But without a doubt, David Clarke’s biggest influence was his father. The senior Clarke bought used cars instead of new and skimped on home luxuries and family vacations so he could send his five kids to Catholic schools.
“My dad was very unselfish,” says the sheriff. “Our vacation was piling into the car and visiting my grandmother in Beloit. We were never wealthy… but we had a decent home life.”
The young Clarke’s world was small and sheltered. He walked to and from school and came home every day for lunch. He was taught not to walk across the neighbor’s lawn and wasn’t allowed to roam. An empty field a few blocks from his home served as the neighborhood park and formed his boundary line.
“I didn’t know how big the city was because I rarely left the neighborhood,” he says. “We weren’t running the streets – my father didn’t go for that and he didn’t go for hangin’ out.” Going to the nearby train trestle or corner drugstore with his buddies was frowned upon, and he was expected home when the streetlights went on. If he was late, his father would drive through the streets to fetch him. To keep him under his watch, his father would hide his son’s shoes so he couldn’t sneak out.
“We had to keep him close,” says the senior Clarke. “We had to keep an eye on him. We kind of kept him in a circle.” The Clarkes were one of just two African-American families in the neighborhood. Nearly all of the boy’s friends were white. Once in awhile, he found himself on the hurtful end of a racial epithet.
“Heck yeah, I got called ‘Little Black Sambo,’ I got called ‘nigger,’ ” he says. “But it was the sticks-and-stones thing. People are cruel. I didn’t dwell on it.” He learned to shrug it off.
“I told him just to ignore that stuff, walk away from it,” says his father. Clarke Sr. himself had grown up in a white neighborhood in Beloit. He learned to disregard the racial slurs, shook them off “like water off the back.”
If his father was authoritarian, his mother was nurturing. Raised on the North Side of Milwaukee, Jeri Clarke was a stay-at-home mom until her children were in school, then worked as a secretary for Milwaukee Public Schools. She, too, downplays any prejudice directed against her son. Students who used foul language, she says, were dealt with swiftly by the priests and nuns at St. Albert’s.