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The piano men

Richard E. Clark ('52, '70) never forgot how his piano teacher, Ford Hill, helped him start a new career

Story by Mary Gallagher

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Richard E. Clark (right) might have been the most nervous student in Music Professor Ford Hill’s piano class that first day in 1988. At 58, Clark was also the oldest. | Photo by Martin Waidelich
Richard Clark, left, visits with friends Music Professor Emeritus Ford Hill and Sibyl Sanford. | Photo by Martin Waidelich
In addition to his careers as piano teacher, pastor and newspaper editor, Richard Clark also has been an amateur historian, writing a history of Peace Arch Park, located near his home in Blaine. Friends planted a Dick Clark rose outside Clark's window, seen here framed by the Peace Arch in stained glass. | Photo by Martin Waidelich

Richard E. Clark (’52, Music; ’70, M.A., Sociology) might have been the most nervous student in Music Professor Ford Hill’s piano class that first day in 1988.

At 58, Clark was also the oldest student Hill had ever taught for college credit. Clark had fallen in love with music as a boy growing up in Blaine. A Music major at Western, he played the French horn in the college orchestra. But he was surprised to be accepted to Hill’s class. Clark had played piano for years – even taught some – but he was unpolished at the keys.

“It never came easy,” Clark remembers.

But playing the piano has always come easy to Ford Hill, who attended the world-renowned University of Indiana School of Music and studied under pianist Gyorgy Sebok – who traced his own musical lineage to Beethoven.

Hill, who coordinated Western’s piano program for 20 years, remembers Clark worked hard to keep up with his classmates. “He didn’t want any special favors,” Hill says.

For the next several months, Clark absorbed all he could from Hill as if his livelihood depended on it. Actually, it did: After two careers, one as a member of the clergy and then another teaching college sociology and religion at remote Air Force and Coast Guard bases in Alaska, Clark was preparing to embark on a third career, as a nationally certified piano teacher.

“He taught me a lot,” says Clark, now 81. “How to play scales, for one thing. My fingers were overlapping. He straightened me out.”

Clark studied with Hill for five quarters and earned national certification in 1990. His piano teaching practice began to grow. Clark was a “nurturing and inspiring teacher,” Hill says. If students didn’t have a piano, they could practice on Clark’s, he says.

Clark also became a strong advocate for music in the small town of Blaine, working to bring Western music faculty and students to perform, first at the library and then at the newly built Blaine Performing Arts Center at the high school. Western Music students arrived in Blaine by the car-load to give dry-run performances of their quarterly recitals.

Meanwhile, Hill also came to Blaine to practice with Clark’s students who were preparing for rigorous exams of the Canadian Royal Conservatory of Music system.

Clark, who was also a newspaper editor who wrote a history of Peace Arch Park, located near his home in Blaine, prefers classical music. Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich is a favorite.

“He was always in trouble with the communist government, but he didn’t let them stop him from composing wonderful music,” Clark says.

Hill, who retired in 1996, says his old student called him in 2001 to say he was getting his affairs in order and had bequeathed his estate, mainly his house, to Western for the Ford Hill Scholarship fund.

Hill said he felt “very grateful and surprised.”

Clark, who never had children of his own, later set aside part of his estate toward the purchase of a 9-foot concert grand Steinway piano, Western’s first new piano in more than 30 years. Hill played the piano for the first time in public at the College of Fine and Performing Arts’ annual Masked Ball; Clark, who now lives in a nursing home, made a special trip to Bellingham to be in the audience.

“It’s hard for me to think of teaching the piano without Ford Hill being behind it all,” says Clark, who also gave to Western his extensive collections of classical music recordings for the Music Library.

These days Clark doesn’t play the piano very often. After surviving cancer and a bout with shingles a few years ago, Clark decided to leave the performing up to his students. Instead he devoted his time to writing his memoir, “Riding the Carousel with God,” which he published in 2008.

He still gets frequent visits from Hill, who brings DVDs about history to keep his old friend from getting bored.

But Clark’s piano isn’t done teaching. It’s now at Western, where it’s available for music students who need a place to practice.