Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - August 26, 2011

On Deadline: Bill Clark left mark on City Council and medical community

by Jay Thorwaldson

I first met William "Bill" Clark when he announced his candidacy for the Palo Alto City Council in the bitter "all-council election" of May 1967.

He was a member of the so-called "establishment" slate of candidates opposing the "residentialists" in a community-wide debate over growth vs. development policies. The outcome was that four of the six residentialists of the 13-member council (including now-retired state Sen. Byron Sher, who later made a comeback) got bounced off the council in the combined regular and recall elections — anyone not up for reelection was recalled by petition. Only residentialists Enid Pearson and Kirke Comstock survived the vote. Some in town still feel scars from that harsh campaign.

But Clark, a physician with the Palo Alto Medical Clinic's internal medicine department who died July 30, surprised many people by turning out to be a strong moderate on many growth issues and an out-and-out environmentalist in general.

Several years later, Clark helped diagnose a zero-thyroid condition of mine that had eluded physicians at another health care organization for months. He also became the physician for my late mother-in-law, Eve. It was then that I realized the full depth of his commitment to medicine — which really was a commitment to people.

As Eve became increasingly ill and incapacitated by bone cancer, several times a week there would be a knock on the door of her apartment behind our home in Menlo Park. Clark would stick his head in, calling out softly, "Hello, anyone home?" We never were billed for his after-hours "on my way home" check-ins.

Once I interviewed him about a topic of intense conviction: that physicians need to communicate more carefully and thoroughly with their patients. He was particularly concerned that many, usually younger, physicians would have new patients meet them in the exam rooms, garbed in those almost-wraparound paper gowns.

"I've always felt that when meeting a patient for the first time they should have the opportunity to introduce themselves fully dressed in my office," Clark said, or words close to those. He said for him it was a matter of both courtesy and respect, and he felt it was particularly important for women.

He also recognized the pressures of managed-care systems that increasingly pushed "efficient use of physician time," often reflected in compensation or in a professional-style scolding (or coaching) in how to see more patients per hour.

He said some physicians teased him about his new-patient policy, but he gave as good as he got. Clark also said he believed that listening carefully to a new (or longtime) patient was important because the "symptoms they cite are often not the real problem."

He missed making house calls, which he said provided both a wonderful respite between patients and insights into their lives. He said one longtime patient, an elegantly dressed woman, suffered from migraine headaches. One time she was in too much pain to make the office visit so Clark went to her home, where he found her husband sprawled in front of the television in a messy living room, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. Clark immediately divined the source of her migraines: the dissonance between what she wanted her life to be and the reality of her home life.

Despite what his sons and daughters described as his great gusto for life and peripatetic interest in many topics — with meticulously kept notes — Clark also could flash impatience or irritation.

In his retirement comments at the Clinic, he made a special point of apologizing to the lab and records-room staff for volubly expressing his impatience at the time it took to get test results or patient files delivered to him before the patient arrived. This was back in the day before such information was transmitted via computer.

He also was a recognized teacher and a physician who demonstrated good medical practice during his career, despite a continuing and recurring and sometimes painful heart condition.

In retirement he continued his education and with his wife, Jean, expanding their birdwatching hobby to encompass a broad range of natural processes, becoming docents at Stanford's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve until declining health curtailed their activities.

Clark also wrote a series of charming autobiographical essays as part of a class at The Sequoias in Portola Valley, where he and Jean resided and where they recently observed their 70th anniversary.

One essay about his early years in Ventura, Calif., recounts the death of his mother when Clark was 6, the loss of their small farm in the Great Depression and his father being named agricultural commissioner for the region before his death when Clark was 15. Clark and his stepmother then moved to Palo Alto. He attended Palo Alto High School and met Jean at a beach picnic at Searsville Lake, a favorite romantic spot for both for decades, now part of Jasper Ridge.

He was an avid sports fan and local-history buff, and according to his sons, Peter, David and Bruce, and daughter, Carolyn, was a great storyteller — whether recounting in detail last night's sports game or anecdotes from history.

I remember a talk he gave at the Palo Alto Historical Association about the history of the Clinic and local health care and hospitals. He recalled one stormy night in the mid-1950s when he received a call at home that a patient of his was having a heart attack — long before 911 or Palo Alto paramedics.

He recounted how he sped toward the patient's home along the then-two lane Oregon Avenue into the underpass at the railroad tracks — smack into about 3 feet of very cold water in the underpass. His car engine died, as did his patient.

He also shared an anecdote about an older woman patient who paused as she was leaving his office one day, turned back and said, "I know who you are, Bill Clark. You're the illegitimate son of Russ Lee and Esther Clark" — referring to Clinic founder Russel V.A. Lee and a well-known early woman pediatrician on the Peninsula.

"Oh, if I only had THOSE genes!" he declared about his two famed colleagues.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com or jaythor@well.com. Bill Clark's obituary was in the Aug. 12 issue of the Weekly.

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