When Tom Clark started his first term on the Long Beach City Council in 1966, he never imagined that it would lead him to setting a record for longest serving elected public official in city history.
For the record, Clark served 30 years on the City Council, including seven years as mayor (when the mayor was elected by council members and not the general public — which came later), and 16 years on the Long Beach Community College Board of Trustees. That’s a remarkable and untouched record of 46 years as an elected official, while also running a successful business examining the eyes of hundreds of residents as an optometrist in Los Altos.
“I just started out trying to help the city I loved,” Clark said later in his modest manner in an emotional farewell to his public life, which spanned almost half a century. During his tenure, he worked hard to improve the entire city, from neighborhoods to downtown redevelopment and everything in between, including bringing the Queen Mary to Long Beach in 1967 (he rode in on it as it sailed for the last time and docked in Long Beach), preserving and developing El Dorado Park and constructing a new convention center and civic center.
Although Clark’s fingerprints can be found on many of the major developments in Long Beach, he also was deeply involved during some of the city’s most tumultuous times — from the closing of the Naval Base to thousands of jobs lost at McDonnell Douglas. Through it all, he preached public service and giving back to the community.
“It’s time for me to go,” Clark said to a standing ovation in 2014 after serving 16 years on the LBCC board of trustees.
Clark, who had been using a wheelchair because of bad knees, died Wednesday morning at the Vista Del Mar assisted living facility, 3360 Magnolia Ave., according to his daughter, Carol Quinlan. He was 93. Quinland said her father died of complications from advanced dementia and old age. He did not die from the coronavirus, she said.
“We could not visit him because of the coronavirus,” she said. “We had to talk to him on the phone.” She said Clark’s wife, Ruth, who lived with him at Vista Del Mar, was at his bedside when he died.
A widely felt loss
Tributes to Clark poured in from across the city when news spread of his death.
When Daryl Supernaw was elected to the City Council in 2015 in the Fourth District, the same district served by Clark for so many years, Supernaw said he wanted to do something to recognize Clark’s “incredible contributions to our community.” In a dedication ceremony on Feb. 6, 2016, a plaque was erected at the southeast corner of Bellflower Boulevard and Stearns Street at the Los Altos Shopping Center. The last line of the inscription states simply, “No one in Long Beach history has given more for a longer period of time than the Honorable Tom Clark.” Supernaw said he believed that was the best description of Clark’s legacy.
Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia said the city “mourns the loss of a beloved community leader. Dr. Clark made history as our longest serving City Council member and as a member of the LBCC Board of Trustees. His friendship will be deeply missed, but his legacy remains with us every day. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
“Tom Clark was always about Long Beach,” said Doug Otto, who served on the LBCC Board of Trustees with Clark. “Although as mayor he was involved with the statewide League of California Cities and at LBCC was chairman of both the state Community College Trustees Association and the Community College League of California, his heart and service belonged to the people and the city he loved.”
Naomi Rainey Pierson, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said Clark was “an honorable, scholarly, kind human being and a longtime supporter of the NAACP Community Impact Program for Youth.”
Renee Simon, the second woman elected to the Long Beach City Council in 1972, said she and Clark worked together to assure that the land set aside for El Dorado Park, a major eastside Long Beach park, would not be diverted to other commercial uses and and then assured funding for its development.
“That success stands as a tribute to creative political leadership and a true commitment to serving our residents,” Simon said.
She said when she was elected to the council, she and Clark shared “a closet-sized office.”
“A councilwoman was not welcomed in city hall, but Tom was helpful and enthusiastic,” Simon said. “We could work together on issues of substance, such as affirmative action and a city budget reflective of real community needs. He was a forerunner of the most responsive, open, public-service municipal government we have today.”
Jeff Kellogg, who served with Clark on the LBCC board, said he learned much from Clark. “He had a dry and simple charm about himself,” Kellogg said. “He told me that people would always get mad at you, that it went with the territory and not to get too upset about it. But, he said, just don’t get people damned mad!”
Kellogg also said Clark was a successful election campaigner because he would go door to door meeting people and handing out thousands of legendary Clark candy bars. “He was the last of the true nonpartisan public officials,” Kellogg said.
From San Diego to Long Beach
Clark was born July 13, 1926, in San Diego. His family moved to Long Beach in 1933, where he attended local schools, graduating from Wilson High School during World War II. He joined the Army and was sent to Germany after VE Day on May 8, 1945.
Upon returning to the United States, he attended Long Beach City College and then earned degrees at UC Berkeley, leading to a career as an optometrist while he was also a public official.
The lanky 6-foot, 2-inch Clark was a track star at Wilson High, LBCC and UC Berkeley. He was made for longer distances, and the same was said for his political life. In 1976, he was inducted into the LBCC Hall of Fame for community leadership. In 2007, he was elected to the LBCC Hall of Champions for Track and Field.
In 2006, his wife of more than 50 years, Lois, died. On Oct. 3, 2015, he married Ruth Johnson Florea, who, as a 47-year-old grandmother, was crowned Mrs. America in 1977. She began an acting career as a professional model and lived in Long Beach. Clark said he, as mayor, invited her to a City Council meeting after she won the crown in 1977, but she couldn’t make it.
“In 2014, I saw her sitting at a table in Bixby Towers, invited her over and reminded her about my 1977 invitation,” he said. “I told her it was only 38 years later. She laughed and we got married.” They lived in Bixby Towers before moving to Vista Del Mar.
Carol Quinlan, Clark’s daughter, said her father was a busy man with his optometry business and public duties, “but he always had time for us. He loved to go camping with us. He was very fit and did a lot of running and jogging.”
‘No one deserves that applause now more than Tom Clark’
One of Clark’s last public appearances was July 23, 2019, as folks attended the last Long Beach City Council meeting in the soon-to-be-demolished City Hall. The building was constructed 43 years prior, when Clark was mayor. It was a bittersweet moment for Clark, who was in his wheelchair and raised his right arm when the audience applauded after Garcia called him “a special person whose leadership can be seen all around the city.”
When the City Hall was dedicated on July 4, 1976, Clark boasted about it being a happy, beautiful day for Long Beach. “The Civic Center stands as a symbol of newness, the symbol of a new force in government,” he said at the time. “We vow to proceed in the spirit of the changing times we are now in.”
Forty-three years later, Clark, Garcia and O’Neill then cut a chocolate cake baked in the shape of the Brutalist structure that will be demolished.
In an interview later, Clark said he was unhappy with the demolition of the old City Hall. “I hate to see them tear down that building,” he said. “I was a part of that building for years. You hate to lose something you began. I had a lot of pride in that building. It still is a beautiful building.”
In reflecting on Clark’s life, Jeff Kellogg said Clark once told him, “The last thing anyone should hear when he ended a meeting was applause for helping the community. No one deserves that applause now more than Tom Clark.”
In addition to his wife, Ruth, Clark’s survivors include his daughter, Carol Quinlan, sons, Paul Clark and Jim Clark, and two grandchildren.
Quinlan said the family would like to have a memorial service for her father after the coronavirus crisis passes. She said the family also would set up a scholarship fund in her father’s honor at Long Beach City College.