James H. Clark, 85, of Penn Wynne, who rose from humble beginnings to become a Verizon manager and civic leader, died Tuesday, Jan. 23, of pneumonia at Bryn Mawr Hospital.

James H. Clark
Courtesy of the family
James H. Clark

Mr. Clark was employed by Bell Telephone Co. of Pennsylvania, then Bell Atlantic, and finally Verizon, but his overall life trajectory was neither linear nor easy.

He was born in Penn Wynne, Lower Merion Township, in 1932 during the Great Depression. Within five years, the Clark Iron Foundry, which his father owned and which made manhole covers for Philadelphia streets, had failed. The Clark family moved to North Philadelphia, where Mr. Clark grew up.

In 1951, he graduated from Northeast Catholic High School. In 1952, he moved to Ardmore and volunteered for the Navy. He served four years, including 38 months aboard the destroyer Lloyd Thomas.

Mr. Clark was honorably discharged in February 1956 with the rank of radioman second class, according to his military records.

He was hired as a salesman for business phone services in Philadelphia by Bell of Pennsylvania and then was transferred to the company's Main Line district, where he met Mildred McMonagle, a customer service representative.

They married in 1958 and lived in Overbrook. In 1964, the couple moved to Penn Wynne, where they raised four children.

"His family was the most important part of his life," said his daughter, Mary Ann Walsh. Her parents took day trips, bus tours, cruises, and danced to Big Band music, she said.

In 1967, Mr. Clark graduated from St. Joseph's College night school with a bachelor's degree in business administration. "It took 10 years while working, and we were all little," his daughter said.

He spent his career working his way up to manager of sales operations at Bell of Pennsylvania. When the federal government ordered the breakup of the Bell System in 1982, and it happened two years later, he was assigned to Verizon, one of the  successor companies. He helped organize Verizon's telephone directory unit before retiring in 1988.

In retirement, he began researching family history. Mr. Clark learned he was a great-grandson of "Professor" John H. Clark, an Irish American bare-knuckle prize fighter in the second half of the 19th century.

What eventually linked the men was Mr. Clark's love of writing. In 1988, Mr. Clark founded Writers' Cramp, a Main Line writing critique and support group. One of his projects was a book about his famous forebear, said Walsh. He never got the chance to finish it, his daughter said.

Bare-knuckle fighting, a hallmark of early Irish American neighborhoods, was one step removed from street fighting. It had a few rules and the bouts lasted for hours.

Starting in 1871, John Clark pursued the bare-knuckle lightweight championship title in bouts with opponents in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Canada, according to www.cyberboxingzone.com.

Although boxing records credit him with two championship wins, it's unclear whom he defeated. It is known that his professional career ended in 1879 with a loss to lightweight champion Arthur Chambers, and that afterward John Clark became a Philadelphia fight promoter.

Mr. Clark "was enamored with him, he just thought that bare-knuckle fighting was so interesting," Walsh said.

Mr. Clark was director, officer and 1973 president of the Penn Wynne Civic Association and served as chairman of the 1976 Penn Wynne Bicentennial Committee. He was selected Penn Wynne citizen of the year in 1974. He led Penn Wynne's Cub Pack 155 and coached community baseball teams on which his three sons played.

After undergoing open-heart surgery in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, Mr. Clark enjoyed regular workouts at a fitness club in Havertown.

"I think he was the quintessential gentleman," said his son-in-law, Brian Walsh. "He was soft-spoken, but certainly not a pushover. He was just really a kind soul. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better human being."

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Clark is survived by children James A., Francis J., and William H.; 10 grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and a brother.

Funeral services were Saturday, Jan. 27.

Memorial contributions may be made to St. John's Hospice, 1221 Race St., Philadelphia 19107.