During the height of the Cold War, Don Clark recalls walking through the streets in what is now Russia when he noticed that he and his associate were being followed. Two men with briefcases containing cameras were taking pictures of them.
Clark and his colleague had heard Russia was building a nuclear power plant and they were looking for evidence that Russia might actually be building nuclear weapons. They continued to walk until late in the day when they were approached by the two Russian men who asked when they planned to stop for lunch. The two Americans asked if they could recommend a place, and the four men sat down at a restaurant together eating lunch and comparing stories of their respective home countries.
“It never happened like that again,” Clark said during a recent interview at his apartment at The Springs at Whitefish. Clark spent 23 years in the Air Force retiring as a colonel after a career primarily in intelligence while working in the Air Force Security Service, which was essentially the intelligence branch of the Air Force charged with monitoring the Eastern bloc countries.
“Instead of flying like most people, I was mostly spying,” Clark said. “I was a military attaché — we were legal spies. Russians had them in America and we had them in Russia. We had a special pass than enabled us to travel around the country.”
He served as an attaché in Russia and Turkey collecting intelligence. He was also the Soviet specialist on numerous U.S. delegations such as Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, the Law of the Seas Convention and the Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions talks.
Clark grew up in Texas and attended Southern Methodist University where he had a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps scholarship that required him to spend two years on active duty with the Air Force.
During his career, in addition to living two years each in Russia and Turkey, he also worked in Japan and would serve in Washington, D.C., in the Joint Chiefs of Staff with the Department of Defense.
While on leave to Texas, Clark met his wife Pat and today they have been married for 61 years. They have two sons, who spent part of their childhood overseas during Clark’s military career.
During their time in Russia, Pat would often meet with the wives of diplomats for social events. She recalls the treat of eating ice cream on the street corner even in the middle of winter, something that she says back then would not have happened in the U.S.
“She would cultivate relationships with the diplomat’s wives,” he said. “They would organize social events on the weekends while the Russians listened in on the telephone.”
Pat recalls the time she was organizing a dinner party. She picked up the phone to dial and heard the click that meant someone was listening.
“I told them what I was doing and said it would save both of us time if they stopped listening,” she said. “I had eight calls in a row to make and I knew it would be more efficient for both sides.”
The Clarks say they both got used to having someone always watching or listening in on their lives.
“It was amusing, but I knew it was their job,” Pat said.
“Mostly it was amusing,” Don added. “There was a few times I had guns pointed at me and I would pull out my diplomat pass. I was usually some place I wasn’t supposed to be when that happened.”
Clark’s work in the military took him to several countries and some of those travels provided memories to last a lifetime. While staying in Vienna, Austria, for the Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction talks for three months, he got the opportunity to ski. On the slopes he met a young girl who introduced him to her parents, who invited him and his colleagues to come to a party at a palace where the movie “The Sound of Music” was filmed.
“It gave me a greater appreciation for being an American citizen,” he said. “I’m a great believer in democracy — it’s been good to me.”
After being told he couldn’t qualify to be promoted to general because he didn’t serve in Vietnam, and the Air Force wouldn’t send him there because his experience in Russia made him a target for kidnapping, Clark decided it was time to retire.
He found a second career as the assistant to the president at Montana State University and was a professor teaching classes in international affairs. While at MSU he wrote a weekly newspaper column on politics and international affairs for several Montana dailies. He lectured across the U.S. and Europe speaking on international affairs and his approach that he calls Macro-Family Studies, the belief that all of the citizens of the globe need to look at one another as members of the same family of humankind.
“Most of the students had never been exposed to someone involved in international affairs rather than just reading about,” he said. “I throughly enjoyed teaching. It was most pleasing watching young people blossom.”
Clark began writing adventure fiction novels in 1990 that often revolving around global politics. His novel “Mission to Novgorod” centers on a U.S. attaché in Moscow during the Cold War, who surrenders a promising career in intelligence in order to save the life of a gifted American woman whom fate has placed in a position of strategic vulnerability.
“The inspiration for most of them definitely came from my work,” he said. “My novels always have a little romance and the good guys always win.”
After retiring from MSU, the couple moved to Bigfork. For many years Clark served as a volunteer with CASA for Kids, advocating for roughly 10 children through the court system.
Today, he and Pat are living a quieter life in Whitefish proudly sharing stories about their sons and three grandsons.
“We’ve been blessed,” Clark says. “We’re very lucky people.”