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Owner and matriarch of Durango’s Toh-Atin Gallery dies, age 97

Family and friends share stories and love for the woman who meant so much to so many
Mary Jane Clark, matriarch of Toh-Atin Gallery in Durango, died Sunday at age 97. (Courtesy of Jackson Clark II)

Some lives weave the richest of tapestries – reflecting beauty in the pattern of love and joy they spread along their journey. Mary Jane Clark was one of those finely woven treasures.

The beloved and longtime cornerstone of the Durango community died Sunday after suffering a stroke. The 97-year-old matriarch of Toh-Atin Gallery was vibrant and active to the very last, say family and friends who shared memories of the woman who meant so much to so many.

“The amazing thing about her, really, is that she had friends from all walks of life,” said her son Jackson Clark II. “She knew people who were politicians and movie stars and at the same time she had friends from ranch families and cattle families and all ethnicities. She just had a plethora of friends and I think probably her legacy was her ability to get along with all kinds of people and to be able to function at all different levels. She was as comfortable in a pair of blue jeans going out on a hike as she was walking in the Brown Palace.”

But legacy didn’t really enter into the thinking of Clark, who was born July 1, 1925, in Blanco, New Mexico, where her parents operated the trading post and general store.

“She was never real big on that whole legacy thing, of worrying about that,” Jackson said. “But I think she really would want to be remembered for her involvement in Toh-Atin Gallery. She was really a key person there. It was a family business and she played a really big part in that. And her relationships with the artists, the weavers and the jewelers and the kachina carvers. I think she would just really want to be remembered for her involvement in that business.”

Clark loved meeting and spending time with the artists whose works graced Toh-Atin Gallery. The family-owned gallery opened in 1975. (Courtesy of Antonia Clark)

She was also known far and wide as an excellent bridge player, which she did three days a week.

Clark attended junior high and high school at the St. Vincent’s Academy in Albuquerque. She graduated valedictorian at the age of 16 and attended St. Mary’s College in Omaha, Nebraska, for a year before she was old enough to attend nursing school at a hospital in Denver. She was in training for the Army Nurse Corp when World War II ended and she moved to Durango to finish her training at Mercy Medical Center, where she worked as a registered nurse.

She married Jackson Clark after the war, and worked at Ochsner Hospital, now the Gable House, before returning to Mercy where she worked in the intensive care unit. The couple had two children, Jackson and Antonia.

In 1973, she joined her husband and children in founding Toh-Atin Trading Co., a wholesale business marketing Southwestern Native American Jewelry, which eventually merged with Clark’s Jackson David Trading Co. and became Toh-Atin Gallery.

Jackson remembers her as being the best and most supportive of mothers.

“She was undyingly supportive of her children and her grandchildren,” he said. “She would do anything for them. Growing up with that kind of support is something that a lot of people don’t have. And my friends and Antonia’s friends were always welcome, from the time we were little kids to now. She just loved the connections that we had all made.”

Daughter Antonia said that despite her mother’s advanced years, her passing was still something of a shock as she continued to drive and care for herself and open up the gallery until suffering the stroke on Friday.

“She worked at the gallery every day, like seven days a week she would go down to our gallery and open the door and turn on the computers and work at least until noon,” Antonia said.

Antonia echoed her brother in saying that her mother didn’t care about legacy.

“She just kind of did what she did,” Antonia said. “But I would hope that she would want to be remembered as someone who really loved life. And embraced people from all different walks of life. She could fit in, you know. She grew up in a poor Hispanic community and she rubbed elbows with the rich and famous. And she treated everybody the same and loved everybody the same.”

And then of course there was her mother’s love of bridge, which was an essential part of her life, as was her love for her fellow players.

“She was someone who was well versed in all parts of life,” Antonia added. “And someone who was just always upbeat and just loved, loved whatever came her way. She was vibrant, her life was vibrant. It was a good life.”

Mary Jane Clark was well-known for her active lifestyle. She was a world traveler who among so many other things also loved skiing, horseback riding, bridge, reading and music. (Courtesy of Jackson Clark II)

Her mother was her best friend growing up, Antonia said. They rode horses together and her mother always encouraged her and her brother to do fun things. She took her children backpacking and taught them to ski at Chapman Hill at an early age. She was social and outdoorsy as well as a voracious reader who was always well-informed.

“She was just very upbeat and willing to do whatever,” Antonia added. “She was enthusiastic. She was fun.”

Clark’s longtime partner later in life was Jim Foster.

“She was an authentic woman of the Southwest and at the same time, a world traveler with sophisticated tastes,” Foster said. “Quite a contrast. And in fact, you know, I met Mary Jane when I moved here from New York, and I found her to be a woman that would have fit in as well in New York as she did in Durango.”

The pair bonded over their love of classical music, both serving as presidents of Music in the Mountains where Clark was also a board member.

“For 10 or 15 years we had dinner together every night and traveled together,” Foster said. “So we became close. She was just a very interesting woman. She had many friends and she loved them all. And I think her family never had a day without hearing how much she loved them. And it was embedded in her character that she was ready to embrace and just love people and let them know how much she loved them.”

And despite her lack of interest in legacy, the funny thing is that she certainly has one, Foster said.

“I’m on the phone and have been since Sunday morning with people calling from all over the country,” he said. “You know, people like Kathy L’Amour – Louis L’Amour’s widow – and Charlie Daniels’ widow Hazel, who has called me four or five times. People that have known her and felt so close to her because she was so welcoming when they came to Durango.

“And you know, one of her closest friends was Morley Ballantine,” Foster said, referring to the longtime owner, editor and chairman of the board of The Durango Herald. “They even shared maternity clothes. But yeah, she just has a big circle of friends in the bridge area and in the arts in Durango. ... She was on the board of the Ballantine Family Foundation. Wherever, she was she touched people deeply. And I’m just almost staggered by the volume of calls I’ve been getting from people who want to talk about her.”

Kathy L’Amour, along with her husband and children, are among those who loved Clark dearly.

“We’ve been friends for 60 years so we go back a long, long way,” L’Amour said. “We did lots of things together. We skied together. We rode horses together. We drove to Santa Fe for lunch and back together. We just had many, many wonderful times. She was a perfect example of the great wife, mother and business woman for that area and that wonderful gallery.”

L’Amour was always amazed by the sense of responsibility Clark had for the business and in ensuring a family member was always there.

And whether it was Clark’s love of the symphony, opera, bridge or reading, she just exuded a passion for life, she added.

“She was the most well rounded individual probably the city could have and not be in an official position,” L’Amour said. “She was everything to everybody. And she was a great, true wonderful friend. You always knew if Mary Jane was there, everything was going to be all right. And if you had any problems, you could always go to her and find out what to do about them.

“And besides that she was fun and high-energy and just a great, great loving friend,” she said. “She adored her family; her children were everything to her and her grandchildren, you know, and her friends were paramount in her life. And you could feel that, you know,”

L’Amour called Clark once a week just to hear her voice and to know she was OK.

“She had a great, great philosophy, she just was perfect,” L’Amour said. “She was just everything. I don’t know what I could say about her that could show the kind of complete person she was. And she was interested in everything. I mean, she could talk to you about anything you were doing – anything. Everything was of interest to her. And she was incredibly well-read and incredibly stimulating.

“She was bigger than life. And better than life,” L’Amour said. “And a true, true friend. She was a great asset to that business, a great asset to Durango and to Colorado. In her quiet, elegant way she seeped into your life and became a big part of it.”

Friend and bridge partner Jean Walter knew Clark since Walter was in high school and running with daughter Antonia. Clark was always charming and gracious, she said. And she will be sorely missed at bridge games.

“We played yesterday and I just sat there and missed her the whole time,” Walter said. “Everybody was just a little off yesterday, making dumb mistakes they wouldn’t normally make. It was just a little off not to have her there. We are going to miss her terribly, every time we play. But she’s always going to have a presence there.”

No service has yet been scheduled for Clark.


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