By ERIKA ANDERSON REDDING, Special to the Bulletin | Published August 4, 2016
ATLANTA—Bill Clarke isn’t ashamed of the term “senior citizen.” He’s empowered by it. And he’s passionate about helping Catholic leaders realize the significant contributions he and his fellow seniors can make to the church if given the opportunity.
The first time Clarke tried to retire, he was 55. After the third attempt, he realized he had a lot more to give.
“Everyone has to have something meaningful to do. For me, the idea of just waking up without anything to do just didn’t work. I tried, but I missed the working environment. I missed the sights and sounds of work. I missed my colleagues and clients,” he said. “More than anything, though, I missed that sense of accomplishment I felt every day.”
Clarke grew up in Dayton, Ohio, a member of the baby boomer generation whose father never made it home from World War II. His mother, he said, was extremely religious and raised him and his three sisters in a “sheltered Catholic environment,” where they learned the value of hard work.
“Life in the post-World War II era was spartan. We had no car, no TV. You really had no choice but to develop a strong work ethic,” he said.
Clarke received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Dayton and his master’s degree in business administration from Xavier University in Cincinnati. He also began a doctoral program and spent 10 years in active and reserve duty in the U.S. Army.
“Exceptional” family meets the challenge
He was young when he met his “first and only wife,” Patty. They married in 1960 and had five children—two with special needs. Their oldest son, Christopher, and youngest son, Jeffrey, were born with multiple handicaps, including mental retardation, cerebral palsy and vision problems.
Clarke said, “We cared for our special needs sons with the help of our children for over 30 years in our home and learned a great deal about the challenges and blessings of caring for two of God’s very special children. It has transformed our lives.” He added that the family has been involved for some 40 years with organizations that provide “much needed services for all the special people of the world.”
Many years ago the Clarke family was featured on the “Phil Donohue Show,” in a show entitled “The Exceptional Children.” The name, Clarke said, “came from a comment we made to Phil when he asked us what it was like to care for not one, but two, handicapped sons. We responded that we never thought of our sons as being handicapped, a somewhat negative term. We think of them as being exceptional.”
Clarke’s family suffered deep losses in recent years when his two other sons died. Matt, a management consultant like his father, was killed in a traffic accident in May 2014. Kevin, an accomplished golf professional, died suddenly in August 2015 of internal organ failure.
“Although our lives have been defined by the experiences with our special sons, Chris and Jeff, and the deaths of Kevin and Matt,” Clarke said, “We take comfort in the fact that four of our children have achieved their eternal reward, a goal for all parents. Although Chris and Jeff are still with us, they are not capable of committing sin so they will have a special place in heaven.”
Trying to retire
Clarke spent his young adult years balancing his career and his family. After he received his MBA, he said he had two things he wanted to do—become a professor or work in management consulting. He’s since done both. He worked for large companies, with his focus on business planning, strategy development, systems, logistics and marketing.
Clarke said he started his career with a small systems company in Dayton that specialized in inventory control systems. He sold that company and in 1979 became a management consultant, relocating to Atlanta to join a respected retail distribution and logistics consulting firm. Eventually he became a consulting partner working with some of the largest and best-known retailers in the world.
After years of success, he began his first retirement attempt.
“I thought I’d live a life of leisure—full of golf and travel and dining. But there’s much more to retirement than just retiring. I just missed being active and productive,” he said.
So Clarke came out of retirement to form his own consulting firm. He served as the CEO for a number of emerging or troubled companies. He also became an adjunct professor in business administration and marketing. At first, it was enough just to keep him busy—but soon the work took over his life.
“I was working too hard. It’s one thing to be active. It’s another thing to be crazy busy.”
An “old guy” like me
Clarke retired again. In 2012, he read an ad in The Georgia Bulletin seeking an associate director of professional development for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
“It was truly an answer to my prayers. During moments of silent reflection, I had heard God say, ‘You have helped all these companies. But what have you done for me?’” he said.
“But I wasn’t sure they’d want an old guy like me.”
Sure enough, they did. And Clarke began this new role with vigor, responding to Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory’s desire for professional development for those who serve in parishes. Part of the archdiocesan Office of Formation and Discipleship, Clarke has developed and implemented the program, which includes online study courses in the areas of communication, management and leadership, and personal growth. He has created a video library of 19 training sessions, each approximately 30 minutes long, on developing skills in listening, effective presentations, human relations, writing, stress management, planning and managing meetings, time management, servant leadership, team building, and coping with change, among other topics. They are available for parishes or individuals to use. In the past three years, Clarke also has hosted more than 25 “lunch and learn” sessions at the Chancery for people who work in the administration of the archdiocese.
“Archbishop Gregory wanted this professional program—90 percent of the people who work in our parishes are volunteers. And some of them are doing their jobs without training,” he said. “The mission of the professional development program is to elevate the skills of our pastors and parish leaders and parishioners. Because it’s online, it’s available 24/7.”
Clarke said the presentation about servant leadership is the most watched and requested. Now that the library of programs has been developed, he hopes to spend more time going out to parishes to lead sessions for volunteers and staff.
As a former retiree who is back in the workplace and training volunteers, Clarke gets to spend his time focusing on his passion to utilize other seniors who are ready and willing to give their time to the church.
“There are 78 million baby boomers out there—26 percent of the population are 55 and up—who are retiring at a rate of 10,000 per day. And there is an enormous asset that exists in our senior citizens,” he said. “We have the social aspect for this population—bingo and potlucks—but parishes aren’t utilizing this experience and wisdom.”
Because parishes rely so heavily on volunteers, Clarke said, tapping into the senior population is a smart choice.
“We need to reach out to our retired CEOs and COOs and talk to them about the issues that affect them and the church,” he said. “These seniors have the time, talent and treasure to make a difference. So why not cuddle up to this population? Seniors sometimes get put on the shelf because we don’t have the opportunity to demonstrate what we can really do.”
Clarke, a parishioner of St. Benedict Church in Johns Creek, has written a book called “Retirement Renaissance” and hopes that church leaders will notice the impact his generation can make.
“Seniors have the power to dramatically transform the church. We are a resource that many of our leaders have yet to identify,” he said.
Clarke has learned that he can be effective as a senior and believes others feel the same way.
“It’s the reason you’re not a grandfather when you’re young. You have to be ready to pass on your wisdom—and wisdom is a blending of age and experience over time.”