On August 10, 2013, a member of the Ventura County Bar went to his eternal reward. He was the senior partner in the Oxnard law firm of Clark, Cole and Fairfield when Gov. Ronald Reagan appointed him to the San Luis Obispo County Superior Court bench in 1969. In his ensuing extraordinary public service career, Bill Clark proved to be an outstanding American.
Two years ago my wife Georgie and I visited Bill at Shandon, his 1,000 acre ranch near Paso Robles. He was confined to a wheelchair as a result of Parkinson’s disease. Bill’s two caregivers, Maria and Tosca, lifted up the tall, determined crusader for freedom, then eased him into an armchair in his modestly-sized ranch home. Many memorabilia were evident, including an impressive commendation from Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger for Bill’s four years of service as Assistant Secretary of Defense. For the next hour and a half we reminisced. Cheerful and displaying the visage of a wise man, his mind remained sharp, his handshake firm.
Bill and I first met in 1965 as members of Oxnard Council 750, Knights of Columbus. Our law offices were just a few blocks apart on A Street. Back in those halcyon days Bill gave a stirring speech at a KC meeting about his Ventura County roots. His grandfather Bob Clark, as Ventura County Sheriff, busted the back of criminal activities centered in Oxnard’s notorious China Alley in the 1920s. After President Franklin Roosevelt selected him in 1933 to be the U.S. marshal for Southern California, Bob Clark’s reputation as the top lawman in the taming of the Wild West became legendary.
Bill also told the KCs about his father, Bill Sr., who herded cattle as a teenager, became a deputy sheriff, then under-sheriff for four years. But ranching and running cattle was his first love, so he returned to that until Oxnard Mayor Ed Carty offered him the job of chief of police to straighten out Oxnard’s corrupt eighteen-man police department. This he did, restoring law and order to Oxnard in the process. Brimming with patriotic fervor, Bill spoke passionately about the strength, courage, and integrity of his father and grandfather. These attributes were in his genes too.
When Ronald Reagan was elected California’s governor in 1966, Bill Clark became his executive secretary. He then progressed through the judiciary ranks to the California Supreme Court. Bill became known for his conservative stance and the succinctness of his judicial opinions.
After Reagan became America’s fortieth president, Bill’s service included roles as National Security Advisor and Secretary of the Interior. A devout, exceptionally generous Catholic, Bill had personally met Pope John Paul II. In 1982 he arranged for the president and the pope to meet. This led to weekly teleconferences involving Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the pope, and Reagan. During our Shandon ranch visit, Bill told me the pope’s wisdom, influential thinking, and commitment to peaceful solutions were instrumental in averting a nuclear Armageddon.
“Several times it was touch and go. Nuking was barely avoided.”
Subsequently arms control agreements were reached. Steadily increasing pressure was put on the Soviet Union’s economy in a strategy Bill helped to develop. Ultimately, the USSR collapsed.
“The President,” as Bill respectfully referred to Reagan, shared with Bill a renowned love of ranching and horsemanship, abiding mutual trust, and love of country. Bill’s role in Reagan’s presidency was that of his top hand, as detailed in his biography The Judge. In 2008, Bill inscribed my treasured copy: “Best regards to Dick Regnier, dear and loyal friend of similar beliefs and causes – God bless him and his family! Bill Clark.”
After serving as one of Reagan’s closest advisers for two decades, Bill returned to ranching. He designed and had built on a Shandon hilltop a picturesque Spanish-style chapel complete with barbecue facilities to accommodate an entire community. He was a founding trustee of the Reagan Presidential Library. The Catholic Church bestowed on him its highest honor for a lay person – the Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (for Church and Pope).
Despite the onset of Parkinson’s, increasing physical limitations, and the death of his beloved wife, Joan, Bill provided ongoing pro bono legal services at his Paso Robles law office. Modest, genuinely humble, soft spoken, an undaunted man of sturdy and reliable character, he played a key role in keeping our nation safe and strong, in bringing down the Iron Curtain. Because of men like Bill Clark we live the lives and enjoy the freedom with which we are blessed.
A Ventura County cowboy and lawyer, one of our own, was truly a great American.
Richard Regnier is a personal injury attorney based in Camarillo.