Admiral Vern Clark: looking to the future with time-tested values
By Scott Harrup
His predecessors include legends such as Admiral Chester Nimitz, who organized attacks against a confident Japanese Empire in the wake of Pearl Harbor and Admiral "31 Knot" Arleigh Burke, the U.S. Navys most famous destroyer squadron combat commander. The 27th Chief of Naval Operations in U.S. history, Admiral Vern Clark is leading the U.S. Navy into the 21st century. He readily admits he stands on the shoulders of 20th-century giants, including his immediate predecessor, Admiral Jay Johnson.
Clark shared this conviction with the crowds that gathered at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., on July 21 for the change-of-command ceremony in which he assumed his duties. "As I take the helm and assume this watch," he said, "Im not going to stand here, and Im not even interested, in some grandiose pronouncement about the future. Jay Johnson has led and turned over the best Navy in the world, and my intent is real simple to keep it that way."
But Admiral Clarks values are also tied to first-century giants, the greatest of whom is the central focus of his life. He is a committed Christian who without hesitation identifies Jesus Christ as his real anchor in life. The son of E.M. and Estella Clark, Vern was shaped by their Christlike values and counts it a privilege to have grown up in an Assemblies of God ministers home.
"My parents provided me with a rich and wonderful spiritual heritage," Clark says. "Their faith and love, coupled with the teachings of the church, no doubt set me on the right course for life."
In the 1950s, people who saw young Vern Clark probably never imagined him at the helm of the nations fleet. He appeared on weekend television spots with his older sister, Elaine, and younger brother, Larry, in The Clark Trio. They sang for their church South Side Assembly of God in Springfield, Mo. in the days when local television was still a novelty and still promoted wholesome values, even Christian faith. E.M. Clark directed the Radio Department of the Assemblies of God at the time. When he traveled in the summer, his children accompanied him and sang at camp meetings and churches.
"They used to sing, Goodbye, World, Goodbye, by Mosie Lister," says Revivaltime Choirs long-time director Cyril McLellan. "The song went over so well that I wrote an arrangement for the choir, and we later recorded it."
Clark was very involved in athletics. His Little League team won a regional pennant when he was 12. He participated in sports throughout his high school years.
When he was 16, Clark assisted a friend in holding a summer youth camp. It changed his life.
"He helped a man with a youth camp in the south part of Illinois when I was district superintendent there," says E.M. Clark. "There was a real outpouring of the Holy Spirit at that camp, an unusual outpouring. Hed always lived a Christian life, but this affected him. He talked to his mother about his commitment. He made a new consecration."
"Ill never forget that youth camp," says Clark. "It was a rich experience."
With high school completed, Clark attended Evangel College (now University) in Springfield, Mo. The center of his attention was a young Texan, Connie Nealy. They married when he was 19.
"I had a carload of girls going one way around the campus," Connie Clark says of their first meeting. "He and his roommate were going the other way, and we met on a speed bump." Football games, local stock car races (in which he competed) and other dates fueled the courtship. Their 36-year marriage has withstood the unique demands of Navy life.
"Your faith plays a big role," Connie says, looking back on the years she spent raising two sons, when their dad was often away on duty. "Our church family was such a help to us so many times."
When the Clarks graduated from Evangel, they initially supported themselves on Verns commissions as an insurance salesman. He entered the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and earned an MBA. Corporate America was calling.
But so was Uncle Sam. In 1968, with the Vietnam War in full swing, Clark would soon be subject to the draft. He chose the Navy.
"Separations were longer and harder in the early days," Connie says. "Today, theres e-mail, but during Vietnam we could only afford one phone call during a deployment which lasted nine months. It was just a 10-minute call. We would send each other cassette tapes so we did not forget what our loved ones voice sounded like."
Even from the start, "Vern got along well in the Navy," his father says. "On his first trip out, he was promoted to chief engineer." But the first tour of duty had not convinced Clark the Navy was his lifetime calling. He only made that discovery when he tried to leave.
"He moved to Minnesota when I was president of North Central Bible College," E.M. Clark says. "He got a good job and bought a house. But before the year was up, he felt definitely that he was to be in the Navy. We never did try to tell our kids what they should work in or that, because Im a preacher, they should be preachers." In the years since that crucial decision, E.M. Clark has watched his son pursue his Navy career as an unwavering calling.
"Through the years I have learned to trust," Admiral Clark says. "A new assignment comes along every two years or so in the military. I just stopped asking for particular jobs. The Good Book says, Man cannot chart his own course. I just go through open doors. If I had studied, if I had manipulated, if I had worked all the angles, I could have never been prepared as well as I have been, in terms of experience, for the challenges I have faced along the way. It is amazing how it has turned out ... and nobody could have predicted this."
Gods leading moved Clark from one promotion to another in rapid succession. Starting his career in destroyers, Admiral Clark served aboard USS John W. Weeks (DD 701) and USS Gearing (DD 710). Then as a Lieutenant, he moved to his first command, USS Grand Rapids (PG 98). He subsequently commanded USS McCloy (FF 1038), USS Spruance (DD 963), the Atlantic Fleets Anti-Submarine Warfare Training Center, Destroyer Squadron Seventeen, Destroyer Squadron Five, the Carl Vinson Battle Group/Cruiser Destroyer Group Three, the Second Fleet and the United States Atlantic Fleet.
"Every time theres been a crisis, hes called us to pray and had the church pray," his father says.
"I have found plenty of opportunities to practice my belief in prayer," Clark says. "The Navy offers incredible challenge. When we get placed in positions of leadership we are responsible for mission accomplishment, for the manner in which our nation is represented, for the conduct of people who are assigned to our commands, and for outcomes, which can include matters of life and death. The Scriptures say, We have not because we ask not. I have learned the wisdom of asking for wisdom, for guidance ... and for help."
Today, as Chief of Naval Operations, Clark is the senior military officer of the Department of the Navy. The CNO is a four-star admiral and is responsible to the Secretary of the Navy for the command, utilization of resources and operating efficiency of the Navy. A member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CNO is the principal naval adviser to the President and to the Secretary of the Navy on the conduct of war, and is the principal adviser and naval executive to the Secretary on the conduct of activities of the Department of the Navy.
Admiral Vern Clark is grateful he can rely on the God of his youth to help him face the challenges of today and create an even greater Navy of tomorrow. He feels honored to serve the men and women who protect the United States on the worlds oceans. He believes the sacrifices made by heroes of every branch of the military have been worthwhile, allowing America to continue as "one nation under God," a beacon of freedom to a world often troubled by darkness.
"My mother and father taught me the meaning of service," he says. "Giving ourselves, being part of something bigger than ourselves all this has deep spiritual underpinning. I feel honored to be called to serve our nation in a capacity like this. I have a goal in my sights: When this task is finished, I want to be found faithful. All I want people to say is, He served well. "
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