Beth Pendleton Clark '35

 

no excuses

Beth Pendleton Clark '35 had every excuse not to succeed.

Family tragedies and prejudices shadowed her life, presenting her with challenges that could have left her bitter and defeated.

Beth Pendleton Clark '35 and her roommate Honey.
Beth Pendleton Clark '35 and her roommate Honey.
Two months after she married, she learned her new husband had a terminal disease. Years later cancer claimed her son.

Despite these painful losses, Clark pursued a career in ministry, healing others while she healed herself. In the decades following her Colby education, Clark earned three degrees from seminaries in Boston and Pennsylvania. Along the way she also broke a few gender barriers.

She was the first woman to receive her doctoral degree in ministry from Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, and while working as interim minister she often found herself preaching to parishes that had never listened to a woman in the pulpit.

"Some people objected strenuously," Clark said. "But most were very nice, and it certainly helped that I had the training and support to succeed."

Clark's spiritual and leadership training began when she was growing up in Waterville. Her father, John Pendleton, worked as executive director of the Baptist Association of Maine. He traveled the state, delivering sermons and working with individual Baptist churches. Clark often accompanied her father, marveling at his talent to unite people of all faiths and make them laugh.

Her father believed that all three of his children, including his two daughters, should receive a college education. Clark and her siblings enrolled at Colby.

"Minister's children got half off their tuition, but it was still a hard time to be paying for school during the Great Depression," Clark said. "I can still remember my father sitting in his chair, counting his pennies when he got home from work."

Clark majored in sociology at Colby because she wanted to help people. After she graduated she enrolled in the Andover Newton Theological School intending to study religious education. After she met her future husband, John Clark, she decided to join him and become a minister. She received a bachelor's degree in 1938. Two months after they married, Clark learned that her new husband had a terminal kidney disease.

"For fifteen years I knew he was going to die," Clark said, "and during that time I was trying to get myself into a position where I could raise my children and face life without my husband."

In the years after her husband's death, Clark continued to study ministry, earning her master's at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (now Palmer Theological Seminary) in 1968 and her doctorate from Lancaster in 1981. "At the time, men didn't even want to have a woman as a professor," Clark said. "It was unusual for a woman to get a doctoral degree then."

In one church, a man stalked out after learning that a woman minister would be speaking. This sort of reaction didn't bother Clark. "My father and husband always supported me, and if someone rejected me, I always thought they were the ones with the problem," she said.

In between preaching Clark worked other jobs to help support her children and pay for their college educations. "It wasn't easy, but you just have to rely on your strength and faith," she said

Years later Clark had to fall back on her faith once again. She lost her son to lung cancer, and her daughter was diagnosed with the same kidney disease that claimed Clark's husband. At age 81 Clark didn't think twice about what she needed to do: she donated a kidney to her daughter, Beverly Daggett.

Her mother's gift allowed Daggett to transcend her own gender barriers while serving in the Maine Legislature. In 2002 Daggett's colleagues elected her as the first woman president of the Maine State Senate. "When you have a mother with a strong personality, it helps you to persevere the bumps in the road," Daggett said.

Now 93, Beth Clark doesn't dwell on "bumps in the road." And she isn't ready to "give up living" yet. She reads passionately, laughs often, and talks about the importance of peace "to anyone who will listen."

"Doggone it," she said. "I'm not going to quit doing things."

—Barbara Walsh