The people’s man at the People Paper

In a newsroom filled with larger than life characters — Jack McKinney, Pete Dexter, Bill Conlin, Larry Fields, Chuck Stone — Joe Clark appeared to be smaller than life, but that was deceptive.

King of the human interest story: Joe Clark

The blue-eyed, curly haired Irishman out of Southwest Philly was more “Philadelphia” than any of them, and went about the business of quietly turning out heart-felt, human-interest prose, his best work about the plain neighborhood people who have always made Philadelphia work.

The man known as Joe, Joey, or Clarkie in the newsroom passed away Feb. 2, taken by prostate cancer at the age of 82. He was known as Pop to everyone else, his son Matt told me.

A product of Philadelphia’s parochial schools, Joe went from West Catholic High into a few blue collar jobs, such as Upper Darby’s 69th Street Sears, before stumbling into the Philadelphia Daily News, nicknamed the People Paper.

He worked there from 1956 — a year before it was bought by Walter Annenberg and moved into the Inquirer building at 400 N. Broad — until his retirement in 2000, before the financial floor really collapsed. He was among the last generation of journalists able to enter the business absent a college degree. He spent four long years as a lowly copyboy — that’s what journalists called go-fers — before being promoted to a police reporter, working out of police headquarters in City Hall, covering crime, the ugly face of Philadelphia.

The term “copyboy” was dropped sometime in the ‘70s because recently-hired African-American copyboys thought it  was racist, because of the “boy.” And females felt it was sexist, so out it went. A charming, anachronistic, uniquely journalistic term lost to posterity, banished by Political Correctness.

Starting as a copyboy editorial assistant was the traditional lowest rung on the ladder to success in newspapers, and the Daily News kept it going longer than most other newspapers. That newsroom was populated almost exclusively by native Philadelphians, while the inquirer attracted a lot of out-of-towners with Ivy League degrees, most especially after it was acquired by Knight Newspapers (later Knight-Ridder) in 1969 for $55 million from Annenberg. Knight-Ridder could afford to pay top salaries because after it killed the Evening Bulletin in 1982, the operation was a Niagara Falls of cash. I’m talking $50 million anually from classifieds alone (before the internet, think Craig’s List, killed all newspaper classifieds).

With that money, Knight turned the Inquirer into a journalistic battleship that won 17 Pulitzer Prizes, six consecutively between 1975 and 1980, and more journalism awards than any other newspaper in the United States.

The Daily News has won three — 1985, editorials; 1992, editorial cartoons; 2009, investigative reporting.

My first journalism job, while I was a student attending college  at night, was as a copyboy at the World-Telegram & The Sun. My 1959 salary was $48.

Joe’s first salary was $37 in 1956 (Philly was paying less than New York, then and now), while he was raising two children (eventually six) with his wife, Margaret Kelly, in Southwest Philly (later Drexel Hill). He was introduced to his beloved Kell on the 13 trolley by one of her friends and ding-ding went Joe’s heart, just like the trolley bell. 

They were married for 56 years before her death in 2013. After that, he hated going home to the big empty house. When he passed, “he was ready to be reunited” with Kell, said Matt. 

They had six children, 12 grandchildren, 6 great grandchildren. 

With six kids, Joe needed a big house and found one in Drexel Hill in 1972. 

As a family man on a tight budget, he was never one of those hard-drinking newspapermen who caroused around the town getting shitfaced several times a week. I don’t recall ever seeing him at the bar at the Pen & Pencil Club, the after-hours hangout for local journalists, and their friends, such as hospitality workers.

For a long time Joe drove a white Nova that had been a company car. Every few years the company — then prosperous — refreshed its fleet and offered the old cars to staffers at a huge discount. Joe’s was notable in the parking lot because of the rear window decals of the colleges his six kids attended — Temple, La Salle, Duquensne, Slippery Rock, University of Charleston, Delaware County Community. 

With six kids, it’s not surprising Joe brown bagged his lunch every day and ate at his desk, as most reporters did. Dining choices were limited around 400 N. Broad St., and reporters had only a half-hour for lunch. On the corner of 15th and Callowhill, Westy’s bar (and restaurant) was favored for quick service and low prices by Daily News and Inquirer people — reporters and printers and pressmen — but also by nurses and interns from nearby Hahnemann Hospital. 

One of Joe’s lunches became a legend at the Daily News.

He put his brown bag in the office refrigerator in the morning. When he went for it at noontime — it wasn’t there.

“What the…?” thought Joe, as he walked back to his desk.

As he passed the desk of dwarfish cityside reporter Dave Bittan, he saw him eating his lunch.

And I mean Bittan was eating Joe’s lunch. 

The normally quiet Joe hit the ceiling and screamed at Bittan.

“Why did you eat my lunch?,” Joe demanded.

As I recall, Bittan’s excuse was, “I was hungry.”

Well, sure, that explains it. 

The sandwich was only bologna and cheese, but straight-arrow Joe was steamed by how brazen the theft was. 

Other than this, one thing I remember about Bittan was that he shared a 1989 byline on a story about a big drug bust with Gabriel Escobar, who’s now editor of the Inquirer.

Small world.

Joe covered almost everything during his four decades at the tabloid, but eventually settled in to do something he was born to do — tell everyday stories about everyday Philadelphians, mostly working class people like himself. That column was called “My Hometown,” and it was the idea of editor Zack Stalberg who recognized Joe’s unique storytelling ability. 

Joe racked up more than 2,600 bylines during his time at the Daily News, and continued writing after retirement for Milestones,  a tabloid for senior citizens. 

He needed to read his newspapers every day, said Matt, and also needed to write. A lot of the old-timers are like that. (Ahem.)

Beside reading and writing, Joe had one odd hobby — painting ready-made small birdhouses and giving them as gifts.

His Daily News stories seldom made Page One, because Page One was dominated by sex, scandal and sports. Joe’s stories on people could be described by one word used on almost no one else’s work — sweetness.

When he wrote about someone, they were the star of the piece, unlike many of the better-known bylines that made themselves the center of their work. Everyone Joe wrote about got a fair shake. 

He wrote about “people who made a commitment to make a positive change in their lives, communities and neighborhoods,” remembered Matt.

“Pop wrote about a flourishing garden in North Philadelphia, a little league team making room for a female shortstop in suburban Drexel Hill, an artist who painted murals in South Philadelphia.”

I remember Joe at his keyboard — first a typewriter, later a PC — sitting back, thinking, with his chin cupped in his right hand. When I passed, I got a nod or a friendly wave. He would occasionally take a drag on a More cigaret, which he mooched  from Kell.

He was a quiet man, unassuming. Like so many of his generation, Matt said, it was “God first, family second, and his hometown city of Philadelphia.”

And sports. He was a Philly “homer” all the way. 

Joe didn’t do many “celebrity” interviews, but two of his favorites were with sports figures — player-turned-broadcaster and youth league founder Sonny Hill, and legendary scholastic basketball coach Speedy Morris. Joe had the kind of sincere inquisitive mind that made Larry King a star in another medium. 

Joe sat on the front steps with the loquacious Sonny and talked for hours, long after he had put his notebook away.

He interviewed Speedy in a twin house off Ridge Avenue where the coach had always lived. Speedy was genuine, humble, and down to earth.

In other words, exactly like Joe Clark.

34 thoughts on “The people’s man at the People Paper”

      1. Philadelphia, PA

        Dear Stu,

        I get the impression that you really liked your colleague Joe Clark, strange, though that you included the story about his lunch being stolen.

        On reflection, I also got the impression of a media empire running a class system. The Daily News for the hoi poloi, and the Inquirer for the Ivy League set?

        My experience is that such a system runs on the basis of pretty grungy expediency in personal and professional competitions. In other words, if someone is in your way, a serious competitor, or happens to “cross you,” that is, work at cross purposes, knowingly or unknowingly, then basically you get the inside story on the fellow and form a judgment of what sort of supporters or back-up he or she may have –and then measure the extent of the means to be used by the likelihood of getting away with the trick or stunt. Do you wonder at the old European tradition that, if your father was, say, a carpenter or a butcher, then you should be one, too?

        That is basically how class-systems works –in mass terms– when most everyone plays this sort of game of one-ups-man-ship. Ordinary working people likely wouldn’t believe it even if they were told in detail how such a system works. Its not how they are brought up. Or, otherwise put, they “don’t know the ropes” and are therefore easy to take advantage of.

        Its a version of the “tragedy of the commons.” A prosperous and healthy society depends on the prevalence of mutual trust. If this mutual trust is destroyed, then what you get is contention, conflict, divisiveness and dysfunction. So, the cultivation of grungy expediency to get ahead is a version of the free-rider problem –take whatever you can get and do as little in return as you can get away with –devil take the hindmost and “whatever it takes;” and “Its all relative.” When the ordinary people turn passive, then the system has set.

        I’m reminded of many occasions when someone has recommended Buddhism to me–as a way around the prejudices directed against my WASPy background. I always say in return that I’m waiting for the first Buddhist democracy. Its been a long time coming.

        Do you wonder how our fair town holds people back and the graduates flee to greener pastures?

        H.G. Callaway
        —you wrote—
        He was a quiet man, unassuming. Like so many of his generation, Matt said, it was “God first, family second, and his hometown city of Philadelphia.”

        1. There was a caste system, with the Inquirer as the prince, the Daily News as the household mutt. Which is why we so much enjoyed beating them.
          The sandwich story was a great anecdote. And true. I was reminded of it by Joe’s son.

          1. Philadelphia, PA

            Dear Stu,

            A “cast system” literally understood, is basically unacceptable in a democratic society. But now I better understand the occasional directions to the Daily News. I could never take such a system seriously. Best to resist or ignore the pressures for it.

            I find, when I ask people in the city about the general passivity of the electorate, and voting for the same people by habit, the usual answer is that there is nothing that can be done about it. No matter how corrupt or incompetent the politicians, or the establishment, the idea is that they are all alike. In that way, they accept the poverty and lack of opportunity, too. There is no impetus for improvements once acquiescence in a cast system sets in. It has to be rejected.

            A self-selecting system of “cast,” based merely on origins (and/or money) will always decline in moral authority and capability for leadership –which it sacrifices to self-aggrandizement.

            H.G. Callaway

          2. I guess you are deliberately using “cast” instead of “caste.”
            Per politics, change IS possible but it takes a lot of effort. An independent knocked off a City Council GOP seat.

  1. Stu—
    You paid Joe a very large compliment (unknowingly or not) by writing this tribute exactly the way Joe would have written it. From your article “When he wrote about someone, they were the star of the piece, unlike many of the better-known bylines that made themselves the center of their work. Everyone Joe wrote about got a fair shake.”
    In many ways that describes how you write.
    Thoroughly enjoyed it and I do remember reading Joe.

  2. Stu, you wrote a loving and glowing tribute to Joe. My condolences to his family and friends. May he Rest In Peace.

  3. Paying homage to a fellow worker and friend who just passed away can draw a tear to the eye and a tug on the heartstrings. I was blessed as a young police officer and then holding an elected position to meet and exchange viewpoints on our city and my profession with all of those mentioned. I only met Joe a couple of times and the conversation was basically on basketball as my father played at Roman and my brother at LaSalle. The best compliment I can apply in my short conversations was that of a good listener and a well versed individual on the sports and events of the city. I can visualize the closeness and the friendly exchanges that must have bounced from desk to desk every day on the latest city happenings. I miss the Journalists of yesterday who were streetwise and gave everybody a fair shake but presented their story, not as an agenda or a narrative but simply a factual description of the occurrence. Also, a nightcap at the pen and pencil helped form respect for the quality and down to earth attitude of Journalists like Joe, yourself, and all those mentioned in a well-written Memorium.

  4. Very touching tribute. I never read the column, but now wish that I’d caught a few… ( I googled today, before responding here, but as I’ve mentioned previously, cannot open internet articles from the Inky or Daily News, some sort of glitch.)…. Your friend and colleague, Joe Clark, sounds like a talented writer, and a real “mensch”. RIP.

    You are a classy guy who doesn’t hesitate to share the love of a friend.
    I’m sure that when it’s your turn, we will be singing the same song for you .
    ( but that’s a long way off ! )

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