The large crowd was paying to tribute to a man who had served in the state House from 1970-98 with more than two decades of that time spent as chairman of the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee and two years as speaker. Locally, he served on numerous boards, including those of the Boyle County Industrial Foundation and Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center. He also held leadership positions with SS. Peter and Paul and Boyle Scout Troop 119.
Former Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. explained the outpouring of sympathy by comparing Clarke to another famous native Kentuckian.
"Joe was probably the worst politician since Abraham Lincoln. But like Lincoln, he quietly got it done," said Brown, who was governor from 1979-83, in an interview before the service.
"I didn't know Joe well, but I knew him well enough to know that he was a tireless worker, a man who would listen instead of just talk, like most politicians, a man who really worked hard for the common good of all the people of the commonwealth.
"I have been around Kentucky politics, myself and through my dad (the late John Y. Brown Sr.), since the 1940s, and Joe Clarke, a man of impeccable integrity and honesty, a non-politician of a politician, was without a doubt the most outstanding public servant of my time."
Brown said the location of the service was appropriate given that SS. Peter and Paul is across the street from a monument to Kentucky government, Constitution Square State Historic Site. He noted the statue in the middle of Governor's Circle at the site.
"The pioneer and statesman. That's Joe Clarke," said Brown. "He was a pioneer of legislative independence and reform. He was the consummate statesman."
Brown later was one of the people to deliver eulogies, along with P. Joseph "Sam" Clarke III, the oldest of Clarke's four sons; Guy Richardson, who was Clarke's longtime campaign treasurer; and former Boyle County Attorney George M McClure III, whose friendship with Clarke began when they were children.
In addition to Brown, also attending the service was a fellow Democrat seeking to become the next governor, Attorney General Ben Chandler. Clarke was co-chairman of the Boyle County for Chandler committee. Former Speaker of the House Don Blandford, whom Clarke succeeded as speaker, also was there.
Centre was as well represented as the Governor's Mansion. Centre President John Roush and former president Tom Spragens attended, along with several Centre faculty. Clarke, a Notre Dame and Georgetown University graduate, received an honorary degree from Centre.
In addition to the eulogies, several people offered unofficial tributes to Clarke on the sidewalk outside before and after the Mass.
"I recall Joe as a devoted dad. I grew up with his sons and was in the same Boy Scout Troop, 119, as they were," said stock broker Mike Perros. "He was a good dad, a good lawyer and public servant, an overall good-hearted man."
Stephen Ellis of Trooper 119 got to know Clarke as a fellow Scout leader. When Ellis became involved with the troop in 1986, he had heard all about Clarke's prominence, not only in scouting but in law and public service.
"I got the idea that Joe was a real pillar of this community and, while that was true, I learned that he also was a regular fellow and really a pretty quiet man, a leader by example type," Ellis said.
"He used to have the troop come out every year to his property on Minor's Branch Road to a spot he called the T&R Ranch. That stood for ticks and rattlesnakes. He'd also join us for hikes in the Cumberland Gap," Ellis said. "He was always there, whether it was teaching the Scouts about rights and responsibilities, cooking sauce for our annual spaghetti dinner or just hiking around."
John Caywood, owner of the Derby Shoppe and Raggs, which are down the street from Clarke's law office on South Third Street, recalls how busy Clarke was when the legislature was in session.