In remembrance: William M.E. Clarkson, a dear friend of the school

Will Clarkson

Published September 3, 2018

Will Clarkson was many things - a businessman, a teacher and mentor, a community leader, a philanthropist. He was also one of best friends the School of Architecture and Planning has ever had. He died May 1, 2018, at the age of 91. 

Will Clarkson was a former chairman and chief executive officer of Graphic Controls, for many years one of Buffalo’s largest public, multinational companies, known for its innovative participative management. Clarkson joined the school community in 1980 as an adjunct professor in urban and regional planning. 

In 1991, Will and his wife, Nan, bestowed the gift that endowed the Clarkson Chair, a program that continues to enrich the life of our school. The Will and Nan Clarkson Visiting Chair brings distinguished scholars and professionals to campus for lectures and seminars that engage students, faculty, practitioners and members of the public in knowledge-sharing, scholarship and debate on critical issues in architecture, planning and design. Over the past 27 years, the program has supported 44 visiting chairs, all on the leading edges of research and practice in our professions. 

Dean Emeritus Harold Cohen, who hired Will as an adjunct faculty member in 1980, recalls his friend:

“On my second five-year tour as Dean I appointed him as adjunct professor for life. He loved that. And he made a great contribution to the school."

Cohen also notes that Clarkson, as head of Graphic Controls, brought business acumen and a “get-things-done” attitude to all facets of his professional life. “Peter Reyner Banham and several others wanted to do a book on the history of architecture in Buffalo. Reyner asked who could help. I said ‘Will can get it done’, and he did.”

That publication was the “Buffalo Architecture: A Guide,” a vast undertaking involving the efforts of many and resulting in the first comprehensive documentation of the city’s architectural heritage and vast collection of masterworks from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was published in 1981.

Clarkson's impact on the school crosses all dimensions, says Dean Robert Shibley. 

"For over four decades Will Clarkson engaged the school as a dedicated teacher, colleague, and mentor to our leadership.  Every one of his questions, and he always had a lot of them, sought to understand what was best for the people engaged in our mission (students, faculty and staff) as well as the long-term institutional aspirations our school and university.  Will was steadfastly honest, constructively critical, and always kind."

Clarkson's son, David Clarkson, wrote that his family looks forward to the continued impact of the Clarkson Chair program. 

"Will loved his time working at the UB School of Architecture and Planning. He and Nan Clarkson have endowed the Clarkson Chair to bring in visiting architects and planners from around the world to enlighten all of us on their thoughtful work," he said. "Our family will look forward to continuing the Clarkson family relationship with the school to insure it remains a vibrant part of the architectural culture in Buffalo."

Will and Nan Clarkson meet with recent Clarkson Chair in Planning john powell, a scholar in race, equity and social justice.

Will and Nan Clarkson meet with recent Clarkson Chair in Planning john powell, a scholar in race, equity and social justice. Photo by Douglas Levere

Will was also dedicated to the Buffalo community and spent much of his lifetime giving back through generous support of causes as diverse as education, Buffalo's downtown and neighborhood development, as well as the studio and performing arts.

Will had a particularly deep passion for Buffalo architecture. In 2011, he and Nan donated a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed art glass window to the Martin House Restoration Corporation for display in the reconstructed carriage house of the Martin House complex. The window was only one of two to survive after the original carriage house was demolished in 1962.

His role in publishing the “Buffalo Architecture: A Guide" in 1981 was instrumental. A few years later he chaired the Main Genesee Design Task Group that created Fountain Plaza downtown.

A colleague of Will's from the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, former faculty member Richard Reinhard, says Will brought this level of passion and dedication to everything he did.

"Will played many roles for the school: donor; teacher; advisor to Deans; author; and community leader. He was never 'half-in' on any of these efforts. He was 'all-in.' He and his wife, Nan, did not just donate the money for the Clarkson Chairs; they showed up for the lectures and hosted dinners. Everyone loves a winner. People shy away from difficult tasks. Not Will. It is upon the shoulders of Will and Nan (and those like them) that today's community leaders stand."

Urban planning professor Ernest Sternberg, who has taught with the school since 1989 and served as the program's chair from 2011-18, recalls Will's generosity.

"What I most remember about Will is his manner: gentle, inquisitive, always ready to help.  He devoted his retirement to service to the community, through education.  When I first became chair of my department, he sought to bring to me lessons from his lifetime in business.  He said the greatest challenge I would face--even on what I thought of as my little administrative position--would be time management, and gave me a two-page article on ways to become efficient in handling time. How right he was.  I wound up putting the two pages on my office wall. Every time I made use of one of those time-saving tips, I would mentally thank Will.  And he helped our department and Buffalo urban planning in so many other ways as well.  So now let me say what I did not say often enough: Thank you, Will.”

Grateful for how he has enriched our lives, we will miss our dear friend, Will Clarkson.