Canton town attorney retires after nearly 60 years

By DeeAnna Haney | Jan 03, 2014
Canton Town Manager Al Matthews and longtime town attorney Walter Clark are pictured at their final board meeting together.

CANTON — For nearly 60 years, Walter Clark has offered his sage advice as the Town of Canton's top legal advisor and holds the distinction as the longest running town attorney in the state. At 90 years old, though, Clark has decided it's time to retire.

Clark followed in the footsteps of his father, Thomas A. Clark, who was also an attorney for 50 years until his death in 1967. The two shared a law firm called Clark & Clark, which was retained by the town of Canton in 1953. Thomas Clark worked as the town's attorney for four years until he passed on the job to Walter in 1955 when he was 45 years old.

According to a previous article in the Mountaineer in 2005, Clark's original law office was located on the upper floor of the former Raiff's Department Store on Main Street in Canton. Later, Walter Clark opened his own office in the Crowder Building at 82 Main Street.

Clark focused on courtroom work for several years until he began focusing primarily on municipal and real estate law.

A graduate of Canton High School and a Navy World War II veteran, Clark attended Wake Forest University and went on to receive his law degree in 1951 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"When I started they didn't have a town manager," Clark said, adding that each board member took on a different department to watch over in town.

He was a key player in changing that setup and hiring a town manager.

To the knowledge of a spokesperson for the N.C. League of Municipalities, Clark was already the longest serving town attorney in 2005. The distinction had only been shared with Lewis Alexander, who was counsel for the town of Elkin for nearly 50 years.

Clark has rarely missed a town meeting, which he always attended wearing a suit. Over the years, most of the cases he's represented for the town have been minor.

Many people in town have known Clark all of their lives including former town aldermen Ed Underwood and Kenneth Holland.

"Walter started out as the town attorney when I was going into the first grade," Underwood said with a laugh.

He pointed out that the town has had the longest running attorney Clark and town manager in Bill Stamey.

"That's got to say something about our town," he said.

Holland agreed, saying he appreciated all the time Clark spent answering the board's legal questions.

Longtime Canton resident Edie Burnette hugged Clark as she greeted him at his retirement ceremony Tuesday at the town hall, which was held in conjunction with Town Manager Al Matthew's retirement.

"Walter has a great deal of integrity and to me, you might call him an icon in this community," she said.

Looking back on their memories of the town, Clark and his wife, Iris, fondly remember their time in the League of Municipalities, where they met many lifelong friends.

Clark served as president of the N.C. Association of Municipal Attorneys, was a member if the county and state bar associations, served as president of the 30th Judicial District Bar and as a  board member for the Western Region with the Friends of the Institute of Government.

He is also a former member of the Canton Lions Club and attends Canton First Baptist Church. His daughter, Marti Clark-Clonts, attend the event.

"I am the most proud of my father that I can possibly be and I love him. He's the greatest man I know," she said.

After a hearty thank you for his service, Mayor Mike Ray gave Clark an engraved pocket watch.

He's not quite finished yet though. Clark offered to stay on as the town's legal advisor until they find his replacement. Even after that, he promises he will always be available to offer the town the same sage advice he's given for the past six decades.