Clark, Belle LaVerne Harrell (1929–2008)

By: Darren Bunte

Type: Biography

Published: October 5, 2021

Updated: October 5, 2021


LaVerne Harrell Clark, noted author, folklorist, and photographer, was born Belle LaVerne Harrell on June 7, 1929, in the Central Texas town of Smithville, to James Boyce Harrel and Isabella Ocie (Bunte) Harrell. Her father was a fireman on the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad and later worked as a painter, and her mother was a homemaker. An only child, LaVerne grew up amongst a family of storytellers, and, as a child, she sketched as she listened to their recollections. She acquired a love of history, poetry, and writing from her father, a sixth-generation Texan. The stories he told her were her favorites.    

After graduating from Smithville High School in 1946, she attended Texas State College for Women (present-day Texas Woman’s University) in Denton. As an undergraduate, she served as managing editor of the Daily Lass-O. Additionally, she was vice president of Theta Sigma Phi, on the dean’s list, and a member of the Press Club and Philomathia Literary Society. Laverne claimed that classes she took at Texas State College for Women (TSCW) sparked her interest in folklore and photography. She graduated from TSCW in 1950 with a bachelor of arts in journalism.

LaVerne continued her education with graduate work at Columbia University in New York City. While residing in New York, she worked in advertising and sales at the Columbia University Press and promotion-news for the Episcopal Diocese Bulletin. She got her start as she published her first portrait, a bust shot of poet Robert Peter Tristram Coffin, in The American Scandinavian Review. Meanwhile, in a creative writing class at Columbia, she met another Texan, who became the love of her life. L. D. Clark, a native of Gainesville, Texas, and a veteran of the U. S Army Air Forces in World War II, later became a distinguished author, critic, and well-known scholar of D. H. Lawrence. L. D. Clark and Belle LaVerne Harrell married at the First Presbyterian Church in Smithville, Texas, on September 15, 1951. At the time of her marriage she was an amusements reporter for the Fort Worth Press.

A few years later, the Clarks moved to Tucson, Arizona. LaVerne Clark continued her graduate studies at the University of Arizona where her husband was a professor of English. She obtained a master of arts in English and anthropology and a master of fine arts in creative writing and in 1962 became the first director of the University of Arizona Poetry Center. She held the position until 1966 when she resigned to pursue her writing career full-time.

They Sang for Horses: The Impact of the Horse on Navajo and Apache Folklore, published in 1966 by the University of Arizona Press, was LaVerne Clark’s first major work. Clark traveled extensively studying Native Americans for this book, which won the 1967 University of Chicago Folklore Prize. It also received the 1968 nonfiction award of the National League of American Pen Women. A revised edition, published in 2001 by University Press of Colorado, contains thirty-five of Clark’s photographs of Navajo and Apache lifeways.

LaVerne Harrell Clark also published two poetry-related books for which she served as photographer and co-editor. The Face of Poetry: 101 Poets in Two Significant Decades—the 60’s and the 70’s (1976) contains poems (self–portraits in verse) by the 101 poets opposite LaVerne Clark’s photographs of them and features a foreword and poem written by Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Eberhart. The anthology’s biographical companion, Focus 101: An Illustrated Biography of 101 Poets of the 60’s and 70’s (1979) offers a different photo of each poet along with their biography.

Hermes House Press published LaVerne Clark’s The Deadly Swarm and Other Stories in 1985. Set in the Southwest, this collection of short story fiction, received several awards, including the Julian Ocean Literature Prize; First Place, National Biennial Letters Award National League of American Pen Women; and Finalist, Best Short Fiction Award Western Writers of America. The book features Clark’s black and white photographs of the ancestral land she inherited from her mother. The property originally belonged to her great-grandfather, Fredrich (August) Bunte, Sr., a pioneer and namesake of the Bunte community adjacent to Smithville.

Clark’s hometown of Smithville provided the setting for her first novel. Published in 1997 at Cinco Puntos Press, Keepers of the Earth is part of the Hell Yes! Texas Women Series. Set in the 1960s, the novel revolves around greed and Texas oil drilling and includes folklore and folk medicine that Clark collected from the older African Americans who worked for or were neighbors of her grandparents. Her main informant was the midwife who brought her and her mother into the world. Miranda Ricks Griffin, born into slavery in 1851, delivered babies in the Smithville area until she was ninety-eight years old. The book won the Medicine Pipe Bearer’s Award for Best First Novel from the Western Writers of America in 1998.

After retiring in 1999, LaVerne Clark and her husband returned to Smithville and moved into her childhood home. She was a grantee of the American Philosophical Society, honored with the Distinguished Alumna Award by Texas Woman’s University, and recognized in Who’s Who in America. Other publications include The Bunte Family History (1995) and a pictorial biography, Mari Sandoz’s Native Nebraska: The Plains Indian Country (2000). Laverne Clark’s photos appear in all her books, in two of her husband’s, and in a variety of magazines and reference works. She impressively photographed 500 contemporary writers throughout her career. Both Clark and her husband held membership in the Texas Institute of Letters.

LaVerne Harrell Clark died at the age of seventy-eight on February 24, 2008, in Smithville, Texas. She preceded her husband in death; the Clarks had no children. The funeral service was held at the First Presbyterian Church, and she was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Smithville. LaVerne Clark’s obituary and tombstone list her birthdate on June 6, 1929—a date that she also listed as her birthday in her genealogical book, The Bunte Family History. However, her birth certificate recorded her date of birth as June 7, 1929. The document was signed by midwife Miranda Griffin and listed the time of birth as 4:40 A.M. LaVerne possibly celebrated her birthday on the wrong date.

The Clarks donated their historic Smithville home and farm property to Texas State University in San Marcos. Their gift established a literary endowment to support a writers-in-residence program. The dedication was held at the Clark House at 604 Main Street on April 24, 2012. Sponsored by Texas State’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, the program offers the chosen graduates one-year residencies and funds several scholarships. The endowment also funds the L. D. Clark and LaVerne Harrell Clark Fiction Prize. Awarded annually to an outstanding, recently-published book-length work of fiction, the $25,000 prize is one of the largest in the United States. In 2013 LaVerne Harrell Clark was part of a historical exhibit at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. The Smithville author’s 1997 novel, Keepers of the Earth, was one of sixteen books displayed in the exhibit titled Women Shaping Texas. L. D. Clark died at the age of ninety-one on March 19, 2014, in his native Gainesville, Texas, and was buried beside his wife.  

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“About L. D. Clark and LaVerne Harrell Clark,” Department of English, Texas State University (https://www.english.txstate.edu/clark/donors.html), accessed September 9, 2021. Julie Arnold, “News story from TWU campus newspaper (Lasso) about Clark’s talk & photo exhibit of poets’ portraits,” Artistic Network, May 22, 2005 (https://www.artisticnetwork.net/arts/221/news_story_from_twu_campus_newspaper_lasso_about_clarks_talk__photo_exhibit_of_poets_portraits.html), accessed September 9, 2021. Austin American, September 9, 25, 1951. Austin American-Statesman, April 10, 1998; May 8, 2012; March 21, 2014. Bastrop Advertiser and County News, February 7, 2013. “Belle LaVerne Harrell Clark,” Find A Grave Memorial (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/54349378/belle-laverne-clark), accessed September 9, 2021. Denton Record-Chronicle, March 1, 1977. “LaVerne Harrell Clark,” Artistic Network (http://www.artisticnetwork.net/artist/349/laverne_harrell_clark.html), accessed September 9, 2021. Tucson Daily Citizen, February 13, 1973.

Categories:

  • Visual Arts
  • Photography
  • Women
  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Authors and Writers
  • Literature
  • Fiction
  • Folklorists
  • Poets

Time Periods:

  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century

Places:

  • Central Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Darren Bunte, “Clark, Belle LaVerne Harrell,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed December 06, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/clark-belle-laverne-harrell.

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October 5, 2021
October 5, 2021

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