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The Courageous Career of William Harry Clarke: "Music Does Something for the Soul"

Written by Renee Collins Cobb, M.Ed. and Warren Cobb, B.A.

UK Professor Emeritus William Harry Clarke, who is 80 years old, retired as a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Music in 2011 after 43 years of service there. He was the Director of Bands for 21 of those years beginning in 1968. Room 17 Productions, Inc., a 501c3 non-profit organization has been telling the stories of Kentucky music and education through a project showcasing the career stories of UK Professors at the University of Kentucky Louie B Nunn Center for Oral History.

Professor Emeritus William Harry Clarke is a significant and very important figure in Kentucky music, civic and education history, both as a teacher AND a public servant. More specifically, he has served as faculty member at UK for 43 years, Director of The UK School of Music and later a city council member and member of boards for The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, as an inspiration to students, fellow faculty members, Kentucky high school music educators, the Lexington arts community, and the citizens of Lexington during his many successful careers over the period of six decades. We, the Executive Directors at Room 17 Productions, and the UK Alumni Band salute the robust and inspirational career journey of William Harry Clarke.

Steven Moore, one of his former students who now serves as Associate Dean, Undergraduate Studies, Frost School of Music, University of Miami. Coral Gables, Florida told us "Harry Clarke has made an indelible imprint on music in Kentucky and beyond. While it is probably impossible to list that which is most significant among his many achievements, I believe that Harry Clarke has had a momentous impact upon music education in Kentucky through teacher training. For over four decades, Harry Clarke has employed innovative educational methods in courses at the University of Kentucky. Each year he has graduated dozens of music educators and has trained generations of music teachers in all levels of music. He integrated courses in conducting, repertoire, and educational methodology that provided state-of-the-art instruction. The results have been amazing and far-reaching. Mr. Clarke’s students have led successful careers throughout the state of Kentucky and all around the nation. In many cases his students have been called to national leadership positions. A listing of students would be too long, but allow me to mention just a few as representative of his impact: Patrick Dunnigan, Director of Bands, Florida State University and President of the College Band Directors National Association, John Laverty, Director of Bands, Syracuse University and Gordon Henderson, Director of Bands and Department of Music Vice Chair, UCLA". This is just to name a few....

"Furthermore, Harry Clarke has had tremendous impact as a mentor. As a conductor, musician, and educator, he has encouraged and inspired thousands of people, many of whom are music educators. I am proud to count myself as one of them." ---Dr. Steven Moore, Associate Dean, Undergraduate Studies, Frost School of Music, University of Miami. Coral Gables, Florida

Mr. Moore continues, "William Harry Clarke has served as one of my role models since I played in bands he conducted in the 1970s. I served as his assistant from 1982-1986. He mentored me as an elementary, middle school, and high school band director in the Fayette County Public Schools from 1986-1996. He served on the board of the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras when I was the conductor from 1996-2000. He was the first person to visit me at Colorado State University when I was hired as Director of Bands in 2000. When I needed official advice as Chair of the Department of Music at the University of Central Missouri, I called upon Harry Clarke. He delivered amazing insights and provided exactly the direction we needed. I am sure that this is but a small example of the guidance and care he has provided to the many people who have been fortunate enough to come into his sphere of influence.

As a conductor and Director of Bands, Harry Clarke raised the level of bands to one of national prominence. Under Harry Clarke’s leadership, the School of Music was designated an Area of Excellence with the university. The school received national recognition in areas of opera, choir, jazz, orchestra, and band in addition to international prominence in academic areas. Harry Clarke has given his life to music and music education and we are all the better for it.


In 1989, he was appointed as the Director of the School of Music until he stepped down from that position in 2003. From that year to his retirement in 2011 he continued to teach instrumental music education and serve as director of student teaching in music, work that he had done during most of his 43 years at UK. His vision and pursuit of an diverse and inclusive faculty was realized in the hiring of UK School of Music Professors Dr. Jefferson Johnson, Dr. Everett McCorvey, Professor Cliff Jackson, among a cast of brilliant and innovative individuals who have paved the way for a bumper crop of other talented faculty and aspiring performers, educators and arts administrators that continue to carry forth the legacies, dreams and goals of professors that were hired in the 1960's along with William Harry Clarke.

Mr. Clarke received a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education from Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi in 1959 and a M.A. in Music Education from George PeabodyCollege for Teachers at Vanderbilt University in 1963. While at Peabody, he served as Assistant Director of Bands at Vanderbilt. He taught in high schools in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky and for two years at Eastern Kentucky University’s Model Laboratory School. He pursued doctoral work in Music Education at the University of Kentucky for the three years prior to his appointment as Director of Bands in 1968.

Lexington, KY Mayor Linda Gorton described Harry Clarke's transition as Director of UK's Marching band as being in a very challenged shape when he agreed to accepting this appointment. The band had only 30 members and the public was outraged. His first decisions were critical and controversial as he first decided to add women to the all-male group and majorettes on the front line landscape. Perhaps most controversial of all was a decision, fueled by the actual members of his marching band leadership and members, was to end the practice of performing the song "Dixie" as one of the University of Kentucky fight songs which opened the door for UK's beloved fight song "On, on U of K" to become the primary and only fight song in the band's repertoire. Mr. Clarke described this decision as the right thing to do, but it didn't come without its own controversy. After "Dixie died a bitter death" being eradicated, upset fans started demanding it be played, even going as far as hurling full beer and soda cans in a direct path of Mr. Clarke and the band members. After this decision, UK became the sweet beneficiary of this courageous leadership when the band grew to 300 members and the program received national recognition and numerous awards.

A natural evolution and positive consequence of the success he experienced leading the University of Kentucky Marching Band on the football field extended into his preparation and presentation of the University of Kentucky Pep Band - another beloved fixture and presence at all UK basketball games. We asked Mr. Clarke about the evolution of the collegiate pep band from the 60s - present and here is what he had to say.

"I wanted to learn from this man. He was one of the most demanding teachers I ever had, but it was always worth it because of the end result. He was a master teacher, a great conductor, and a wonderful mentor. It was an incredible four years of learning under his leadership, and I am the teacher I am today because of him." ---Alan Jacobus, Retired 41-Year Music Educator

In 2012 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Award by the Kentucky Music Education Association. Further interest in education included his service as a member of the Site Based Decision Making Councils at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and James Lane Allen Elementary School. He was active for 25 years in the Kentucky Department of Education’s “Kentucky Teacher Intern Program” in which he served first year teachers as the Teacher/Educator member of the intern’s mentoring committee. He has been a member of the Kentucky Music Education Association since 1963 and in 2013 he served as Chair of its Futures Committee.


In 2011, he was elected as President of the Harrods Hill Neighborhood Association where he served for two terms. Clarke coached Little League Baseball in the Gardenside Little League (now Western) for 15 years. He is also a two-time recipient of the Kentucky Colonel award.

Clarke served the 2013-14 term as the LFUCG 10th District Councilmember. During that period he served on the LFUCG Planning and Public Works, Public Safety, and General Government Committees and on the Picnic with the Pops Commission, the Tree Board, and the Corridors Commission.

While on council, Harry demonstrated a strong grasp of the issues facing his South Lexington district. Just as the arts were part of his professional career as an educator, the arts were part of Harry's council career as well. He spearheaded the creation of a public-private partnership that put the management of MoonDance amphitheater in Beaumont under the Lexington Division ofParks and Recreation. Moondance has thrived under this arrangement. ---Linda Gorton - Mayor, Lexington, KY

He currently serves on the LFUCG’s Board of Adjustment and on the Board of the city’s Water Quality Fees Board. He is Vice President of OperaLex; a board member of the Friends of the Arboretum; America in Bloom, Lexington; Picnic with the Pops; Tree Board; and as Vice President of the new Moon Dance Association. Former Lexington Mayor praised the work of Mr. Clarke stating

"Harry Clarke is a public servant through and through — first as a leader in the UK School of Music, and then as an elected member of the Urban County Council. He was always looking for the greater good, and approached every issue with selflessness and wise judgment." ---Pam Miller, Former Lexington, KY Mayor

He has been married to Mary Beth Stevens Clarke for 39 years. Their son, 34-year old Matthew, is a UK and Princeton graduate in architecture. He worked as an architect in New York City and is currently the national Director of Creative Placemaking for the Trust for Public Land, based in New York City.

This sanctuary of music education in the University of Kentucky College of Fine Arts he created at the UK School of Music AND on the UK Football Field during his tenure there proved to be the springboard that launched many future successful professional careers of his students in not only music, but in a variety of fields including law, medicine, communications, pastoral, K-12 education, piano pedagogy, information technology, sports broadcasting, psychology, higher education, military services, art, theater, real estate, authors, songwriters, publishing, opera, and recording artists.

"As a music education major, I always found him to be the ultimate teacher in regards to knowledge of the content and in class preparation. His leadership from the podium was both a model of conducting/communication, it was also inspiring to me and countless other students. Those students are over the US and elsewhere doing great things." ---Douglas W. Bush Assistant Director of Bands

In conclusion, Steven Moore reminds us all that William Harry Clarke has surpassed half a century of service in music education, with 55 of his years of service in Kentucky and "although his longevity is impressive, he should be recognized for the quality of his many contributions to music education and music educators in the state of Kentucky." William Harry Clarke has been married to Mary Beth Stevens Clarke for 39 years. Their son, 34-year old Matthew, is a UK and Princeton graduate in architecture. He worked as an architect in New York City and is currently the national Director of Creative Placemaking for the Trust for Public Land, based in New York City.

“I am firm in my belief that a teacher lives on and on through his students. Good teaching is forever and the teacher is immortal.” --Famed Kentucky writer Jesse Stuart

We, being Warren Cobb and Renee Collins Cobb, Executive Directors of Room 17 Productions, Inc, a 501c3 non-profit organization promoting music education through oral history, preservation and live performance, strongly believe Professor Emeritus William Harry Clarke’s body of work and the course of his life journey truly has been exemplified in professional, intellectual and artistic achievement. One visit to our website’s page on William Harry Clarke - http://www.room17productions.com/william-harry-clarke/ will highlight his significant values, principles and contributions to society as well as to the great state of Kentucky and this wonderful University. As a result, we formally requested the awarding of an honorary doctoral degree to UK Professor Emeritus William Harry Clarke for which he was scheduled to receive in May 2020 and as a result of postponement of graduation services, he will now receive this honor in May 2021 on the University of Kentucky commencement stage at Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY.




The oral history interviews of William Harry Clarke, as part of The Sara Holroyd Oral History Project can be fully accessed in the University of Kentucky Louie B Nunn Center for Oral History. Room 17 Productions, Inc is "working in concert" to tell the career stories of William Harry Clarke, Dr. Sara Holroyd, Dr. Jefferson Johnson and many other highly regarded professors at The University of Kentucky School of Music.

Interviews by Renee Collins Cobb and Jay Winstel.

In addition, these stories and others can be accessed at room17productions.com telling the compelling stories of The UK Cheerleaders, The Sara Holroyd Story, I Am Diversity, Women of Color in Medicine and The Greg Austin Story.




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