LoveLakeland’s November 2017 CityMaker

Gary Clark

By Aaron Mouer

Pictured: CREATE at Catapult, Gillian Fazio

Veterans bring a unique aspect of history, honor, and pride to the city they call home. Their service to our country is a lifestyle of service that they adapt and implement into the community, and can act as the fuel for a rich and proficient culture. Likewise in cities, there sometimes is a common, and many times accidental, hastiness that occurs in relation to our veterans. However, in Polk County this isn’t the case. And Col. Gary Clark is one of the men to thank for this. Since arriving in Lakeland in 1993 after serving 26 years of active duty for the Air Force, he has made the acknowledgement, support, and celebration of veterans his life’s work.

Clark served during the Vietnam and the Gulf War. His family and the small town he came from in Kansas made the choice easy of whether or not he should join the military. His father was a WWII veteran and his brother served in Vietnam, as well. In fact, four of his five classmates all made sacrifices to serve their country, to which Clark quoted Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of Democracy in America, by saying, “He [Tocqueville] identified the spirit of independence that Americans had. They were people that didn’t wait around for someone to tell them what to do. If there was something needing to be done, they would do it. And that’s kind of what I grew up in.”

Polk County Veterans Council

Clark, although referring to the honor that is the serving in the military, can be seen implementing this belief of proactivity, volunteerism, and self-sacrifice of serving in our community today. He saw a need for veteran support and celebration in Polk County and decided he was the man to fill it.

During Hurricane Irma, he caught wind of news of a veteran whose house was ruined by the storm. Clark and the Polk County Veterans Council sprung into action.

“We made one call and got him help,” he said. “Another couple who were both veterans gave me a call saying that their house had burned down. We put the word out and soon had folks from the community offering clothing, furniture, and a computer.”

“There’s a spirit of independence in the American people. They don’t just wait around. If there was something needing to be done, they would do it.”

“There’s a spirit of independence in the American people. They don’t just wait around. If there was something needing to be done, they would do it.”

Finding Our Community’s Future Leaders

Instances like this, of veterans needing support, are what drives Clark every day and are the reason for his founding of the Polk County Veterans Council. With Clark’s help, our local veterans receive assistance by the community for the community.

Plus, the presence of the organization gives those interested in connecting with and supporting our country’s veterans an outlet to do so. Volunteers and advocates can help our communities veterans by aiding in job searches, working with local businesses, providing health benefits and VA advice and support, and more.

“It’s a way of making Polk County a Veteran-friendly community,” Clark says. “And I’ll say this: I don’t know of another place that we could do some of the things we are able to do. I don’t think you could get this in Tampa, I don’t think you could get this in Orlando. In Lakeland, you can get your hands around things,. You can go to the City Commission in Lakeland, Winter Haven, Bartow, and say, ‘Here are some things that we could use some help on,’ or ‘Here are some things that would be helpful to have.’”

And remembering and supporting our veterans isn’t the only goal Clark aims to achieve. He is thoroughly engaged in turning young citizens and leaders in our city. Clark sits on the Academy Advisory Board for a high school in Bartow and assists in securing  leadership training for students to prepare them to be future leaders in our community.

In this same vein, Clark also serves as Chair for Dennis Ross’ Service Academy Advisory Board, a board comprised of former officers, enlisted men and woman, and civilians to assist deserving young constituents who are seeking appointment to a United States Service Academy.

“Forty years ago if you would have asked me what a guy my age was doing, I would have quickly answered: ‘He’s retired!’,” Clark said. “Not me, now. I find that what I’m doing for the community is just for a way to help. All I’m trying to do is find a way for that to happen.”

For each organization Clark works with, for every Warrior Walk or Flight to Honor event, monument built, parade organized, for every young student Clark helps mold into a future leader, and for every veteran that is supported and helped up and ushered into a fulfilling life after service, our community has much to be grateful for. He’s pushed our community to be better. He’s pushed us to honor and support the men and women that have served our country in a way that’s meaningful, valuable, and never-ending.

That simple quote from Tocqueville’s book written so long ago perfectly captures Clark’s spirit and the courage, drive, vision, and selflessness of all of our CityMakers.

“There’s a spirit of independence in the American people. They don’t just wait around. If there was something needing to be done, they would do it.”