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Catherine Fletcher Clark | 1921-2011

Strawberry Festival advocate Catherine Fletcher Clark dies at 90

PLANT CITY — Catherine Clark traveled all over the world. She never missed an opportunity to see new places or meet new people.

She could have lived in any of the countless cities she visited in her decades of travel. But she was fortunate to have been born and raised in her favorite place on Earth: Plant City.

Even when she moved into a smaller house a few years ago, she didn't stray far. She built herself a new home right behind her old one.

"She loved Plant City, and she loved its people," said her daughter, Mary Clark.

Mrs. Clark had been active and independent until recent months, when cancer and other health problems slowed her down. She passed away March 12, just a few weeks after her 90th birthday.

She was born Catherine Fletcher on Valentine's Day 1921. Her father owned a Ford dealership that opened in Plant City in 1912.

She was a young girl when the Florida Strawberry Festival debuted in 1930. She may have attended every single festival before this year; festival officials say they have photographs of her at some of the earliest events.

In 1940, she became the Florida Strawberry Festival Queen. Later, she founded the Strawberry Festival Fashion Show, which has become one the largest prefestival events.

"When she started it, it was in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church and there were about 30 guests," said her longtime friend Sandee Sytsma, a member of the festival's board of directors. "Now there are about 600."

Over the years, Mrs. Clark served on numerous Strawberry Festival committees, and as president of the Plant City Woman's Club, Junior Woman's Club and Arts Council.

Her first husband, J. Garner Helms, was the biological father of her only child. Helms died at a young age, and several years later, she married Moring P. Clark Jr., whom she had known years before when they were students at Plant City High School. He passed away about 15 years ago.

"I was very lucky," Mary Clark said. "I had two wonderful fathers."

Mrs. Clark's second husband's work as a corporate pilot took the family to the suburbs of New York City for several years in the 1960s. She loved her time there and made the most of it, visiting Manhattan often with her young daughter. But she and her family moved back to Plant City as soon as they could.

Despite the integral role Mrs. Clark played in the growth of the Florida Strawberry Festival and her civic work that touched the lives of so many people in Plant City, the people who knew Mrs. Clark remember her most for her cheerful outlook on life. At her funeral, her priest said she should have spelled her name with an exclamation point.

"She was bigger than life," Sytsma said. "Sometimes I'd pop in to see her just to hear her laugh."

Besides her daughter, Mrs. Clark is survived by three grandsons.

Marty Clear writes life stories about people who have died recently. He can be reached at mclear@tampabay.rr.com.

Strawberry Festival advocate Catherine Fletcher Clark dies at 90 03/24/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 24, 2011 4:30am]

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