Jim Clarke, Emmy-winning WJLA anchor and reporter, dies

Jim Clarke covered breaking news, consumer issues and corruption. He also investigated abuses at St. Elizabeths Hospital.
Jim Clarke covered breaking news, consumer issues and corruption. He also investigated abuses at St. Elizabeths Hospital. (The Washington Post)
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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Jim Clarke, 75, an Emmy Award-winning television journalist for more than 40 years at what became WJLA (Channel 7), died Dec. 21 at his home in Annandale. Mr. Clarke had a heart attack in his sleep after shoveling snow for most of the day before.

In 1962, Mr. Clarke joined WMAL, the predecessor to WJLA, as an evening news anchor and reporter. During his career at the ABC News affiliate, his work included covering the race riots after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the trial of the failed presidential assassin John Hinckley Jr. and the Iran-Contra hearings.

Mr. Clarke focused many of his investigations on consumer advocacy stories and government corruption. He won numerous awards for his work, including nine local Emmy Awards, the Ted Yates award for courageous journalism and the National Headliner Award for an investigative report on abuses at St. Elizabeths Hospital, where several psychiatric patients died from neglect.

Mr. Clarke was in Norway when the news broke in 1998 about the sex scandal surrounding President Bill Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and he caught the first flight back to begin his coverage. To get a head start during the plane ride home, he wrote his script for the next newscast on the back of an airsickness bag.

James Davis Clarke, a native of Auxier, Ky., was a 1956 communication arts graduate of Fordham University in New York. One of his earliest jobs in the news business was as a copyboy for NBC newscaster John Cameron Swayze.

Mr. Clarke's big break came in the early 1960s as a radio reporter for WGH radio in Newport News, Va. He secured a taped interview at the home of Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 spy plane pilot who had been shot down over Russia. The report made news across the country as a rare first-person account of the crash and eventually reached the ears of the WMAL newsman Ed Meyer, who recruited Mr. Clarke to join the ABC affiliate in Washington.

Mr. Clarke retired from WJLA in 2003 as a national affairs reporter.

Survivors include his wife of 48 years, Lizbe Schuster Clarke of Annandale; four children, Christopher Clarke of Washington, Kimberly Allen of Albuquerque, Katie Adamson of Arlington County and Suzanne Sprague of Portland, Ore.; and eight grandchildren.

Among colleagues, Mr. Clarke was known to be intrepid. One evening during the 1970s, Mr. Clarke had been out late in Virginia covering a story that was in danger of not making the 6 o'clock evening news.

According to his co-worker John Corcoran, rather than not make the broadcast, Mr. Clarke hopped a ride on the station's helicopter and ordered an assignment editor and intern to pick up an emergency blanket and meet him on the roof of the station. The problem was, there was no helicopter landing pad.

Leaning outside the hovering helicopter, Mr. Clarke dropped the tape from his report into the outstretched blanket below, and the segment made it into the editing bays for that evening's news.

-- T. Rees Shapiro

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