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HIGH PROFILE: Christy Swanson Clark used her skills to raise money for 3 local hospital auxiliaries

Growing up on a farm, Christy Clark learned the value of hard work, tenacity and faith. After a cancer diagnosis, she used her skills to raise money for three local hospital auxiliaries. by Dwain Hebda | September 26, 2021 at 2:59 a.m.
Christy Clark on 09/20/2021 at her home for High Profile Cover. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

For as long as she can remember, Christy Clark understood there was a hard side to life. Growing up in McCrory, she knew people struggled to make ends meet, saw classmates who went hungry, felt the desperation that led people to addiction and crime.

It wasn't because she walked those paths herself but because her parents, Joy and Bobby Swanson, were determined to ensure the message of Sunday reverberated throughout the week.

"My mom was a schoolteacher and she would always keep soap and things in her classroom for the kids who needed it," she says. "She would quietly help them get a clean shirt for the day or if they needed to be cleaned up, she would help them get their hair brushed and the dirt off. I knew she took care of people who needed to be taken care of and she was very ser- vant-hearted like that. Loved her kids, all of them, for 35 years.

"My dad would do things like, I remember him bringing home a family he had seen hitchhiking through our town and he brought them to the house. They showered and we fed them and got with the church and got them bus tickets and helped them get on their way. My dad was always helping out people that needed a loan, not that he had much to loan, but he was just good like that."

Clark shares these memories like a favorite hymn, the pride in her folks' example still ringing in her voice. Today, Christy and her husband, William, are known as two of the most active and generous philanthropists in Little Rock, their latest effort coming as co-chairs for the 2021 Bolo Bash supporting Baptist Health.

It's the latest in a string of such roles that for some is heady stuff. The Clarks, however, take it all in stride. Neither is an extrovert, nor are they particularly taken with being the face of events that raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. Christy, in fact, doesn't even consider herself much of a salesperson, yet when she calls her voluminous list of contacts, people listen and respond, buying tables, contributing auction items, writing checks.

Even at that, she shrugs off any special ability -- the cause, like the Gospel, speaks for itself. She just happens to be the one quoting it.

"Nobody enjoys asking somebody for money. I would not say I'm mighty good at it, but I'm happy to raise awareness," she says. "I'll make the ask, but that's not really what I like to do."

Gary Arnold, president and head of school for Little Rock Christian Academy where Clark's three boys attended school and where she was an engaged volunteer, isn't surprised by her modesty. But, he says, don't believe the aw-shucks routine when there's a goal to be met.

"She was the fulcrum in the transformation of our Warrior store at the school because she knows business and she minds the details," he says. "She was tenacious to the point that she wasn't going to let that project defeat her. She turned it from 'that closet' into a real retail venue that did a tenfold turnaround. Christy is a beautiful soul, but she also has a laser-like focus to get things done."

FARM LIVING

As Clark is the first to admit, very little of her life is anything she envisioned growing up. She dreamed of going to law school, she became an accountant instead. She always expected to put down roots in a small town but opportunity in Little Rock beckoned.

And the important things, the fundamental things that go to the bone, she still carries from that tiny dot on the Arkansas map and the row crops creased into Woodruff County dirt.

"I honestly thought I would live in a rural community at some point again," she says. "I loved it. Where we lived was about equal distance between the elementary school and high school, so I could walk to both. My mom taught, so she was always around the school. I was involved in cheerleading and just everything. You could do that there; my graduating class was 63 kids, so you weren't competing against 600 people for positions. The opportunities were open to everybody."

Of course, her father's profession as a farmer meant making some sacrifices other teenagers didn't have to make, but that didn't seem to bother Clark much.

"When you're in a farming family, that's not really a job, it's really your whole way of life," she says. "We didn't vacation in the summers because we were farmers. Our world revolved around church, school and the farm.

"At about age 14 they said to my sister and me, you now have a choice. You can go to the farm and help out there or you can stay here in town and help cook lunch and do the house chores. I didn't want any part of the cooking or the house chores. I got in that truck as fast as I could every day."

Life on the land with her father helped solidify her young philosophies about work, life and faith. Bobby invested time and expertise in his daughter, letting her handle chores with a direct impact on the bottom line. He tasked her with the sprayer because he knew she'd calibrate it right and not waste materials; he let her combine and cultivate too, given her precision-mindedness. Christy, for her part, came to understand the volatility of living with Lady Luck on one arm and Mother Nature on the other.

"I remember one day the motor burned up on the tractor in the middle of the field," she says. "Something had come off and dust got sucked in, and it was a fairly new tractor. I remember watching my dad and thinking he's going to come unglued at this, but he didn't. He just said, 'Let's go rent another one. We've got to keep rolling.'

"You just learn after doing that for so many years, you're going to have big catastrophes and you're going to have bad days. The crop still has to get in the ground when it has to get in the ground. You can't stop because something catastrophic happens."

GET OFF THE COMPUTER

All of this -- the feeding of the hitchhiker, the kindness to poor children, the grit to go forward, the call to minister to others -- all coalesced in Clark's character. But it wasn't until 2008 that these familiar and well-worn lessons came fully into focus. That year, she spotted a friend in the carpool lane at her sons' school wearing a wig that failed to fully hide her cancer treatments.

"I'd pray over her and thought about her a lot," Clark says. "One Saturday night, I was thinking about her and thought, I should probably check. I was 38. I felt something and the more I felt, I felt more. I went in early the next week to my doctor."

"She sent me to Baptist to have a mammogram and took that mammogram to see a breast surgeon. She didn't like anything she saw. She could feel five tumors in one breast. So, someone else's experience led to my life being saved, basically, because it was nowhere on my radar to even think about something like that."

It would be a nice turn to the story to say Clark grabbed this latest challenge by the horns and wrestled it to the ground but in truth, the diagnosis was a real struggle to get her arms around. Not only was the prognosis sobering, but the controlling aspect of her personality took over, sending her down rabbit hole after rabbit hole on the internet as if to outsmart, out-think or out-organize her condition. In truth, it merely fed her panic with statistics that all but convinced her the cause was lost.

"At that time, I thought I would for sure not make it through this. I was just consumed with that; I couldn't let it go," she says. "Kent Westbrook is one of the founders of Arkansas Cancer Research Center which is now the Rockefeller Cancer Institute. He's an elder at my church, a dear friend and was in charge of my care. As I was trying to get my head around this, I called him one day and said, 'Got this report in the mail. This number looks really bad. Googled it and it says this.'

"He said, 'Let me tell you something. I am in charge of your medical care. I need you to get off that computer. I need you to listen to me. I will tell you what you need to do and when you need to do it. You just need to trust me on this.' That's what I did."

Two years of surgeries followed, including bilateral mastectomy, hysterectomy and reconstructive procedures, along with 10 years of medication. It was a process that challenged her fortitude, sharpened her will and opened her eyes.

"You know the song we sang in Sunday School that said the foolish man built his house upon the sand and the wise man built his house upon the rock?" she says. "When you have done all these things to build your faith through your growing-up years and as an adult and then a trial comes, you realize the peace that is there when it doesn't shake, it doesn't falter, it's real. You've built your life on this foundation and it won't even budge in the storms, it's just there. It is the peace that passes all understanding.

"Cancer was earth-shattering to me and the most beautiful thing to ever happen. When you're alone in that MRI machine and it's just you and the Lord, oh, there's just nothing like it. It solidified everything that I ever knew was true, but you don't really know because you've not tested it."

"Seeing her resilience and how strong her faith was through all that, she was just a champ," says Stephanie Overton who has known Clark for more than 20 years. "A wonderful way to describe Christy is with Proverbs 31:25: 'She is clothed in strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.' Our friendship is secured by our faith and also the bond of our families' friendship. She knows what's most important in life and she lives that out."

CONTINUING THE FIGHT

The cancer diagnosis also galvanized her resolve to serve others. A full accounting of the Clarks' personal and corporate support of charities would fill volumes, but among the most visible are Christy simultaneously holding life member status in three hospital auxiliaries including the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, CHI St. Vincent and Arkansas Children's Hospital. For all of which, she and William have played major philanthropic roles including heading fundraising events to improve facilities and services. Bolo Bash is just the latest; set for Oct. 11-12, it seeks to raise $450,000 to renovate the hospital's breast center.

"The funds we raise this year are specifically going to the renovation and toward the purchase of a new mammography machine," she says. "The center opened in '02 and it hasn't been really touched in 20 years. The volume of people that comes through there, it's over 3,000 women a month and that's a lot of people, a lot of time sitting in chairs, a lot of wear and tear. Even the check-in facilities need to be updated.

"They also need a new 3D mammography machine. They have two and they need one more, because things get bogged down and there's more wait time because they don't have all the equipment that they need to keep up."

While her current focus is squarely on Bolo Bash, Clark maintains an overall agnosticism when it comes to her charity work. No one health care center can help everyone, she reasons, so to do the most good, she digs in for all of them.

"I'm passionate about all health care because I have been the one sitting in that seat in those waiting rooms," she says. "I've had my children at the Arkansas Children's Hospital ER waiting for them to be seen. I had my hysterectomy at St. Vincent. I had my bilateral mastectomy at Baptist. I did all my other treatment at the Cancer Institute. I see the need for all of these facilities in our community and I want them all to be the best they can be.

"I actually had a guy come up to me at a gala we chaired a few years ago who was quite inebriated and wasn't very nice about it. We were cleaning up, putting up chairs and he said, 'So, didn't y'all just chair something for St. Vincent?' I said, 'Yes, we did.' He said, 'Well, which is it? Like, how can you be loyal to both?' I told him exactly how: There's a place for all of these facilities in this city. There are doctors at each of them who are wonderful."

ON BOARD OF TRUSTEES

In 2018, Clark was also tapped by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to sit on the Board of Trustees for her alma mater, Arkansas State University at Jonesboro.

"Christy is absolutely one of the most genuine, warm, sweet, kind, caring people you will ever find and that comes through in everything she does," says Chuck Welch, president of the Arkansas State University System. "Even when we are having those budget discussions, talking about financial statements and bottom lines, she always brings that human element to it so that we don't forget that the decisions we make aren't just about a financial spreadsheet. They're impacting individual lives."

Given this fact, Clark was particularly honored when last year her husband strode into a trustees meeting and surprised her with a $100,000 endowment for a new scholarship, the Christy Swanson Clark Endowment Scholarship Fund.

"He kept telling me, 'I know what I'm getting you for your 50th birthday,'" she says. "We were in Malvern at ASU Three Rivers at a board meeting there and at the end, Chuck [Welch] said, 'We have one more item of business.' In walked my husband with a bouquet of flowers and that scholarship. It's just wonderful. I needed a scholarship when I went to school there, so I'm just thankful to be able to do that for another student and their family. That'll be there forever."

Looking back, Clark sees ever more clearly that a big part of what she carries, and what has carried her, sprouted out of the home soil of the Delta. So every now and again, she's pulled to return and nourish that most important part of her soul, especially now that the boys are spreading their wings and life distills to its essence.

"I love to go ride around with my dad and look at the crops, which aren't his anymore," she says. "We have a place at Humphrey now where we duck hunt and I love to ride around down there and look at our farm and just enjoy being outside. I love farming because I love growing things. And I always will."

Print Headline: Christy Swanson Clark

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