Justice Cornelia A. Clark Remembered at Moving Funeral Service in her Hometown

October 4, 2021

Family, friends and colleagues gathered at Franklin First United Methodist Church for a funeral service in remembrance of Justice Cornelia A. “Connie” Clark.

Justice Clark passed away on September 24, surrounded by family at her home, following a short battle with cancer. She was 71 years old.

Chief Justice Roger A. Page told those gathered in the Franklin, Tennessee church that her calm demeanor as a lawyer won her the esteem of judges before whom she appeared.

“Her extraordinary comprehension and grasp of the law became even more apparent when she joined the bench as a trial judge. As a justice, she continued to display her impressive knowledge and acumen, tempered by her innate wisdom and benevolent heart,” said Chief Justice Page.

Chief Justice Page described Justice Clark as a tolerant woman, but not tolerant of bad manners, second rate work or dishonorable people.  He said, “She knew the difference between good work and bad work, between that which is excellent and that which is good, and constantly aspired to demonstrate through her actions only that which was completely sound, excellent and worthy of respect.”

That respect that carried over into her personal life. “Justice Clark was honored to be called judge and justice, but she was even more honored to be called daughter, sister, aunt, great-aunt and friend,” he said.

Chief Justice Page said Justice Clark had a rich collection of friends and treasured each one of them for their unique gifts.

“To be her friend was good. No, it was better because she was the best. My dear colleague aided me, helped me and inspired me innumerable times. Her wise counsel will be sorely missed,” said Chief Justice Page.

Justice Sharon G. Lee spent 13 years on the Tennessee Supreme Court with Justice Clark. She recalled sharing good times, laughs and tears with her. Justice Lee recalls her unwavering love and devotion to family, God, church, community and justice.

“She had a special concern for people on the margins of society. She wanted to make sure everyone was treated fairly. She was a fierce defender of a fair and impartial judiciary,” said Justice Lee.

Justice Lee said Justice Clark inspired and empowered so many women. She was their role model. She made them feel valued, herself included.

“Connie believed when you reach the top of the mountain, you don’t pull the ladder up behind you, but you reach back and you lift others up with you. There’s always room at the top of the mountain,” she said.

Justice Lee went on to say Justice Clark had an inner light, a generous spirit and depth of character. Justice Clark once told her that even though they may not agree on something, she was her friend and would always be her friend.

Someone who understands that sentiment completely is Justice Jeff. Bivins, who was a friend and colleague of Justice Clark for more than 20 years. He said Justice Clark once said the five justices on the Tennessee Supreme Court acted like brothers and sisters. Although they didn’t get to choose each other, they became family with time. He said it’s true. He and Justice Clark were like a brother and a sister.

“Much has been made of the fact that Connie and I identify as being from different political parties. In fact, all too often those who don’t know us try to focus on political issues. As a result, most people are shocked to learn that out of the approximately 250 opinions that Connie and I participated in together since I joined the court, we’ve disagreed on the result in only seven cases. That happens because of our friendship and our continued focus on the rule of law, not partisan politics,” said Justice Bivins.

After all, since the Supreme Court Justices are spread across the state, the pair were the only two physically located on the third floor of the Supreme Court building. He became emotional speaking of their time in the office together.

“I think what I will miss most are our almost daily visits in our offices. Sometimes about court business, many times not. Those talks gave me much insight into a few things, but particularly a love for you,” he said, referring to Justice Clark.

Justice Bivins said Justice Clark used every ounce of her time and her standing to better the lives of the people she was entrusted to serve. Of her length and breadth of service, he said, “Because of this combined experience, I grieve for our state’s judiciary given the amount of institutional knowledge we have lost upon her passing.”

Justice Bivins went on to say he struggled to think what life looks like moving forward without her.

“She poured herself into these efforts until the very end of her life -- the ultimate demonstration of faithfulness. Connie, you’ve been an incredibly faithful servant in all aspects of your life. We all will feel such a void in all of these areas, as a result of your passing all too soon,” he said.

Justice Holly Kirby, who served with Justice Clark since 2014, said observing the way she used her significant authority was a master class on how to wield power.  

“True to form, there was nothing about how she used her authority that was intended to call attention to herself. Nothing that said, ‘look at me!’ In her view, that authority had been entrusted to her. A sacred trust,” said Justice Kirby.

Justice Kirby described Justice Clark as modest, but never shrinking from fully embracing the power given. She said Justice Clark was determined to use that power to the common good, true to her duty to the constitution.

“Even when her decisions were sure to result in political blowback, Connie didn’t flinch. She always did what she felt was her duty. She had tremendous courage,” she said.

Justice Kirby believes the most remarkable thing about Justice Clark’s use of her authority and power may be her intuitive understanding of how it enhanced her ability to teach, to encourage, to lift up others who were doing good.

“People from every part of Tennessee remember how she touched their lives. For women, especially, it was a real moment for Connie Clark to say to them, ‘Atta, girl! You’re doing great!’ Connie understood that her position on the court made her encouragement more impactful, more consequential, so she sprinkled it liberally all over the state. That may end up being her greatest legacy. A legacy of encouragement, affirmation, of lifting up those doing good in the world. We’re all gathered here today to celebrate the life of Justice Connie Clark. We can take this opportunity to say to her, ‘Atta girl, Connie. You did great!’”

Longtime friend, Margaret L. Behm spoke of their shared love of sports. For many years, the friends were Vanderbilt University Women’s Basketball season ticket holders. They also shared many similarities in early childhood, growing up during the feminist movement of the late 60s and early 70s.

“Connie was keenly aware throughout her life that eyes were on her. She understood that you can lead quietly by living exceptionally. The courage and discipline to live as Connie did, exceptionally, never seeking praise, but always overdelivering, cannot be overstated. In living as she did, Connie succeeded, not only in each job, but also enabling women to follow. She was a trailblazer, but she also built the trail,” said Behm.

Longtime friend Julian Bibb met Justice Clark in 1979, when he was in the second year of law practice and she was about to graduate from law school. After graduation, Justice Clark joined the same law firm as Bibb. Bibb, who said the firm was lucky to have her, soon learned what it meant to be a member of the Clark family.

“If you’re family, you’re in. There’s an unbendable bond of love and support. They are fiercely supportive of each other. They are loyal and never-failing advocates for each other. Calling them a strong family is an understatement,” said Bibb.

Bibb said Justice Clark comes by it honestly. Her parents were outgoing, generous with time, loving, and encouraging with children and grandchildren. Justice Clark was always there for her family. She treated her five nephews as her children and she loved their children.

“In plain language, Connie always showed up. She showed up over and over. Many of you here know what I’m talking about because Connie showed up constantly in the lives of her friends. She was never too busy. And her family and all of her friends returned that same love to her,” he said.

He went on to describe Justice Clark’s home as Grand Central Station for family gatherings. Justice Clark built a pool, a larger family room and a basketball court to ensure her family would enjoy their time together.

“Her door was never locked. She wanted her home to be the meeting place for family and friends. Her pool was called Club Connie,” he said.

That family centered approach is what her five beloved nephews remember most. Nephew Matt Perry said there wasn’t a sporting event, a momentous occasion or a family gathering she didn’t attend. She never said no to them or her great nieces and nephews. Justice Clark had a knack for making each of them feel as if he or she was the favorite.

“Connie was teaching us a lesson. She was lifting us up. She was letting us know we can do anything and be anything. There is not a no or a negative person that can stop us from achieving the goals we want,” said Matt Perry.

A private family graveside was held at the Historic Resthaven Cemetery, in Franklin. Active pallbearers included: Jay Clark, Reid Clark, Brad Perry, Clay Perry, Matt Perry and Rodney Perry. Honorary pallbearers included Margaret Behm, Julian Bibb, Chief Justice Roger A. Page, Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins, Justice Holly Kirby, Justice Sharon G. Lee and Lisa Hazlett-Wallace.

Memorials may be given to Franklin First United Methodist Church, 120 Aldersgate Way, Franklin, TN 37069 or to The U.S. Presidential Scholars Foundation.