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Caltech English professor, campus wit

Times Staff Writer

J. Kent Clark, a longtime Caltech English literature professor, biographer and novelist whose musical comedies for and about the Pasadena campus helped prize-winning scientists and studious undergraduates take a lighthearted view of their follies and foibles, has died. He was 90.

Clark died of heart failure March 6 at a retirement home in Pasadena, said his son, Don.

An advocate of Shakespeare, Swift and Milton on a campus more inclined to revere Einstein, Newton and Hawking, Clark called himself the “commissar of culture,” who was devoted to changing Caltech undergraduates’ reputation as “trolls,” the campus vernacular for slide-rule-toting nerds.

As unofficial culture czar at the prestigious center of science learning, Clark, a specialist in 17th century English literature and politics, oversaw programming at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium and other campus venues. He also organized exhibitions and established an artist-in-residence program.

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But the extracurricular activity he was most famous for during his four decades on the faculty -- from 1947 to 1986 -- was writing, producing and directing satirical musical comedies about the quirkiness of life on a campus dominated by math and science whizzes.

“He was a wit,” said Daniel Kevles, a Yale University science historian who taught at Caltech for 40 years. “He could be cutting, in a gentle way, in some of his lyrics. He was never mean.”

Born Sept. 29, 1917, on a ranch in Howell, Utah, near the Idaho state line, Clark developed his musical talents at Brigham Young University, where students had a tradition of entertaining one another with song and dance.

During summers off from college, he worked as a bellhop and program director at a lodge in Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah. By 19, he recalled in a 1989 oral history interview at Caltech, he was a seasoned pro who “had been booed by experts.”

He earned a bachelor’s degree in English at Brigham Young in 1939 before enrolling at Stanford University for a doctorate. In 1947, after completing three years of military duty, he moved to Caltech, where he became an instructor and conducted research at the nearby Huntington Library for his dissertation on Jonathan Swift’s politics. He earned his doctorate at Stanford in 1950.

Around that time, he began collaborating with Elliott Davis, a lawyer and musician whose children attended the same Pasadena elementary school as Clark’s. Poking fun at the trials and tribulations of PTA moms, they wrote humorous songs for PTA shows, such as “Where Were You?” and “Give Us Men.” Clark and Davis wrote more than 40 original songs together.

Word of their shows eventually reached the assistant to the president of Caltech, who in 1954 asked Clark to organize a tribute to faculty member and alumnus Linus Pauling, who had just won the Nobel Prize for chemistry.

Clark came up with a song that teasingly referred to Pauling’s marriage to one of his graduate students: Dr. Linus Pauling is the man for me/ He makes violent changes in my chemistry . . .

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Another famous composition gently lampooned Charles Richter, the Caltech seismologist and physicist who invented the Richter scale for measuring the magnitude of earthquakes:

One, two, on the Richter scale, a shabby little shiver.

One, two, on the Richter scale, a queasy little quiver.

Waves brushed the seismograph as if a fly had flicked her

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One, two, on the Richter scale, it hardly woke up Richter.

Richter, whom Clark once described as “morbidly shy,” did not attend the performance but reportedly laughed when someone played a recording of the song for him later.

In contrast to Richter, Clark was easygoing and highly popular with students, who, playing on the similarity of his name to Superman alter ego Clark Kent, bestowed various nicknames, including Super Prof, Man Super and Namrepus (Superman spelled backward).

“Kent had a special knack for making things we thought we couldn’t possibly get interested in . . . permanently interesting,” said Mike Boughton, a physics major who took freshman English from Clark in 1951 and joined Clark’s ad-hoc theatrical troupe, the Caltech Stock Co., which was active for two decades.

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“There were distinctly two sides to him,” Boughton said last week. One side produced two well-regarded biographies -- “Goodwin Wharton” (1984) about a wacky 17th century English rake and treasure hunter, and “Whig’s Progress: Tom Wharton Between Revolutions” (2004), about Goodwin’s brother, a prominent Whig politician -- and a historical novel, “The King’s Agent” (1948).

Then there was Clark’s Gilbert and Sullivan side, which punned with impunity, particularly for a good cause, such as the admission of the first female undergraduates to Caltech in 1970. We honor your intentions, admire your dimensions, we love both your momentum and your mass . . . he wrote in a song he called “What’s a Nice Girl Like You.”

“If you can’t write comedy about Caltech,” Clark often said, “you can’t write comedy.”

Another memorable composition made light of the preoccupations of Caltech’s fabled geologists. Its chief device was a play on the word that rhymes with “nice” but denotes

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. . . a laminated metamorphic rock

The only stone a man can trust.

All others are crude, if not faintly lewd;

They fill a man with disgust.

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Salt is salacious and chalk is cretaceous

They’re not gneiss . . .

Clark is survived by his third wife, Carol Brunner Pearson; three children; three stepchildren; and four grandsons.

A memorial will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. May 2 at the Athenaeum on the Caltech campus.

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elaine.woo@latimes.com


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