Church celebrates man, his generosity – The Hinsdalean

By Pamela Lannom

Union Church of Hinsdale had plenty of reasons to celebrate Irv Clarke Sunday.

First, it was the day before Clarke, who has lived most of his life in Hinsdale, turned 100. Second, he is generously supporting the church’s efforts to open an early childhood education center in Summit. He hopes to encourage others to contribute as well by matching donations up to a substantial amount.

“It’s a real good project and I’m glad to be able to help,” Clarke said Monday. “From what I’ve read, why, children that get help before they’re 5 years old do better in longer life than the children that don’t, and so that’s why our people decided to do something in Summit where they need a lot of help.”

The congregation decided to open a preschool after Mike Solberg, senior minister, challenged the church to take on a “long-term transformative whole church missions project” called “Before we Get to Mars,” said Penny Davey, who is chairing the committee of the same name. Members also looked at several other possibilities before deciding on a preschool.

“We have had a longstanding, highly regarded, high quality preschool here, so we know what do with early childhood, and it’s when you can make the most difference in society,” Davey said, pointing to research by University of Chicago economist James Heckman.

One of the preschool teachers who grew up in Summit suggested her hometown as a location, and church members spent three years searching for a property to lease.

“We were just about ready to give up on Summit when we learned of this preschool that was for sale,” Davey said, noting that purchase negotiations are underway.

Preschools, day care and home care have openings for less than 6 percent of the 1,000 kids under age 5 in the community, Davey said. As a result, a low percentage of students test as ready for kindergarten.

Families will be able to pay for the full-day year-round preschool using the state voucher system, Davey said. With support from grants, partnerships and other fundraising opportunities, the preschool is intended to be self-sustaining.

“Union Church, for 159 years we’ve always been mission-oriented, so this fits really nicely into our way of serving,” Davey said.

And she’s appreciative of Clarke’s help.

“It’s great that someone from his generation is looking forward to future generations,” she said.

Who is Irv Clarke?

Clarke moved to Hinsdale with his family when he was 6 years old and still lives in the house his parents built in 1936, their second in the village.

He graduated from Hinsdale Township High School and went on to earn a bachelor’s at Williams College and his MBA from Harvard Business School. He spent his career managing pension fund investments and other funds for Swift and Co. (later named Esmark), Globe Life Insurance Co. and then Penmark Investments, where he served as president.

He became a member of Union Church when he was confirmed in his early teens.

“So 100 minus 14 is about right,” he said when asked how long he’s been a member of the church.

During that time the only periods Clarke lived elsewhere were his college years and while serving as a tactical radar officer in the U.S. Navy in World War II.

“I think my experience in the Navy was probably the most important thing in my life,” he said. “I never married. That would have been the most important if I had, but I didn’t. So I enjoyed the Navy for the most part.

“I served on a destroyer in the Pacific during the last year of the war. We were fighting against Japan and involved in fighting off the suicide planes that they were sending.”

His destroyer was hit and 47 of his fellow crew members were killed.

“That was kind of a bad experience to go through. The ship did not sink and we went back to the states for repairs, and then the war ended while we were getting the ship repaired,” he said.

His older brother, Kenton, also fought in WWII. He was killed when his bomber was shot down over the Pacific.

Since retiring in 1979, Clarke has served on the board of the Robert Crown Center for Health Education (now Candor) and Washington Square (now Magnolia Senior Living). At Union Church, he has chaired the board of trustees and co-founded the church’s endowment fund.

He enjoys taking the newspaper to Honey Bee Cafe for lunch every weekday. Clarke is a regular at Sunday services, Davey said.

“One recent extremely cold and snowy day, when several younger church members made the fine choice of viewing the livestream of the worship service from home, Irv drove himself to church and was in his usual pew, on the right side,” Davey wrote in a piece about Clarke.

Clarke said he enjoyed his birthday celebration at the church, although his hearing aids made it difficult to hear some of his well-wishers.

“Union Church put on a big party for me,” he said. “We had coffee and tea and lots of food. It was a big affair.”

Many well-wishers

The folks who came out to celebrate Clarke’s birthday had wonderful things to say about the former naval officer.

“He’s the epitome of the greatest generation,” said Travis Hughes, who lives next door to Clarke and stopped by the party.

“When I think of someone super inspirational and heroic, he’s the one that comes to mind,” said Hughes’ daughter, Moira.

“He’s such an amazing person,” added her sister, Marin.

“I’ve never seen him without a smile on his face,” remarked their mom, Courtney.

Fellow church member Virgil Oostendorp, who has known Clarke for 40 years, said he admires his service, savvy and sense of humor.

“His mind is sharp as a tack,” Oostendorp noted.

Ashley Logan was at the celebration with her three children, Antonia, 7, James, 5, and Samuel, 3 – all of whom were excited to be at the party.

“My daughter was really excited to give him the card she made,” Logan said.

She’s enjoyed getting to know Clarke since she met him four or five years ago and has appreciated learning more about his life.

“Those stories are so important to be told,” she said.

Solberg said that while churches are often focused on attracting young families, it’s important to remember churches are intergenerational. And supporting Clarke, who never married and has no children, is important.

“We’re his ‘found family’ and that’s beautiful and we want to honor and respect that,” he said. “Having people like Irv and having them engaged in the life of a church shows you can have innovation and tradition at the same time, which is great.”

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