Community honors 99-year-old Clarke

Published 6:32 pm Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The nearly 100-year-old anchor of the Slate River community in Buckingham County was honored in her church on Saturday by the community.

Mary Frances Jones Clarke — whose small country store closed weeks ago after being in continuous operation since the 1940s — was honored by her family, church and community at Slate River Baptist Church.

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“It’s a blessing to have a lady that has been with you for that many years and that she has been a blessing to so many people not only in the church, not only in her family, but here in this community,” Pastor Calvin Booker said.

Clarke, who is a lifelong member of Slate River Baptist and considered the “church mother,” has worked in the store business since she was 5 years old, laboring in her grandparents’ store. She and her late husband, Robert, opened their store in 1949. The store closed weeks ago in light of Clarke’s moving to Northern Virginia with her son, James Earl “Billy” Clarke.

Clarke lived next to her store for almost her entire life.

“This is a special occasion,” said Deacon Nelson Booker Jr. “Mrs. Clarke is well-known throughout the neighborhood. She has also been a blessing to many of us.”

Clarke, who has six grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren, thanked the community for celebrating her influence on them.

“I guess the African proverb says, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ but for us, it takes one lady to make us a community with her love and support,” said Deaconess Yvonne Brown.

Brown said that Clarke was born during World War I and said she saw the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the conflict in the Middle East.

“You were here for the passing of the voting rights bill, you saw the election of Virginia’s first black governor, you saw the election of the first black president of the United States,” Brown said.

“The best part of it all is that you were here for us,” she said. “You have left a legacy with us.”

“You’ve done so much for me,” said Clarke’s oldest grandson, Charles. “I can’t put it into words at a time like this. You molded me into the man I am today.”

“I’d like to thank all of you for all the love and affection that you have given my mother over the years,” said James Earl Clarke. “I remember when mom used to be in the store and people that used to come there that didn’t have any money and she’d give them food and money.”

Many of her friends regularly stopped by, checking on his mother, Clarke said, helping her.

District Four Supervisor John Staton, along with District Six Supervisor Joe Chambers Jr., presented Clarke with a board of supervisors-approved resolution commending her for her service to the community. “Mrs. Clarke helped people,” Staton said. “Mrs. Clarke loved people.”

The resolution noted her service in her church, the two stores and in the community.

“She provided muchneeded resources to the community,” Staton said, reading the resolution. “She became an unwavering resource person to those in need, providing assistance and support.”

James Brown, holding photos of Clarke and his family, said that the 99-year-old was an “icon on this community … Mrs. Clarke is a legend.”

Eileen Miller, holding a silver dollar Clarke gave to her when she was born, said “there were times when we were poor. I would go to school and I didn’t have a lunch … I took my silver dollar with me sometimes … The words of my mother would always come back to say, ‘Never spend it.’”

Miller said that because of Clarke, she has never been broke.

Mike Baird, whose hunt club would frequently patronize Clarke’s Store, said the hunters will miss Clarke.

“Mrs. Clarke is the community,” said Gwendolyn Jones.

“When you look across to see if Mrs. Clarke is there, I know she’s not there, but you know what? Hope will keep things going.”

“She’s just been a great inspiration,” said Clarence Brown Jr. “Ninety-nine-and-a-half won’t do,” he joked of Clarke, who will turn 100 in July.

“I’ve been coming down here since I was my boy’s age,” said hunter Harry Davis, resting his hand on his child’s head. “When I was this old, my dad over here would come down here and hunt … and I would stay with Mary. And she’d keep me and she’d be my grandma. She’s now these guy’s grandmother,” he said of his two small children standing with him. “They’ve been coming down here since they were three.”