Local WWII vet celebrates 99th birthday despite isolation from his family

Rupert Clark shares a tender moment with his son Phil, although they had to touch through a windowpane at Hurricane Health and Rehabilitation. Hurricane, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy resident advocate Nancy Burks, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — With 99 down, Rupert Clark only has one more to go to make it to a lifelong milestone.

Friday is Clark’s 99th birthday, but he said it’s a personal goal to make it to at least 100 years of age. The World War II veteran celebrated his special day at Hurricane Health and Rehabilitation on Thursday so as not to interfere with Pioneer Day festivities.

The party at the center brought a smile to Clark’s face, but it wasn’t without its challenges.

Shortly after the onset of COVID-19, the facility went into lockdown. As a result, residents have been isolated inside the building, unable to have any visitors, and personal contact has been limited to loving conversations and touches between the barrier of a windowpane.

Although approximately 1 inch of glass separated Clark from his family Thursday, his spirit rose, especially when he saw his oldest son, Phil, come close.

“It’s been very difficult because he is a loving dad,” Phil Clark said. “He loves to hug and get a kiss on the cheek. This has been really difficult.”

Rupert Clark served in the Army Air Corps as an airplane mechanic during World War II, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy Phil Clark, St. George News

Born July 24, 1921, in Chicago, Rupert Clark was raised in southern Indiana before joining the United States Army Air Corps in 1943.

He spent his military career stationed in Casablanca, Morocco, as an airplane mechanic. While overseas, he met and married his first wife, Paulette, a daughter of a French colonel.

“After they got married my dad bought a used Willys Jeep,” Phil Clark said. “On their honeymoon, they drove out into the desert and toward a lake with mud all around it. As they got closer and closer to the mud, he calmed his wife’s concerns and said they would not get stuck, that the jeep had four-wheel drive.”

Unfortunately, he added, “they got stuck in the mud because the front differential had not been connected.”

Stranded, the young couple had to rely on the kindness of strangers.

“Luckily there was a small group of Moroccans nearby, and they used camels to tow him out,” Clark said. “He was trying to impress my mom with American know-how and ingenuity, and it just didn’t work.”

Rupert Clark rose to the rank of sergeant and was honorably discharged in 1947.

After returning home, he attended Purdue and Cornell universities and received a doctorate in agronomy — soil science — before going to work for Green Giant in Le Sueur, Minnesota, then the New Mexico State University agricultural research station in Artesia.

“My dad really did have a green thumb. When he was young he was in charge of the garden for his family. I guess this is where his interest in agronomy came from.”

Attracted to a job through the United States Agency for International Development in the mid-1960s, Rupert Clark became an agronomy consultant for Harza Engineering in Lahor West Pakistan during the shooting war with India that eventually forced the Clark family’s evacuation.

Although being in a war zone was very dangerous, Phil Clark said that as a small child, it was spectacular.

“We’d go to the roof to see the bombs go off on the horizon,” he said. “I’d say, ‘Oh that was a good one,’ not realizing there were people dying because of the explosions. I even remember having to put black curtains on the windows in the apartment, and the power would go out to prevent the city from being bombed.”

During the blackouts, a lone candle provided light for the family to live by.

Rupert Clark doing what he does best, teaching eager minds that want to learn about his passion for agricultural and soil science, West Pakistan, date not specified | Photo courtesy Phil Clark, St. George News

After the evacuation from West Pakistan, the Clark family moved to Tehran before returning to West Pakistan, where Rupert Clark became a professor at the country’s Agricultural University in what is now Faisalabad.

A man that seemed to always look for the next challenge, he taught science and math at several American middle and high schools before moving to Nicaragua to teach. It was in Nicaragua that he met and married his second wife, Erlinda.

Described by his son as honest to a fault and a strict disciplinarian, Clark was someone who set the bar high for his two sons and daughter but was – and always will be – a loyal father and husband to his family.

“He definitely has a heart of gold, but he did have a temper. If he got mad, you learned to run for cover and hide, but I had no doubt that he loved me.”

Mellowing later in life, his true nature eventually shone through a tough exterior.

“As an eighth grader, with his inspiration, I would balance chemical equations for fun,” Phil Clark said. “He really fostered in me a love for science and math, so it’s no surprise that I would become an engineer.”

He continued to teach until retiring in the early 1990s before the death of his second wife and making the decision to move to Page, Arizona, in 2016 to be closer to his oldest son.

Rupert Clark casting his line in to catch the ever-elusive “Big One,” location and date not specified| Photo courtesy Phil Clark, St. George News

Life moved forward with a few more twists and turns, but after a serious fall in 2017, Rupert Clark moved into Hurricane Health and Rehabilitation, where his son said he has thrived.

You may be able to take the classroom out of the teacher, but you cannot take the love of teaching away from anyone dedicated to education. At Hurricane Health and Rehabilitation, Clark is helping the staff who are attending college master the complex intricacies and formulas of math.

“Rupert has such a great sense of humor,” said resident advocate Nancy Burks. “He’s always cracking jokes and is very, very thankful for anything that you do for him. And he’s kind of a flirt, telling the girls how beautiful they are. Not in an inappropriate way but a kind way. He’s just a really neat guy.”

Although there have been moments of connection with the outside world through a window and online video chats, COVID-19 isolation began taking its toll on Rupert Clark spirit for life.

Rupert Clark was joined by family, staff members at Hurricane Health and Rehabilitation and the Color Country chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution during an early birthday party celebration, Hurricane, Utah, July 23, 2020 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

When signs of loneliness and depression started showing themselves, the Color Country chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution stepped in to make a difference.

Members of the DAR, including Clark’s daughter-in-law Kim, who is also a local chapter member, mounted a social media campaign to ask its members throughout the United States to send birthday cards. Chapter Regent Valerie King told St. George News that the goal was to bring him “a little sunshine and let him know he is loved and not forgotten.”

What started as a trickle has grown into a flood of birthday cards, which is quickly approaching 200 with more coming in daily.

“I was told by the facility administrator that he has asked that each and every card be read to him and then taped to his bedroom wall to remind him of the kindness that’s been thoughtfully extended as his birthday approached,” King said.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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