Kenneth J. Clark Jr., ’69, wasn’t always a jet propulsion genius. In the late 1960s, he was searching for a new beginning.
He wanted something more for himself. Something more than odd jobs as a bank teller, an electrical apprentice and at a tree nursery. Something more than the opportunities a high school education had to offer him.
Clark found his new beginning at a growing institution in Central New York: Onondaga Community College, then located in the heart of downtown Syracuse at Midtown Plaza.
“I was working full time, and it offered a full selection of classes at night,” he says. “Cost was important, as I was married with three children. The fact that [at the time] it was a new institution played well with my hope for a new beginning.”
Little did Clark know that enrolling in Onondaga’s math and science program would be the first step in a long and accomplished journey. He quickly climbed to the top of his class, graduating as salutatorian in 1969. Clark attributes his success to the support of his professors.
“There were some great teachers at Onondaga working evenings,” he says. “My favorite was Helen Valitishkowski from Utica College. She gave me a book on differential geometry and told me to keep working.”
Onondaga taught Clark the value of higher education, and he wanted to continue growing in an academic environment. He raised the stakes after completing his associate degree and set out to change his way of life forever.
“At graduation, [Onondaga] gave me the confidence to sell my house, quit my job, and risk it all by going to Syracuse University full time,” Clark says.
The risk paid off, and Clark earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics from Syracuse University. Before delving into what would eventually become his career, Clark first tried to teach calculus at a high school near Albany.
“I did not like the pressure of being up in front of a room full of students teaching what few enjoyed,” Clark says. “So, my next job was with the U.S. Navy at the Pacific Missile Test Center in California. It provided great experience and knowledge for my final adventure.”
Clark’s final adventure lasted more than 30 years. He accepted a position as a contract engineer with Jet Propulsion Laboratory, at the California Institute of Technology developing communication for most of the world’s spacecrafts. Clark became involved with 25 NASA missions, including the Voyager missions that sent the first and only spacecraft outside our solar system.
“It was my first mission, and it had such great success,” he says. “Voyager was the first spacecraft to send pictures from Jupiter, Neptune, Uranus and their many moons.”
Clark worked in a number of countries, including Spain, France, Australia and the former Soviet Union. Interaction on a global scale allowed Clark and his fellow engineers to launch even more spacecraft across the solar system and to Mars, Saturn and Comet Tempel 1.
“The last project I supported was New Horizons, which is a spacecraft now on its way to Pluto,” he says. “This was operationally very difficult. One of the reasons I chose to retire was I will never be able to top that. Years from now, I look forward to seeing pictures from Pluto.”
Though his days of exploring the galaxy are over, Clark isn’t planning a quiet retirement. Along with taking advanced math classes and proving a few new theorems, Clark has plans to discover the beauty and splendor of his own home planet.
“I joined the Sierra Club and go on strenuous hikes in the hills of Malibu,” he says. “Just last week I had my greatest success as a hiker: a close encounter with a full grown mountain lion!”
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