The Story of A. James Clark
Before Mr. Clark, the philanthropist; before Mr. Clark, the builder and business leader; there was the young man and student. The late chairman and CEO of Clark Enterprises spent his life building an empire in the construction industry, but he never forgot his start as an engineering student at the University of Maryland.
Coming from a family of modest means, he hitchhiked his way each day from his family’s home in Bethesda, Maryland, to College Park to pursue a degree in civil engineering. The year was 1946. His classes were held in Skinner Hall; he would have eaten lunch in what is today LaFrak Hall or on McKeldin Mall. Unable to afford to live on campus, he paid only for his textbooks and used library copies when he couldn’t afford his own. His university education was made possible by a state scholarship, a fact he never forgot—and would pay forward time and again.
In his later years, Mr. Clark liked to share his hitchhiking story with the students he would meet whose scholarships he funded. “Mr. Clark spoke with students as if he were still a student,” says University of Maryland President Darryll J. Pines, “and they loved it.” He told students that a scholarship funded the education that set him on his career path, and he owed a lot in return. He gave back, and he hoped that the students he helped would follow his example and use their engineering training to benefit their communities.
Courtney Clark Pastrick, chair of the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation, recalls her father’s view on education: “Dad always said that education changes lives, and his education changed his life.”
He didn’t look or act like your typical construction magnate. “You could pass Mr. Clark in the hallway and not know it,” says Pines. “He wanted it that way. He wanted to be behind the scenes, to do good work, but not necessarily to be recognized for it.”
At the same time, he was absolutely driven to succeed. Shortly after graduating from UMD in 1950, he was hired as a field engineer by the Bethesda, Maryland-based George Hyman Construction Company. Over the next 60 years, Mr. Clark grew the company into one of the largest construction firms in the nation: Clark Construction. Of the construction industry, Mr. Clark said, “If you do it right, you will build structures that will be there for future generations.”
He did it right. The company he grew now claims a portfolio of more than 2,000 projects from coast to coast. Clark Construction has transformed the landscape of the nation’s capital, from Nationals Park to L’Enfant Plaza, and, most recently, the National Museum of African American History & Culture. At UMD, the company has built or renovated 27 structures. More important than his portfolio, Mr. Clark developed an esteemed company on the core values that got him through college: hard work, integrity, and respect.
It speaks volumes about his generosity that student success, not structures, stands as Mr. Clark’s legacy at UMD. A proud alumnus, he believed strongly in education and often quoted his mentor and friend Benjamin Rome: “Young people are our future. If we don’t invest in their education, what kind of future will we have?”
In that spirit, Mr. Clark gave generously to his alma mater. Professor Emeritus George Dieter, dean of the engineering school at UMD in the early 1980s, recalls connecting with Mr. Clark shortly after he became head of his construction business—before there was much interaction between the university and industry. “Out of the blue, Mr. Clark gave our school the funds to establish a chair position in construction engineering,” says Dieter. “Then, once a year, I’d go to Mr. Clark’s office and talk with him. He was very interested in undergraduate engineering education; he wanted to know what—and how—our professors were teaching our students to be tomorrow’s engineers.”
As his business grew, so did his philanthropy. In 1994, Mr. Clark donated $15 million in support of undergraduate engineering education at UMD, for scholarships and programs such as career services, to create all-around successful graduates. In recognition of his generosity and his leadership in the field of civil engineering, the college was named the A. James Clark School of Engineering. Known for his humility, Mr. Clark said the naming was “the most meaningful honor I will ever receive.”
In 2005, he established a $30 million endowment to provide financial support for Clark School undergraduates. His investment strengthened the university’s ability to attract the most talented students and helped address a national shortage of highly trained engineers.
Mr. Clark’s support of students stemmed from his values, says Herb Rabin, who served as interim dean of the Clark School twice during the 1990s and 2000s. Mr. Clark’s own scholarship to attend UMD influenced his giving back, says Rabin. “However, I believe his generosity was deeply embedded in his personal character.”
Mr. Clark’s ongoing relationship with his alma mater brought honor and recognition to the Clark School. “Mr. Clark was an exceptional engineer and industry leader,” says Rabin. “His relationship with the Clark School conveyed an extremely positive message to our students— and to entire communities in Maryland and beyond.”
With an eye on the future of engineering, Mr. Clark invested in Maryland yet again in 2012 with a naming gift to support the design and construction of A. James Clark Hall, headquarters to the Fischell Department of Bioengineering and the Robert E. Fischell Institute for Biomedical Devices. The new home for human health and innovation, which opened for classes in 2018, is the first building on campus to bear the name of the legendary builder and leader: A. James Clark.
Legend to Legacy
The construction icon passed away on March 20, 2015. Dieter and other university leaders including former University President Wallace D. Loh, along with many UMD faculty, staff, and students, took buses from campus to attend the funeral at Washington National Cathedral. Walking up the cathedral’s long center aisle, what impressed Dieter wasn’t the presence of Washington, D.C., business luminaries, but the other 1,000 men and women in attendance. “Most of the people there were Mr. Clark’s construction workers,” he says.
By living every day by the values he espoused—honesty, integrity, and dedication to quality—Mr. Clark had earned unwavering loyalty from all his employees. Clark Enterprises President Robert J. Flanagan recalls the National Cathedral service. Of the many Clark Construction employees who were there paying their respects, he says, “If you asked them who they worked for, they would say, ‘Jim’—not the company, not Clark Construction. They worked for Jim Clark.”
Honoring Mr. Clark means more than remembering our alumnus and benefactor: it means following his mandate to give back to the communities where he built his success; it means ensuring the success of the next generation.
Today, the philanthropic A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation, a private organization funded by the A. James Clark family and managed by its President and CEO Joe Del Guercio, carries on Mr. Clark’s values through several charitable focuses: engineering scholarship, education and community investments across the D.C. metro area, and veterans support.