By Alan Scher Zagier
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Laid-off factory worker Dorie Clark had a choice: settle into a life of leisure whittling wood or lazing around the fishing hole, or find a new job.
At 65, his employment options were limited. But as the guardian and caretaker of a 6-year-old boy whose mother (Clark's ex-girlfriend) is unable to care for the child, Clark can't rely solely on Social Security payments and retirement income from a previous job.
So Dorie Clark decided he wanted to become Officer Clark and enrolled in a University of Missouri law enforcement training program. He is the oldest student in the program's 50-year history.
"You got to be crazy to be doing this," he acknowledged. "But the joy of it is seeing ... the other classmates and knowing that I am definitely inspiring them and they are inspiring me to continue."
With the national unemployment rate at a 25-year high of 8.5 percent - a figure that many economists expect to hit 10 percent by year's end - Clark is yet another example of the displaced American worker, cut loose from a job he liked and forced to reinvent his professional identity in a tight job market.
In a class filled with aspiring police officers young enough to be his kids or even grandkids, Clark more than held his own. The grandfather of seven is 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, with broad shoulders and a physique a man 20 years younger would be happy to have.
The program's physical fitness requirements are adjusted by age, so a student older than 60 only needs to perform 12 push-ups compared to the 30 required for someone in their 20s, for instance. And Clark needed to run 1.5 miles in less than 19 minutes, 30 seconds, while his youngest classmates were required to post a time more than three minutes faster.
Still, Clark was often at the head of the pack during the group's 6 a.m. workouts, said Gary Maddox, director of the Law Enforcement Training Institute, a University of Missouri Extension program.
"He doesn't seem to have much trouble keeping up with our 20- and 30-year-olds," Maddox said.
Clark, an Eldon resident, was among nearly 400 Fasco factory workers who lost their jobs after the manufacturer announced sweeping layoffs at its Miller County plant late last year. The Vietnam veteran and Tampa, Fla., native has lived in Missouri the past 20 years after a brief stop in Fort Scott, Kan.
He's worked as a teacher, truck driver, private investigator and security guard. Clark also spent two years as a deputy jailer in Macon and was briefly a reserve officer in Wellsville.
State certification requirements for law enforcement officers have increased fivefold since then, to a minimum of 600 hours. So Clark was back in the classroom for 15 weeks, brushing up on first-responder training, firearms instruction, criminal law and more.
He commuted to Columbia with two classmates from Jefferson City and Camdenton, using the hour drive to brush up on classroom topics and prepare for upcoming tests. He readily admits the challenge.
"The brain is not as active and young to keep a lot of the information," he said.
Instructor Ken Hawkins - who at 58 is younger than his oldest student - credits Clark for offering a mature perspective in a class where some younger students may bring unrealistic attitudes about police work.
"Younger students take their lessons from 'Cops,'" said Hawkins, referring to the popular television show. "A lot of people think that kicking butt and taking names is all there is to it."
"Age will be a factor," Hawkins added. "But his experience and his ability to talk to people will help. A lot of times you can talk people out of things."
Clark graduated on April 24 and hopes to join the Lincoln University police department in Jefferson City. Chief Bill Nelson said that while no job has been promised to Clark, he values the contributions of older officers when it comes to hiring.
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"You're looking for someone who is fairly levelheaded, someone who won't act on impulse," he said.