Rhoda Shaw Clark, 99; published N.H. newspaper after husband’s tragic death

By Gloria Negri
Globe Staff / August 23, 2011

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Rhoda Shaw Clark was a contented homemaker, wife, and mother of five who had no desire for a career, much less one as demanding as publisher of a daily newspaper. But in 1950, fate stepped in, and there was Mrs. Clark sitting behind the publisher’s desk at the Claremont Daily Eagle, where her husband, John, had sat days before drowning in the flooded Sugar River near their home in Claremont, N.H. They were both 39.

John McLane Clark had worked as a journalist at The Washington Post, but he decided after serving in World War II that he would like to run a small-town newspaper. He bought the Claremont Daily Eagle and became its editor and publisher.

After his death, Mrs. Clark volunteered and got overwhelming support. Her son, Winfield Shaw Clark of New Boston, N.H., said she served as publisher from 1950 to 1963, running the ship, writing a weekly column, selling advertising space, attending meetings of town officials, and seeing that the paper worked for the community’s common good, as her husband had vowed.

Mrs. Clark, who sold the newspaper in 1963, died at her New Boston, home on Aug. 7 of complications of dementia, her son said. She was 99.

When feminist Betty Friedan interviewed Mrs. Clark for Everywoman’s Family Circle in the 1950s, she wrote that John Clark “bought a heavily mortgaged Claremont Daily Eagle and used it to help rebuild a community that had become demoralized by loss of many of its industries.’’

On hearing of Mrs. Clark’s decision to run the paper, Friedan wrote, “Businessmen were surprised or shocked. How could a homemaker, with no business experience, run a newspaper? Even Rhoda’s father warned, ‘You’re not tough enough.’ But, less than a week after her husband’s death, Rhoda sat down at his Daily Eagle desk, noted the appointments he could not keep, and read through an enormous accumulation of mail. ‘It’s all beyond me,’ she thought, but I’ve got to do it.’ ’’

As if administrative work were not enough, Mrs. Clark wrote a weekly column titled, “Random Pencilings on a Lace Cuff,’’ a chatty, folksy report of goings-on about town and the larger area. When three new shoe companies opened in Claremont and Newport, providing jobs for many, she wrote: “Must all be a dream. Claremonters and Newporters are all wandering around wearing big smiles.’’

Winfield said she wrote only on a typewriter, using the “hunt-and-peck’’ method.

Though Mrs. Clark was a Republican, she was considered too liberal by some. Another son, Alexander Shaw Clark of Falmouth, Maine, said William Loeb, the late Union Leader publisher, attacked her liberalism. Winfield said Loeb called her “an egghead liberal.’’ Mrs. Clark did write a somewhat light editorial about it, Winfield said. “Mother had a good bit of resilience and a kind of easy-going sense of humor.’’

One of her former cub reporters, Dan North of Jersey City, N.J., recalled that he had been assigned to cover the trial of “a left-wing minister’’ accused of Communism. “It was during the McCarthy era,’’ he said. He said he felt he should tell Mrs. Clark that his parents were Communists in the event someone would attack her for assigning him to the trial.

He said her reply was, “As long as you are an honest reporter, I don’t give a darn about the politics of your parents.’’

“Rhoda was a Republican, not a left-winger,’’ he said, “but she was definitely a civil libertarian.’’

Nelson Bryant of West Tisbury was Mrs. Clark’s managing editor at the time when the paper had a daily circulation of 10,000. “I think Rhoda and I learned to run a newspaper together,’’ Bryant says. “She was a hardworking, honest woman, and there were women reporters on the staff.’’

As a top editor, she was known to be demanding, Charles Caruso of New York City well remembers. “I had gone there for a job, but before I went for the interview went to a road house where people were dancing. I saw this very pretty woman and asked her for a dance. As we danced, I told her I was nervous about an interview the next day with the publisher of the Daily Eagle. “ ‘I hear the woman publisher is a harridan, a real curmudgeon,’ ’’ he said. His dance partner turned out to be Mrs. Clark. He got the job.

She was born to Winfield Lowry and Lois (Warren) Shaw in Braintree, Mass., where her father was involved in the shoe manufacturing business. Her mother was a suffragist. Mrs. Clark was a student at Vassar College when she met John Clark at Dartmouth College’s Winter Carnival. She graduated from Vassar in 1934 with a major in geology, her family said. After her retirement from the paper, she spent 30 years researching her ancestors throughout New England.

She and John married in 1936 on the front lawn of the family home in New Boston. Over the next 14 years, including Mr. Clark’s four years overseas in the Office of Strategic Services, she raised their five children mostly on her own, her children said. Before working for The Washington Post, he went to Ecuador with a nonprofit antipoverty group. For a time, when Mr. Clark worked for the Post, they lived in Alexandria, Va.

Claremont had a different pace. In her interview with Mrs. Clark, Friedan wrote about how Mrs. Clark was focused on “paring the household budget and making clothes last longer so John could pay off that mortgage. . . . With five children to keep me busy, I seldom had time to read the paper through,’’ Mrs. Clark told her.

That was before Mr. Clark, with several of his children and their Irish setter, set out in a canoe on the Sugar River. Their canoe was swamped by flood waters, and Mr. Clark drowned.

In the midst of tragedy, Mrs. Clark focused on assuming her husband’s job, getting five children off to school in the morning, and trying to be there when they came home. Her eldest child Linda, then 12, made breakfast for her siblings, Mrs. Clark told Friedan. “After school she mended or made dresses for her little sisters.’’ Linda Clark McGoldrick of Littleton died at 55.

As soon as she could, she hired women to look after her children and their home when she was tied up with newspaper business and would write her columns at home to be with them. Both sons were paper boys.

Reflecting on their youth, daughter Ellen Clark Anderson of Sun City, Calif. recalled how she and her friends would visit the newspaper. “We watched the presses roll and saw mother in her office. Mother would go out and collect advertising bills and take on whatever was necessary. She surprised everyone.’’

Another daughter, Catherine Shaw Clark of New Boston, was her mother’s primary daytime caregiver for six years.

Mrs. Clark’s children attribute much of her longevity to her early athletic life. She was 5 feet 10 inches tall, and coached fencing at Vassar. She skied and hiked. She loved the outdoors and was a gardener. She had never smoked and was rarely sick. Her son Winfield said she had a drink of vodka before dinner.

After her retirement from the newspaper, she moved to her late parents farm in New Boston, where she remained active in town affairs and held the Boston Post Cane, as the town’s oldest citizen.

In addition to her two sons and two daughters, Mrs. Clark leaves seven grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

A celebration of her life will be held at the New Boston Community Church at 1 p.m. Sept. 2, which would have been her 100th birthday.