About 35 years ago, Jimmy Clarke drove from the beaches of southern California to the swamps of south Louisiana to begin graduate school. From that humble start, he rose through the ranks at UL, created a public opinion research service, served with the Board of Regents, became Chief of Staff under Governor Kathleen Blanco after the horrors of Katrina and Rita, and is now the Executive Director of the ACT Center for College & Career Success. He spoke with ultoday.com.

Jimmy Clarke, University of Louisiana, ACT Center for College & Career SuccessTell us about yourself.

I'm a transplanted Californian... actually, west coast. I was born in Oregon, raised and educated in California.  I'm someone who has found a home in a community, here in Lafayette, for the last 30-plus years.

How did you get here?

My Chevy Vega. I was hired by UL in 1977 to be the new Free Time Activity Coordinator.

You and Stuart Johnson (now the Assistant Secretary for Culture, Recreation and Tourism) both came to UL from the University of California-Santa Barbara.

We were students together. Later, Stuart worked for me when I was the Intramural Sports Director at UCSB.  He was in California when I came to Louisiana to work on my Master's in Recreation Management. I assisted Stuart in getting a graduate assistantship at Loyola.

Who hired you at UL?

Actually, Coach Blanco. I was interviewed by a committee that included, among others, Eugene Dial, Ed Pratt, and Glenn Menard.

First of all, Coach was very reluctant to interview me. His committee recommended me, but he didn't want anyone who hadn't played football for him, or wasn't from Catholic High, or wasn't involved in student activities at UL, or any of the ways that Coach used for knowing and assessing the depth of someone's character. Coach could see character on the field, in the classroom, in the SGA, but I was coming from the outside.

The position was actually to replace Whitey Urban. He had been Athletic Director at UL when the NCAA 'Death Penalty' came in. So he had gone to Intramurals until his retirement. I think what intrigued the committee, is that I brought a new perspective to the position.

After waiting for a month, I finally received a call from Dean Pratt who said, "Coach will meet with you." So I drove down to UL, and I met Coach at lunch time in his office. He drove me down Johnston Street in an old beat-up police vehicle; I thought this was a little curious.

When we made it to his home, there were a number of kids around, he was immediately caught up in family realities, and it never was much of an interview. Then he brought me back in the car, and I was still waiting for the interview.

He said, "I'll get back to you, I'll get back to you."

So I went back to Baton Rouge, called Edward Pratt and asked him how I had done. He said, "We'll see."

Then a few weeks later, my phone rings at 4:00 in the morning, and I hear a voice that is vaguely familiar. "Heh—is this Jimmy Clarke?"

"Yeah," I say, "who's this?"

"Heh—this is Coach Blanco. What was your mother's name?

"Malie."

"You said she raised you Presbyterian, right?"

In this age of P.C., that question wouldn't be allowed, but at the time it just was one of the questions. I answered, "Yes."

"Heh—OK, I just wanted to check," and he hung up. Years later thinking back, after knowing Coach better, I was trying to figure out what was the point of that 4:00 AM call.  I decided that perhaps it was a test of my character: Was I at home? How would I respond to a phone call at 4:00 in the morning?

Anyway, a week later Dean Pratt called, "I've got good news, Coach Blanco wants to meet with you again." This time it was a real interview. I was expecting a lot more questions about intramurals and my thoughts on managing these things.

But it was much more about my philosophy of life:  What did I think was important?  Then he found out I was becoming engaged to a Cajun from Franklin, and that he had coached against her father many years ago.  I think that eased his mind.

You've been here at UL and in Lafayette for so long, your daughter (Jessica Clarke) was SGA president, much of what you still do is connected to UL.  It's hard to think of you affiliated with any school other than UL.

Actually, none of my degrees come from here.  I have a BA in History from UCSB, and my Master's and PhD from the LSU College of Education. But everything I have done certainly has it roots in my UL experience.  I only remained in the intramurals position for about 10 months. Coach Blanco decided that I was to become his Assistant Dean of Student, and then shortly thereafter Dean of Student Personnel, responsible for the operation of the residence halls, and campus discipline.

I was on call every night for the first 2 1/2 years. I don't think I went a whole night without a phone call. At that time, it was still the policy that a male dean needed to respond to calls involving male students, and a female dean to the women stude. But after my daughter was born, I finally convinced Raymond that a the gender of the dean responding to most student calls wasn't critical.  This policy change meant that occasionally I got a full night's sleep.

By the way, this policy of deans being on-call for students was certainly unusual-- maybe unique-- among colleges.  It was one of the things that Coach Blanco felt was important, that to really reach students and affect their lives, you needed to be available at night.  That philosophy epitomizes how UL differs from so many colleges in the country, that caring nature we have for students.

So how did you get involved with politics?

Along the way, Coach convinced me that, as a west coast transplant, there were only two ways that I could become fully accepted here in Acadiana: through sports, or politics. Intramurals didn't count. So that meant that politics was the way to go.

At about that time Sonny Mouton was running for Governor. So I started going to events and meetings. Sonny was extremely well-respected at the state and national level. It was an exciting time. We went on the road with him, attended campaign seminars, and I met his donors and many other community leaders.

I did a little bit of everything, including putting up signs, often accompanied by another young dean, T-Joe Savoie.  I should note that this was always on our own time; Coach always stressed the importance of ethics. He instilled that, and I have always heeded that advice.

At the conclusion of the campaign, Sonny finished sixth out of six candidates, and I reflected on how we could have done better.  I asked Coach why the campaign spent so much money on an out-of-state pollster, basing our strategy on someone who was unfamiliar with the community. Coach said that it was because no one here did that. I told him I found that hard to believe.

And then he looked at me and asked, "Can you do it?" I said I had enough stats background, but just having sound numbers would not inform a campaign. I didn't understand the political side of it.

He said, "I got that." So we started Clarke & Associates, which later became Louisiana Data Consultants. That started another set of adventures, almost a hobby, and a way to be a part of, and connected with, local campaigns.

Coach at the time was serving as the KLFY elections analyst. When Kathleen made the decision to run for the Legislature, I was asked to go on in his place. That started a 22-year run on the air.

That whole phenomenon earned me a place of acceptance and understanding in the community. The power of TV is amazing-- even today people will approach me and ask me if they know me.  Frequently it turns out they had watch Maria Placer and me on election nights.

You were Kathleen Blanco's Chief of Staff when she was Governor.

Post-Katrina. I was with the Board of Regents when she was elected, and took a leave to head up her transition team. Then I returned to the Regents and post-secondary education, which is my passion. But when Katrina hit, the Governor knew she would need all hands on deck. Her Chief of Staff was moved over to head the Louisiana Recovery Authority, and I spent the next 2+ years as Chief of Staff until her term ended.

Your impressions?

It was an extraordinary set of circumstances. There was so much need, and her administration was totally committed to trying to fill that need. It was 16 to 20 hour days, 7 days a week. There was never a time when we collectively were not trying to address the hurt that the state and the people were going through.

Many people don't really believe that.

I can't help that. People still come up to us today and thank us. Many people forget the magnitude of the two disasters. It was so overwhelming that no person or set of persons could have been adequately prepared for what happened.

Now you have a very high-profile position.

I'm currently the Executive Director of the ACT Center for College & Career Success.  It's a policy center that ACT is developing, predicated on utilizing ACT's tremendous data and research capacity to help inform the development of effective education policy on the state and national levels.

For example, we just held a symposium in DC titled 'No Time to Waste: Prioritizing Actions for Middle Grades Success.' ACT brought in some of the nation's most significant thought leaders on educational research policy and practice, for a discussion on how to increase the number of middle school students who will be prepared to take advantage of the high school experience and proceed to college or other post-secondary education. We want to make sure they're on track by middle school to maintain academic growth and graduate from high school career and college ready.

What do you do for fun?

Shop at Goodwill.

Really??

I've always been intrigued by bargains and old items. All the ties I wear are Goodwill ties. And I find some of the nicest, friendliest people you'll ever meet there.

And of course, I also attend Ragin' Cajuns sporting events.