Mary Lee Clark, Arroyo Grande philanthropist, dies at 83

Mary Lee Clark
Mary Lee Clark

Philanthropist, matron of the arts and children’s advocate Mary Lee Clark died Feb. 25. The longtime South County resident was 83.

Born Feb. 28, 1928, in North Hollywood to William and Theodora Stever, she married Clifford Clark in 1948 and moved to Arroyo Grande a decade later.

A lifelong lover of the arts, Mary Lee was a dancer, painter and operatic singer in her school days. Her love of the arts continued after she and her husband moved to the county and began a 25-year campaign to build a performing arts center in the South County. The drive culminated with construction of what’s now known as the Clark Center for the Performing Arts, located on the Arroyo Grande High School campus.

The genesis of the center took root through an uncomfortable evening that the Clarks experienced while watching their daughter Corki perform in a musical in the high school’s gym.

As Cliff Clark told a Telegram-Tribune reporter in 1987, after having donated $1 million in assets toward construction of the center: “(The gymnasium) was hot and sweaty in those hard chairs.”

By 1999, through tremendous support in time and money from South County residents and cooperation with the Lucia Mar Unified School District, ground was broken for the 750-seat, two-theater complex at Valley and Fair Oaks roads.

The Clarks next set their sights on a Grover Beach complex that would be geared toward children. With that vision, the South County Family Educational and Cultural Center Exploration Station was born.

In another interview with the Telegram-Tribune, this one in September 1999, Cliff Clark said: “Mary Lee convinced me a few years ago that we should devote the rest of our lives to helping kids. Her philosophy is that the way you point your children is the way your society is going to go.”

The following year, the couple was honored as Grover Beach co-Citizens of the Year.

Putting her faith in kids into practice, Mary Lee raised three children — Claudia, Chris and Corki — and became involved in Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts and 4-H. In addition, she was a regular underwriter of scholarships for the San Luis Obispo Youth Symphony.

In addition to her three children, she is survived by eight grandchildren — Jessica, Jillian, Cherice, Lillian, Lydia, Charnelle, William and Esther — and three great-grandchildren.

A celebration of her life is set for March 17 at 9 a.m. at the Clark Center.