Clarke remembered as statesman

September 22, 2003

Joe Clarke, a longtime Danville attorney who gained a reputation during his nearly three decades in the Kentucky General Assembly as the "ultimate statesman" and an "unparalleled budget expert," died Sunday at his home at 109 Berwick Drive. He was 70.

Clarke died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest, Boyle County Coroner Dr. James W. Ramey said today. A handgun was found near Clarke's body, he said.

Ramey said Charlene Booth, whom he identified as a friend of Clarke's, found the body. He estimated the time of death at 7 p.m. Sunday.

Ramey said that no autopsy is planned "at this time."

Danville police received a call about 7:50 p.m. Sunday from a friend of Clarke's family after Clarke had failed to show up at church.


Clarke, a Democrat, served from 1970-98 as 54th District representative. The current district includes Boyle and Washington counties, but at one time during his tenure it included Boyle and Lincoln counties and at another time, Boyle and Marion counties. Mike Harmon, R-Junction City, currently represents the district.

For 20 of his 28 years in the House, Clarke served as chairman of the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee. He served as speaker of the House in 1993 and 1994. As A and R chairman, he wielded considerable influence over the legislature's budget-making - influence he shared with former state Sen. Mike Moloney, a Fayette County Democrat who was Clarke's counterpart in the Senate.

"If you go back through the modern history of the legislature, back even to the 1940's when my father served there, and rank the top five legislators during that time, Joe Clarke would be among those five, if not at the top," said Moloney, a Lexington attorney.

Moloney and Clarke were nicknamed the "gloom and doom boys" for their blunt evaluations of the state's budget situation during lean revenue years.

"We worked together on budget issues for nearly 20 years and, during that time, I found him to be an unparalleled budget expert with superior knowledge of the process. I know I learned a lot from him," said Moloney.

"I and most of the rest of the legislature admired Joe for his intelligence, integrity and hard work. He was respected also by the public and the media for these same qualities. I will miss him. The state will miss him."

State Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, longtime representative of Boyle and Mercer counties, said he was able to work closely with Clarke on common concerns, despite their different party affiliations.

"Joe always had the welfare of the entire state in mind any time he evaluated the budget or a piece of legislation," said Buford, who served on committees with Clarke and also attended several legislative breakfasts held by the Danville-Boyle County Chamber of Commerce on Saturdays.

"He also looked out for his home community and made sure Danville got its fair share of projects," Buford said.

Clarke was "frank and to the point" and was "rarely political in his decision-making," the senator said.

"Many legislators go to Frankfort as politicians and stay politicans. Joe Clarke went to Frankfort and became a statesman - the ultimate statesman."

George M. McClure III, a semi-retired attorney who served for years as Boyle County attorney, knew Clarke when the two were children.

"Joe was just a year and a half older than me, and we played together as neighbors on South Fourth Street," McClure said. "He was a great friend, and we had a lot of fun together, but even then you could tell he was going to be something special. After all, he was an Eagle Scout, having attained that status at one of the youngest ages ever.

"When you talk of Joe Clarke, you need a lot of superlatives. A couple that come quickly to my mind are that he was an overwhelmingly honest person and a man of great personal and professional integrity."

Younger public officials also admired Clarke, including Boyle County Judge-Executive Tony Wilder.

"He was one of those public figures I looked up to as a role model, and I did so when I first got into politics and public service back in the 1980's," said Wilder, chairman of the Boyle County Democratic Party.

"Most recently, we had been working together on the Ben Chandler governor campaign, and I was still impressed with his loyalty to his party and community and, above all, good government. He was, first and foremost, committed to public service and for the right reasons.

"This community, this commonwealth, will sorely and deeply miss Joe Clarke."

Clarke, who was born March 12, 1933, in Danville, was a graduate of Danville High School. He received a bachelor degree from Notre Dame University and a law degree from Georgetown University. He performed patent law in Washington, D.C., for a while before returning to Danville to practice law.

Central Kentucky News Articles