Clark standing up to make a difference in Liberty Hill
By SHELLY WILKISON
He is always the tallest one in the room.
At 6 feet 6 inches, there’s no mistaking him from the rest. But it’s not his height that makes him stand out in a crowd.
John Clark is on a mission to make a difference in Liberty Hill. So when he’s talking, the topic is most always about something he believes would make the community better.
A Farmers Insurance agent who has spent 27 years caring for families, Clark moved to Liberty Hill four years ago, rolled up his sleeves and set out to help.
Raised in a family of teachers, Clark was especially influenced by his father, who spent his entire career in public education as a teacher, basketball coach and principal.
So after settling his family in their new hometown, Clark turned himself over to the Liberty Hill ISD central administration and set out to make a difference for teachers.
“Finding ways to connect and serve is my passion,” said Clark. “I serve so much with the school because that’s what I’m passionate about.”
After his first conversation with Curriculum Director Claudeane Braun, Clark wrote a check for $10,000 to send 25 teachers to Capturing Kids Hearts — a three-day off-site training by Flippen Education focused on helping educators reach children by building trusting relationships in the classroom that in turn pave the way for improved student performance. Clark attended the training alongside the Liberty Hill teachers.
“I think I’m most proud of that,” he said. “It was about connecting with and supporting our educators.”
Clark, who also volunteered to serve on the district’s Student Health Advisory Council (SHAC), helped organize the first ever Liberty Fit Health & Wellness Fair in 2014. He was an auxiliary member then, but today he chairs the committee.
“The more active they (children) are, the better they learn and the more opportunities they have,” he said. “We can say that (to students) in a classroom, but it (Liberty Fit) was a way to bring mom and dad in as well, and give parents resources centered around family values.”
Clark said the event was also designed to help showcase local businesses that provide health and safety related services.
“It was a way to support local businesses so that people know what’s here. Finding them might be difficult in some cases, but we have quality people here, and you don’t have to drive across Austin to get this,” he said.
Liberty Fit will be held again in September 2016.
But Clark’s involvement in the schools didn’t stop there.
The father of two sons — Justin and Austin — Clark became an active voice on the District Education Improvement Council (DEIC). As a community member of the DEIC, Clark studied the progress reports of schools as provided by district administrators, then offered input as to suggested strategies for improvements.
He said the DEIC is one way the district holds itself accountable to the community for student performance. As a member until late 2015, Clark had the information to make himself a voice for the positive things happening in Liberty Hill schools.
Clark admits his heart is with the teachers of Liberty Hill. Through the years, he has become their biggest cheerleader, and looks for opportunities to offer support and show gratitude for their service.
At the opening meeting for all LHISD employees in August 2015, five employees won $250 each from Clark’s Farmers Agency to help with classroom expenses.
Several times a year, he provides food at teacher in-service training. And every month, he provides breakfast for the Liberty Hill PTO meetings. His wife, Shanna, does the cooking.
During PTO meetings, Clark shares news and information about happenings in the community and in the school district.
With an education-centered focus, Clark applied in 2015 to serve on the City of Liberty Hill’s Economic Development Corp. Board of Directors — another volunteer position.
“I wanted the schools to have a voice in what goes on in town,” he said. “I wanted to be that credible voice between the school board and (Superintendent) Dr. (Rob) Hart, the PTO and the City.”
Clark believes his voice on a city board helps the schools. As an example, he said he would not approve of a new business locating in front of Bill Burden Elementary School if its only entrance was off Stonewall.
“The traffic there is already crazy enough. I don’t need extra traffic on that road. You’re putting traffic in front of my kids, even though I don’t have a child there,” he said.
When the former EDC Executive Director proposed that the school district consider adopting an exemption to the Freeport tax, Clark said he went to LHISD Chief Financial Officer Frank Watson and asked for his opinion. Clark brought back to the EDC Board Watson’s suggestion of Moak, Casey and Associates to do a study on the potential impact to the school district.
The EDC Board, which meets once monthly, allocated $15,000 from its budget this year to support the Liberty Hill Rodeo, a three-day event held at Harvest Arena that organizers say draws thousands of rodeo participants to the community.
Clark said he has been working in recent weeks to facilitate field trips by students to the arena at Williamson County Cowboy Church where they can learn more about the animals and their training. He has also been promoting the rodeo to the PTO, explaining the importance of the community’s investment in events that draw visitors to Liberty Hill.
“I know $15,000 is a lot of money that goes to that rodeo,” he said. “But how is it helping the community?”
In addition to his volunteer efforts for the school district and the City of Liberty Hill, Clark also serves on the Board of Directors for the Liberty Hill Public Library. He said his service on behalf of the library is connected to his passion for education.
The public library, which is located in Lions Foundation Park, is funded primarily from a quarter-cent sales tax in Liberty Hill.
For the past year, the City’s EDC has been talking with owners of the park — the Liberty Hill Development Foundation — regarding transfer of ownership of the park to the City. Clark said he is playing a role in the conversations as a member of the EDC Board and the library board. He said any agreement with the City would include a provision for the continued presence of the library facility inside the park.
Clark, a member of Fellowship Church, saw an opportunity two years ago to reorganize and bring new life to the Christian Business Leaders Association. CBLA, which has no official organizational status, is a group of like-minded individuals who meet monthly for lunch and prayer. Clark said he recruited local real estate agent Eric Van Natter to take the helm hoping the organization would provide Christian business owners with networking opportunities to share “biblically-based standards” they could use to run their businesses.
Clark said during the past four years, he has donated as much as $40,000 to school and community projects.
But it’s not about the money.
Clark estimates he spends 35 hours a week volunteering, which leaves about five hours to sell insurance.
While his volunteer work brings gratification, he admits that he needs to spend more time on his business. He says the loyalty and tenacity of his staff make it possible for him to do the things he enjoys in the community.
“It’s that thing of being that local trusted advisor in Liberty Hill, and I hone in on the word trusted. I’ve tried to lay the groundwork, and we are selective so that we can service and care for those folks we promised to give from this office,” he said.
Clark said he has big plans for his agency. In fact, 2016 may be the year he relocates from his office at Copper Ridge into the city of Liberty Hill. He said he plans to office out of a learning center that will be adjacent to Liberty Hill Dental on SH 29.
“We plan to build that learning center with Dr. (Thad) Gillespie. My office will be on one end of it and the learning center will be between the two buildings,” he said.
Clark said the facility will be the ideal place to host workshops on such issues as financial planning, and seminars for small business owners.
From a business perspective, he says that is where he believes he can have a personal impact on families and business owners.
Clark said he learned a lot about financial planning the hard way — by experience.
“Don’t let that first car cost you $1.6 million,” he said.
Clark explained that if a 20-year-old driver buys a brand new car for $25,000 and pays $5,000 a year for five years, they’ve paid $25,000.
“But, it cost them $1.6 million. Then when you wait five years and repeat it — what was the real cost to you when you repeat that mistake?,” he said.
“If they had taken that same $25,000 and put it in the bank in an average mutual fund rate of return, that’s $1.6 million (they could have earned),” he said.
“Don’t buy the $25,000 car. Buy the used car and drive it while putting 15 percent of your income away. Buy the new car outright when you have zero debt.”
Clark admits he didn’t follow that advice as a 20-year old, but he does it now.
Clark grew up in La Porte and was a standout player on the basketball team. He then played for Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University), jokingly adding that he was “so good at basketball that he had to pay for the last two years of college.”
While in San Marcos, he worked at Aquarena Springs Restaurant where he developed a real interest in the restaurant business. From college, he went into the restaurant business moving to Houston where he was a fractional owner in a Mr Gatti’s Pizza franchise.
While working 85 hours a week, Clark said he met his sweetheart, Shanna. While thinking about their future together, he knew a change was needed. He had a friend who had become a Farmers Insurance agent.
It was the one time that when asked for advice, his father told him what to do.
“He told me to go get the coupon book (for Clark’s car), took it from me and said ‘this is mine — you go start that business’,” Clark said.
Twenty-seven years later, Clark is still an agent for Farmers. Along the way, however, he has been a district manager, worked in the corporate home office in California, and consulted with other agencies to help them improve their systems.
“I wanted to be an agent because this is where you can have the biggest impact,” he said.
Clark said he learned from his parents, particularly his father, the value in giving back to the community.
In the summertime, his father offered basketball training to boys from the local foster care home. Clark said he recalls his father taking on extra jobs to provide clothes and school supplies to students in need.
Last summer, Clark followed in his father’s footsteps when he answered Liberty Hill High School Basketball Coach Barry Boren’s call to be a volunteer coach for junior varsity basketball. Clark said he helped some players think about strategies for success.
Clark said at the end of the day, he won’t be defined by his financial success in life. Instead, it will be about the significance he was to those along the way.
Whether it is volunteering to help coach basketball, improve educational opportunities, challenge the status quo in the schools, his ultimate goal is to “encourage, educate, empower people to dream big dreams.
“One thing I’m not going to do is keep my mouth shut. And I say that in a proud way. Good or bad, I’m going to expose that,” he said.
“I want to help the people of Liberty Hill keep that small town thing, but be the most powerful group they can ever be. So that people will say ‘holy smokes, do you know what comes out of Liberty Hill, Texas? They are some of the most highly intelligent, independent-minded people you will ever meet. We turn out the most powerful contributing citizens of anybody. Those things jazz me up.”
Clark said he does have a personal goal. He wants to be an Angel Flight pilot and own an airplane.
Angel Flight is a charitable organization that provides free air transportation for medical treatment.