In today’s workforce, it is expected that a person will change careers five to seven times in a lifetime. Now, contrast that with landing a job that you like early in your career and having the conviction to stay for 50 years.
It seems almost unimaginable in today’s fickle world of work, but that’s exactly what happened with history professor Malcolm Clark. In 1966, Clark was working on his doctorate at Georgetown University when his professor, Richard Walsh, suggested he look at the College of Charleston. Walsh, himself a graduate of the College’s Class of 1949, told Clark he thought he would like the school’s atmosphere.
As it happened, there were two vacancies in the history department, and so Clark sent over his dossier. After landing an interview with then-President Walter Raleigh Coppedge, Clark, ever the history buff, went home to the public library in Washington, D.C., to read up on his prospective institution’s history.
The College and the city held a lot of interest for Clark, who didn’t hesitate to accept Coppedge’s offer to work there. “I remember thinking, after being appointed as assistant professor in the history department, that if I like it here, I would put down roots and stay here for the rest of my career. And I did,” he says with a laugh.
When Clark arrived, Charleston was a different place than the bustling city we know today. East Bay and King streets were empty, businesses had moved to the suburbs and the town, he says, could almost be described as “provincial.”
The College was also different. It was a private institution when Clark arrived, and enrolled only 373 students. And though the College accepts more students today, Clark admires that the classes still maintain a sense of intimacy.
As much as things have changed, however, the past is always relevant — something he stresses in all his classes.
“Students need to have some familiarity with the past, because so much that is occurring today — and the response that is being made to it — seems to be done without the knowledge a historian has,” says Clark. “A knowledge of the past seems to clarify possible routes that will be taken in a contemporary situation.”
Clark points to the Cuban Missile Crisis and how the military policies and tactics of the past determined the actions President John F. Kennedy took in 1962.
“At the beginning of the crisis, the demand was to get the Soviet missiles out of Cuba, and those who thought this was a priority were ready to demand military action – force was the first thing put forward. But President Kennedy and four or five members of his executive committee were contemplating what the possible consequences would be for each one of these steps. The other alternative, of course, was diplomacy. They merged both of these possibilities and applied the appropriate pressure to the Soviet Union, but not so much that they would resort to a nuclear response. The blockade was the device adopted to prevent more missiles from coming in and possibly allowing the Soviets to turn and remove what had already been put in,” Clark explains. “Kennedy was a student of history, and that was a very important factor in the approach that he made.”
Although his love of history is evident (note the history lesson he snuck in), Clark’s passion for seeing students succeed has been his biggest motivator over the last five decades.
“I rejoice that I have had some excellent students, and that they have gone on to very successful careers and good lives as good citizens,” says Clark. “I count that as a blessing. That’s the great reward that comes to teachers – the fruit is in what happens to the students.”
And, even if Clark’s students go on to change careers seven times, he knows they’ll always carry with them an appreciation for the past. He’s been making sure of that for 50 years.