Robert Clark is an active guy. He loves hiking and fishing. He likes to play a pick-up basketball game with students now and then. Yet it takes Clark, president of Wesley College, nearly 20 minutes to walk from his office to the dining facility, maybe 100 yards away. It’s not Clark’s pace that slows him. It’s the frequent stops to talk along the way.
“You’re going to come to my show tonight?” a student asks. Yes, of course, Clark says before following with a question about the student’s grades and his grandmother. Clark knows not only the student’s name—he knows the young man’s major, his family situation and his career aspirations. It’s the relationship he has with many of the 2,000-plus students at the liberal arts college in downtown Dover.
“We have never felt so welcomed and at home as we do here,” says Clark, who served 32 years in the Navy before joining Wesley in July 2015. Among his positions, he served as commander of a nuclear-powered submarine and as commandant of midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Continuing his walk to the dining hall, Clark stops to converse with a maintenance worker who wants to know if he’ll go fishing on the weekend. Then a recent grad talks about his new job. A member of a service organization offers a fundraising idea. Some football players want to talk strategy.
“I like being out and about,” Clark says. “It’s amazing what you learn if you take the time to listen and just walk around.”
On moving-in day, Clark doesn’t greet students in a suit and tie. He shows up in shorts and sneakers to help carry boxes.
It’s all about creating community and family, he says. Half of the students have visited his home for dinner. This tight-knit feeling was exactly what Clark was looking for as he turned down offers from larger universities.
“Wesley is a community,” says Bill Willis, a Board of Trustees member who was on the search committee that found Clark. “He’s good at serving our community, bringing it together and tying it in with the larger community around the school.”
Making that larger community part of the Wesley family is Clark’s next goal. As he walks downtown, he sees possible partnerships everywhere. He imagines the school working with local businesses and government to develop a community activity center, an Internet café, possibly a wellness center, all in a walkable area. The success of Wesley is the success of Dover, he says.
“The potential here is amazing.”