Judge John E. Clark was thoughtful, fair

John E. Clark

Judge John E. Clark was as modest and no-nonsense as the black robe he wore.

“What you saw was what you got with him,” said Tom Riley, Douglas County public defender. “He lived and breathed the courthouse. He was thoughtful, reasonable — and I always found him to be fair.”

Clark, who died Saturday at age 88, devoted his career to public service. He had a healthy respect for the law and an even healthier ability to distinguish reason from drivel, colleagues said.

Bob Sigler, a longtime prosecutor in Douglas County and now in the U.S. Attorney's Office, recalled a time that he and a defense attorney squared off before a murder trial in Clark's courtroom. The attorney had made a few motions in limine — which are pretrial attempts to get a judge to limit trial testimony.

Clark listened to the arguments, then said, according to Sigler: “These motions in limine are a bunch of crap anyway. I'll just rule on the evidence as it comes in.”

That straightforward approach defined much of Clark's life. A World War II veteran, Clark was part of one of the largest classes admitted to Creighton Law School. He and about 100 others — many of them World War II veterans — enrolled in 1948 and graduated in 1951.

Clark went on to become an FBI agent in New York and Pennsylvania before returning to Omaha to work for one of his law school classmates, Douglas County Attorney Donald “Pinky” Knowles.

After serving as a prosecutor, Clark was elected a Municipal Court judge in 1960. In 1972, he was appointed a Douglas County district judge. He retired from the bench in 1994.

John Clark had a difficult childhood, growing up during the Great Depression, said his daughter Kathryn Clark of Omaha.

His father died when he was young — leaving his mother to raise Clark and his brother Tom. Clark helped support his family by working as a magazine carrier and later as a soda jerk at Reed Ice Cream in north Omaha.

A graduate of Tech High School and the first in his family to graduate from college, Clark loved literature and language. His children recalled times that he would gather the kids — daughters Kathryn and Mary Jane, and sons Jim and Bill — on the bed and read them books such as “Treasure Island” or “Toby Tyler.”

And after days spent reviewing legal briefs, he would review his children's homework.

“If he didn't find it acceptable, he made us redo it,” said daughter Kathryn Clark, who owns a public relations firm in Omaha. “He really instilled in us a love of learning.”

In Kathryn's case, that education led her to major in English and journalism — and led to an internship at the Daily Record, a local newspaper.

During that internship, she got a scoop: Her father had been named presiding judge of Douglas County's district judges. She called to interview him.

“No comment,” he said.

She wrote about his appointment anyway — and included his “no comment.” The judge — er, dad — wasn't happy.

“Why would you print something like that?” he later asked his daughter.

Kathryn Clark said her father “was just very, very humble.”

So humble that, until he suffered a stroke in July, he lived in the same modest ranch house in Benson in which he and his wife, Patricia, raised their family. Patricia died in 1999.

So humble that he didn't talk much about his war service (he was a Navy radio operator) or his cases on the bench — including his most notable case, that of current death-row inmate Carey Dean Moore.

Outside court, Clark could “take a joke and tell a joke,” Sigler said. “He knew how to laugh.”

Inside court, some attorneys called him “Maximum John,” but that moniker “was a bunch of baloney,” Riley said.

Said Sigler: “The conventional wisdom was he was a prosecutor's judge, but I never saw it that way. He came off as kind of crusty but he was really fair.”

Sigler recalled times where Clark would enter the courtroom with a yellow piece of paper listing the sentence he planned on giving. Then, after listening to the attorneys and the defendant, he would crumple it in a ball and toss it aside.

“A judge should call them as he sees them,” Clark once told The World-Herald. “He shouldn't worry about whether he'll be affirmed or reversed.”

“He knew the difference between a defendant who had just screwed up and someone who was a longtime threat,” Riley said. “He listened, looked people right in the eye and explained himself.

“He was just a very fair, sincere person.”

Clark is survived by his four children, Jim, Bill and Kathryn Clark of Omaha and Mary Jane Rasher of Highlands Ranch, Colo.

His funeral will be at 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Bernard Catholic Church, 65th Street and Military Avenue.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1275, todd.cooper@owh.com

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