Pauline D. Sherrer

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Crossville, TN
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Mike Moser
"I Say"

Published Aug. 6, 2004

King of the possums is dead

Interesting characters are gifts that are given to community newspaper editors who otherwise toil obscure from the rest of the world, doing the routine things that are important to and expected by our readers.

Frank Basil Clark was one such gift.

Never heard of Frank Basil Clark? I pity you. He was two-term mayor of the city of Clanton, AL, from 1976 to 1984 and while he didn't do a bad job, being mayor is not what he was best known for. He was president and founder of the Possum Growers and Breeders Association.
And he laughed all the way to the bank.

Some of the most prominent members of the Possum Growers and Breeders Association were Presidents George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

Frank Basil Clark never took himself too serious and one could always tell when he was getting ready to pull someone's leg by the twinkle in his eye and the smile on his face. Come to think of it, Basil, as he was known to friends, was always smiling.

Basil was manager of the Clanton Drive-In Theatre. He may not have known a lot about the finer things in life but he knew how to promote feature films on the giant outdoor screen.

Sometimes it was $5 for a car load and it was quite amazing how many folks we could pack into a car. On other nights it was four movies for the price of one. The theater would draw in the crowds with promotions like Beach Blanket movie night, horror show nights, Elvis nights.

It was a place where I courted Kathy Sue Mims in the front seat of my folks Plymouth Fury III stationwagon. Since my mother reads the Chronicle, I won't go into those details. It is where I sideswiped Dewey Collins' 1965 Ford Fairlane. Not sure how many speaker pedestals I hit.

Time passed and I became editor of the Central Alabama Independent Advertiser in Clanton, and Basil became mayor.

Part of the reason he was elected mayor was because of his new-found fame as founder of the Possum Growers and Breeders Association. Folks in Clanton had a sense of humor, too.

We gave Basil Clark some press. The big boys in the city thought he was a kook and splashed Basil's picture holding a snarling possum across their feature pages and he eventually ended up in the New York Times.

This led to an expense-paid trip to New York and an appearance on the TV show, "What's My Line." With his thick Alabama draw, Basil was able to stump the panel. When he returned triumphant from that experience, he had some of the funniest stories to tell that I have heard one man utter.

Meanwhile, the Possum Growers and Breeders Association flourished. Basil came up with license plates that read, "Eat More Possum." I am sure you have seen them. They were his creation. The county fair had a beauty pageant with the winner being crowned Miss Possum.

They even sold possum burgers at the county fair and at the drive-in theater. Basil swore by the nutritional value of the possum.

He also started registering possums and would have an auction of registered possums at the county fair. Buyers would not only get a fat possum, but registered papers to go with the possum. I really can't remember the name of the first possum Basil registered, but it had the name Beauregard in it somewhere.

One day Basil came by the office to tell Publisher Tommy Patterson and myself about his trip to a mayor's conference in Washington, D.C. While there Basil walked to the Russian Embassy and talked his way inside. Once inside, he negotiated with the Russians for a couple of hours and when he was through, he had convinced the Russians that he could solve their starvation problem by helping them establish possum ranches in the USSR.

The deal was struck and Basil was to provide registered possums and help establish a possum ranch or two. In exchange, the Russians were to obtain two Pandas from Red China to give to Basil Clark. Imagine what that would have done for attendance at the Clanton Drive-In Theatre.

Now all this took place in the 1970s in the midst of the Cold War and one simply did not have contact with the Russians.

Less than a block from the Russian Embassy he was picked up by U.S. intelligence officers who then grilled him for the next four hours about who he was, how he got into the Russian Embassy and why was he there. He was severely reprimanded and finally released.

Back home, Basil found the entire affair amusing, pointing out he was treated better by the communists than he was by agents of his own country. Unfortunately for Basil and the drive-in, the state department intervened and the deal was canceled.

Basil died Wednesday and his funeral is today. I can't help but smile at the thought of the family having possum burgers following the service. I am sure that idea would make Frank Basil Clark grin, too. Grin like a possum.

· · ·
Mike Moser is the editor of the Crossville Chronicle. His column is published periodically on Fridays.

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