EVERETT — Her Everett Community College colleagues will carry with them many enduring images of Cynthia Clarke, a strong-willed anthropology instructor with high standards, a remarkable work ethic and a knack for lightening their wallets.
They will remember passing her office, be it at 6 a.m. or 11:30 p.m., and knowing she was there. They’ll recall the lines of students outside her door and the time she took with each going over early drafts of papers they were writing.
In their memories, they will see her approaching them with a hand out, palm up, looking for money to support one student program after another. They’ll swap stories about her enormous course load, often four, five or six classes, when the expectation was three.
And they will chuckle at the roving ragtag landmark that was her car: a white, stripped-down 1995 Geo Metro with a stick shift and hand-cranked windows that she drove to campus the past quarter of a century.
“When people talk about her being a force of nature, that is absolutely true,” said Eugene McAvoy, the college’s dean of communication and social sciences. “She was the standard by which I measure my own performance and will continue to measure my own performance.”
Clarke, who joined the faculty in 2000, continued teaching during the fall quarter, hoping but unable to get the upper hand on ovarian cancer. The Mukilteo resident died Monday. She was 63.
Dozens of tributes flowed onto social media, and college staff working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic took time to call one another and lament the loss of a character in their midst.
“She gave and gave and gave, and I don’t even think most know how much she gave,” said Debe Franz, a senior associate faculty member in the college’s Transitional Studies division. “She gave her time, and she gave her money, and she demanded quality.”
Franz worked with Clarke on the college’s study abroad program to Indonesia. Money Clarke made from the work she did at the advising center was set aside to create scholarships so as many students could go on trips as possible. Clarke handled all the study abroad fundraising and often purchased the supplies with her own money, or paid the students for their time from the money she’d set aside.
When Franz and Clarke visited a Christian orphanage on Bali in 2016, Clarke, an atheist, started sponsoring at least two children there. She also helped pay tuition for a young woman on the island who was studying to become a doctor.
Visakan Ganeson, associate vice president for international education, also worked with Clarke on making connections between the college and Indonesia. He grew to admire Clarke’s tenacity.
“You will never see her in the spotlight,” Ganeson said, speaking of her in the present tense. “I don’t think she likes it there, yet she is right front and center when it comes to advocating for the students. She is not shy about it at all. If there is an image I have in my head, without fail, every time I passed her, she extended her palm. The extension of the palm was: ‘Give me money. Give me money for the students.’”
And Ganeson would end up giving. It would have been too hard to say no.
Mark Clarke is Cynthia Clarke’s brother. He can relate to being strong-armed by his sister, whose real name was Cindy Jo, but she never much cared for it.
She was 13 and he was 11 when their parents purchased a ceramic shop in Sioux City, South Dakota. The siblings worked there for 25 cents an hour in the 1970s. He remembers the times quite fondly: “I did the heavy lifting and she did the bossing …” he said with affection. “She had her way and that is what I will remember each day for the rest of her life.”
In his childhood memory bank he sees his sister at home by the furnace, always reading. Book after book after book.
A straight-A student, Cynthia Clarke graduated from high school by Christmas of her senior year. She was 17 when she joined the Navy. Her parents couldn’t afford to send the kids to college, but they very much wanted them to get a good education. For Cynthia Clarke, the Navy would be the ticket for her tuition.
She earned her associate’s degree at Southwest Oregon Community College, her bachelor’s degree from Oregon State University, her master’s from the University of Oregon and her doctorate from the University of Hawaii. Her dissertation was based on 18 months she spent in the Solomon Islands, learning to speak Pidgin at a Catholic convent before immersing herself among tribes studying their medicinal practices.
Back in the states, she spent time in the hospital with malaria and several infections in her hair and feet. It was that experience in field work that convinced her that teaching would be a meaningful calling. She started at Olympic College in Bremerton before moving to Everett.
Married and divorced, she had no children of her own. Her working world became the classroom.
“It was everything to her,” her brother said. “Once she got into teaching, that was her life. That was everything to her from sun up to sun down.”
Cathie Wamsley, an administrative assistant for the communication and social sciences division, was impressed by how flexible Clarke was in terms of changing and updating courses to fit the needs of students. That included bringing back an emphasis on linguistics, college officials said.
Wamsley’s daughter took classes with Clarke, who had a rubric describing the expectations for each and every assignment. She would often point to a skeleton in her classroom when students would ask questions about upcoming assignments. The skeleton wore a T-shirt that said: “It’s in the syllabus.”
“The students who went on after her classes were very well prepared to go on to a four-year school,” Wamsley said. “She really got students prepared for either going into nursing and being ready for that heavy and intense level of learning or transferring to a four-year” university.
Along the way, Clarke started a scholarship in her parents’ names and introduced service learning where students contributed to causes outside the classroom. She also resisted the idea of ever pulling the word community out of the Everett Community College name, a trend at other schools. She felt strongly that the college was a reflection of the community it serves.
Clarke hoped to move back to her native South Dakota after she retired while spending winters in the South Pacific islands. She will be buried at the Black Hills National Cemetery in Sturgis, South Dakota, next to her parents and other relatives.
“My brothers will be there next to her some day to keep a close eye on her and my parents,” Mark Clarke said.
Eric Stevick: firstname.lastname@example.org.