause with the Press, Clark had to sit out a year. During that time, he was regional editor at The Spokesman before getting his dream job as a columnist in ’84-’85.
Why a columnist?
“It’s the best job at a newspaper,” said Clark. “A columnist gets to choose the subject matter. The columnist gets to write from a point of view. Plus, a columnist gets a little photo that runs with the column.”
If someone were to put all of Clark’s columns in a time capsule and open it in the future, they would be able to understand the culture, history, and attitudes that make Spokane what it is.
Clark was not afraid to put people in their place. Many of his columns were about injustice and sticking up for the underdog.
His relentless coverage of Otto Zehm, a 36-year-old janitor who was violently confronted by a Spokane Police officer and died two days later, kept Zehm’s story in the forefront of Spokane’s conscience.
“Otto Zehm really registered with the people,” said Clark. “I didn’t know where it was going to go. You get involved with something like that and you just don’t know. I started getting heat from editors to town it down. They felt I was beating a dead horse. I really went after the county prosecutor because he wouldn’t file charges. About a year ago, Tim Durkin, the lead prosecutor for the Feds, told me that if I wouldn’t have kept writing those columns, they wouldn’t have filed charges. That’s probably the coolest thing that happened. When the verdict came in, it was crazy.” The police officer was ultimately sentenced to 51 months in federal prison.
Clark wrote about disgusting career criminals; neo-Nazis; a Gypsy’s curse on Spokane City Hall; riding in a limo with Sen. Bob Dole; his time on The Weakest Link TV game show.
He’s chronicled the lives of interesting people like Billy Tipton. Born Dorothy Tipton, the Spokane jazz musician lived as a man for more than 50 years. When Tipton died in 1989, it made global news.
Clark’s humor shone brightly as he wrote and recorded parody songs with his friend and bandmate Joe Brasch. One ballad was dedicated to “Spokane’s No. 1 methperado, Eddie Ray Hall” and the “Tap Three Times sendup to America’s original restroom romancer, ex-Idaho Sen. Larry Craig” (Clark’s words).
“That’s the thing about humor – you just let it fly,” said Clark. “You just have to get it out there and take the consequences.”
Is it possible to write humor in the politically correct environment we live in?
“I never really cared,” said Clark. “I always tried to be an equal opportunity offender. From the mail I got, people didn’t know if I was a conservative or a liberal, Republican or Democrat because I would attack both sides equally. I’d had it with partisans who make excuses for bad behavior. I gave out hundreds of buttons saying ‘Politicians – same jerks we hated in high school.’ If you’re a politician, you’re suspect. It doesn’t matter who you are. I just think bad behavior, or stupid behavior, is worth going after.”
Over the years, Clark paid tribute to his alma mater in his columns, although he once referred to Eastern as a high school with ashtrays.
“I was only snarky early on,” said Clark. “The older I got it, Eastern became more beloved.”
One of the highlights has to be when he joined EWU’s marching band in January 2011, making the trip to watch the Eagles pull off a come-from-behind 20-19 victory over Delaware in Frisco, Texas, capturing the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision title.
“I loved doing that,” said Clark. “That was magical. Everything – the win at the last second. That was one of those stories in your career that you think was like a Disney movie.”
But his cornet playing – “I pretty much had to fake everything. I’d lost the ability to read, and too many years and your lip goes after about three minutes.”
In his column following the game, Clark wrote, “This was Cheney’s greatest moment since that night in the 1880s when armed residents stormed the Spokane County auditor’s office and made off with the county records.
“Being able to tag along to Texas as a uniformed, cornet-playing member of the mighty EWU band will go down as one of my most enjoyable column adventures.”
In December 2013, with many band members away on Christmas break, alumni players like Clark were invited to join the band during the football playoff games at Roos Field. Clark returned for a command performance, and he wrote two columns for what turned out to be one of the coldest football games in Eastern history. It was so cold that the band’s instruments froze up.
Clark wrote at the time, “Talk about misery. My eyes watered. My nose ran. I couldn’t feel my lips … And that was just walking from the music building to Reese Court. At least I didn’t have to embarrass myself by trying to find a band uniform big enough to fit me. (Band director Patrick) Winters let me hide under a red band parka that could have housed the entire cast of Glee.”
In 2014, Clark wrote about playing with EWU’s tennis team: “I’m a twice-a-week hacker with bad knees and a weak backhand. The coach just wanted some publicity for his team and the tournament. He figured an aged tennis bum like me would roll over like some piddling puppy for a chance to hit with real players.”
“Call me Rover.”
The Next Chapter
So, what’s next for Clark?
“I never envisioned retiring this way,” said Clark. “This all came so soon that I haven’t thought much about where to go from here. I’ll probably play my guitar a lot more. And book more gigs with my band, Trailer Park Girls. There’s always whittling. I hear that’s a really popular pastime for geezers.”
A few months have passed now and Clark seems to be making peace with his future. He’ll turn 67 in April.
“My wife was really happy,” said Clark. “She was tired of the grind. After 4,500 columns, I had a good run and I don’t have any bitterness.”
Clark isn’t sitting around eating bonbons. He writes a column for the magazine Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living.
“One column a month for a nice check and he [the publisher] said that I could write anything I wanted,” said Clark. “I’ve had no interference at all. It’s edgy enough; we’ll see how it goes.”
He’s also working on the written contents of a coffee-table book for artist Mel McCuddin, who specializes in figurative expressionism.
“There’s something about a Mel McCuddin artwork,” said Clark. “Over the years, I’ve admired dozens upon dozens of McCuddins, including his huge sports and performance-oriented paintings that hang in the Spokane Arena. One of his paintings, The Last Paperboy, sort of sums up my whole career.”
Clark now owns the painting.
In addition to making music with his band, Clark plans to continue presenting his annual Street Music Week – something he came up with 15 years ago.
It began with him playing his guitar, like a street busker, during the noon hours of a workweek in downtown Spokane one June. He collected more than $500 and decided to donate it to 2nd Harvest Food Bank. That’s worth 3,000 pounds of food.
He continued the following year and invited other street performers to join him. Now, around 350 performers participate, and together they’ve raised more than $175,000 over the years.
Clark’s advice on retirement?
“With retirement, you just have to come up with ways to fill your day. Like yesterday, I bought underwear and socks at Walmart but … the mistake you’d make is just going to Walmart and buying your socks and underwear. I went to the Colville Walmart. So it fills up two hours to get there, an hour to look at the underwear and squeeze it and two hours to get back. That’s a day.
“And the Rockford Files are on TV, and I also found out that you can get Uber Eats to deliver directly to your hot tub. You don’t even have to leave the hot tub. They’ll come around and avert their eyes. Retirement is kind of fun.”