Profile: Silencing the Doubters
Toastmaster founds National Hall of Fame
for Persons with Disabilities.
By Julie Bawden Davis
John Clark Jr. is grateful for the word “can’t.” Without it, the disabled Toastmaster might not have accomplished all that he has.
“When I hear doubt in people’s voices or they tell me I can’t do something, I get really inspired and I like proving them wrong,” says Clark, who is partially paralyzed on his right side and has a speech impediment. He uses a cane to walk. An automobile accident at age two led to three months in a coma and a brain hemorrhage, causing his disabilities.
In the mid-1970s, Clark created the National Hall of Fame for Persons with Disabilities. He started the organization to educate people about how valuable the disabled population can be to society. A nonprofit based in Columbus, Ohio, it’s designed to honor outstanding disabled Americans for their achievements and contributions to humanity.
Clark was first inspired to act after getting laid off from a job he’d held for nine years and then trying to no avail – for a year – to land another position. Taking his knowledge of the challenges facing the disabled, he started working on the local level and fighting for their rights.
By 1979, he’d moved up to the Ohio state level, and at that point he had the idea for the Hall of Fame.
“I called every state’s Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation and told them what I wanted to do,” recalls Clark. “No state in the country had a Hall of Fame for the handicapped, so I decided to go national with the idea. Some of the various state agencies told me they didn’t think I could do it because of my disability, but they didn’t know how tenacious I am, and their doubt made me try even harder.
“That was a very exciting time for me. As things came together, I realized that I had the strength and courage to do what needed to be done and make my vision a reality.”
Launching the Hall
By June 1981, Clark had acquired tax-exempt status for the Hall, and in October 1983 the nonprofit had its first induction ceremony. To date the organization has had 17 such ceremonies and inducted nearly 100 people from 25 states.
Clark, who uses public transportation to get to places, joined Toastmasters in 2002 at the advice of a friend who felt he would benefit from the experience, since Clark was increasingly called on to speak for the Hall of Fame. A member of the Greater Columbus Toastmasters in Columbus, Ohio, Clark says Toastmasters has made him a better speaker and also helped with his speech impediment. “In the past, people made fun of me because I have difficulty speaking, but no one in Toastmasters has ever done that,” he notes. “As a result, I was able to improve.”
Rick Driscoll, a fellow member of the Greater Columbus club, says, “Despite the fact that it’s 10 times harder for him to talk than it would be for you or me, John has grown quite adept at speaking in public and getting his point across.”
Those who have been honored by the National Hall of Fame for Persons with Disabilities include Helen Keller and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who both were recognized posthumously. In 2004, the Hall honored Susan Dickinson, who is hard of hearing and chairs the Colorado Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. At the 2000 induction ceremony, Clark himself was surprised when the group honored him for his efforts and accomplishments.
As the longtime CEO of the organization, Clark worked tirelessly to bring about recognition for the disabled and their accomplishments. In October 1985, at the Hall’s third induction ceremony, he started a tradition of presenting each inductee with a letter of congratulations from the current president of the United States. In a letter dated October 22, 1985, President Ronald Reagan honored the inductees and Clark when he wrote, “I congratulate the Hall’s founder, John Clark Jr., and those who work with him to search out disabled persons whose achievements will be an inspiration to others like them, and indeed to all Americans.”
Serving up business savvy
While building up the Hall, Clark also earned a college degree in business management with a Social Services minor. Those who have worked with him praise his business acumen.
“John is a real go-getter with a great sense of humor who never lets his handicap slow him down, even though it’s hard for him to get around,” says Bill Morrow, another member of the Greater Columbus Toastmasters. “Through the Hall of Fame, he has made a difference in many lives and how the public views people with disabilities. For example, he often has TV anchors from local stations attend and emcee the awards ceremonies, which results in television coverage.”
In 2007, Clark was president of the Greater Columbus club and thinking about trying to become an area governor. In order to have enough time for such a position, he decided to retire as CEO of the Hall of Fame the following January, after 28 years in that job. He became Area 13 governor in the Central division of district 40, and served until his term ended in June.
Merle Shinault, past District 40 governor and a member of the Nationwide Insurance club in Columbus, Ohio, notes his initial reservations about giving Clark a shot at being an area governor.
“I have to admit that when I first met John, I was really concerned about his ability to get around, and wondered if he could participate to the level necessary to feel fulfilled by the experience,” Shinault says. “Once I started observing him, however, and noted his huge interest in the program and his ability to get along with people and make contacts, I began to think that he could take on the position.
“My instincts were right: He has done a fantastic job as area governor. I can honestly say that he has an indomitable spirit….He’s already proven to me that he can do more than I ever imagined.”
One person who isn’t surprised at all about Clark’s success is Clark himself.
“Even though I have some limitations, I never let them stop me from pursuing my goals in life,” he says. “I really believe that anyone – even individuals with disabilities – can reach their dreams if they are sincere about them and are willing to go the extra mile to achieve them.”
For more information about the National Hall of Fame for Persons with Disabilities, Inc., contact John Clark Jr. at email@example.com.
Julie Bawden Davis is a freelance writer based in Southern California and a longtime contributor to the Toastmaster. You can reach her at Julie@JulieBawdenDavis.com.