In Memoriam: Jerry Clack

(Republished from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

In a career that lasted over 70 years, Jerry Clack wore many different hats.

From a youthful stint at the Swedish Legation in Washington and four years with UNESCO to public relations and accounting positions with AAA, Coca-Cola and the American Heart Association, he went on to assume directorship of Allegheny County’s chapter of The March of Dimes in 1953. His 15-year tenure with March of Dimes saw the development of two anti-polio vaccines, that of Jonas Salk at University of Pittsburgh and the oral vaccine of Albert Sabin.

Mr. Clack died Monday at Shadyside Hospital due to heart failure.

The son of Mildred Taylor Van Dyke of Pittsburgh and Christopher Thrower Clack of Boydton, Virginia, Mr. Clack was born in New York City on July 22, 1926. Because his father was a foreign representative of the Pittsburgh-based Blaw-Knox Company, he spent his early years in Europe, mostly in London and Dusseldorf. After his father’s death, he returned with his mother to Pittsburgh, attending the Fulton School and Peabody High School.

Upon gaining admission to Princeton University, where he received an undergraduate degree in Classics in 1946, he pursued graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh, earning a Ph.D. in Classics in 1962. In 1968, Mr. Clack was appointed Professor of Classic Languages at Duquesne University, chairing the Classics Department from 1973-75 and again from 1980-83. Referring to his Latin class at Duquesne, one student posted on ratemyprofessors.com: “Take him, he makes his classes short and funny.”

Mr. Clack’s sense of humor endeared him to his friends and family. “He was one of those people with a wicked sense of humor, sometimes a little black,” said Mark Mazur, a mathematics professor at Duquesne University and close friend of Mr. Clack’s. “He was very clever, plays on words and so forth. That was his trademark.”

Matthew Santirocco, former dean of New York University’s College of Arts and Sciences, wrote of Mr. Clack that he demonstrated “that classicists can still uphold standards of civility in scholarly discourse” and that “the luxury of scholarship and the joy of teaching carry with them the responsibility of serving the profession and the larger community.”

He also published widely in this field. In addition to scholarly articles, he produced four textbooks on the subject of Hellenistic poetry and epigrams. He won numerous awards for his scholarly research, but his first love was opera – first and foremost the operas of Wagner and Richard Strauss. He made annual visits to the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, Germany, called himself an opera fanatic and prided himself on a record collection that included at least one version of every opera available on CD, tape or DVD.

After his retirement from Duquesne in 2011, Mr. Clack pursued his lifelong interest in opera by becoming a board member of what is now Pittsburgh Festival Opera, this city’s smaller but highly active opera company. Eventually elected chairman of the board, Mr. Clack created and underwrote an annual Richard Strauss festival, that began with a revival of “Ariadne auf Naxos” in 2014. The Strauss Festival has produced local premieres of neglected or unfamiliar works by his favorite composer every year since.

“As chairman of the board meetings, he would open the meetings not with a tedious discussion of the budget or programming but by giving us a little lecture on some arcane portion of the operatic repertoire,” said Jonathan Eaton, artistic director of Pittsburgh Festival Opera. “Some might look at him and think of him as an eccentric, but he wasn’t. He was very passionate, and he wasn’t afraid of his passions.”

In 2017, Mr. Clack put up money for a matching grant that would fund a revival of Festival Opera’s mini-version of Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle, created for the company by British composer Jonathan Dove 10 years earlier. This revival began in 2018 with “Der Ring des Nibelungen” and will continue with one opera each summer and culminating with the entire four-opera cycle in 2021.

“He was an unusual man,” said Mildred Miller Posvar, 94, co-founder of Festival Opera and a former Metropolitan Opera star. “He was wonderful, with his dry wit and his lectures at the board meetings. It’s a great loss.”

Mr. Clack was also an ardent political activist for liberal causes that included among others, Citizens for Global Solution, and the Pennsylvania Chapter of the ACLU. He is survived by his husband, Julian Gil, who lives in Shadyside.

Mr. Clack wished that his epitaph be a farewell used by actors in Roman comedies:

Nunc, spectatores, valete et nobis clare plaudite. “Now, spectators, fare you well, and give us loud applause.”

---

(Photo: "Candle" by Shawn Carpenter, licensed under CC BY 2.0)   

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