Illinois native Phil Clarke is that smiling gentleman who may be spotted leading the children in the Marine Discovery Center’s summer camps to various activities.

And after retiring from a successful career in business that kept him on planes for more than 30 years with platinum travel status from various hotels and airlines, Clarke is happiest spending these days as a volunteer at MDC, teaching kids how to bait hooks, paint oyster shells or open their juice boxes.

A volunteer at the Marine Discovery Center since 2013, Clarke especially enjoys teaching youngsters about the Indian River Lagoon and how to take care of it. Read about him in our October Volunteer Spotlight with MDC staff writer Lisa Mickey:

Phil Clarke at Animal Kingdom

Q: Where did you grow up? A: I grew up in Harvard, Ill., halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago and four miles from the Wisconsin border. I was a Milwaukee Braves fan and we used to go to the games, but when they left, I followed the Cubs. Even though I live in Florida now, I still have season tickets for the Green Bay Packers. Through corporate moves, we moved to Wisconsin, Boston, Orlando, and then to New Smyrna Beach.

Q: Where did you get your education and what was your career? A: I got a bachelor’s degree in marketing and a minor in mathematics at Western Illinois University, which is 30 miles from the Mississippi River. I ended up working in downtown Chicago right after school. 

I grew up in a farm town of 4,000, so I didn’t plan on living in a big city, but I ended up spending 20 years working in banking on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. I was a field person for a company there and became vice president of correspondent bank service. ​A couple of guys built a technology company, so I went to work for them in Milwaukee as a district sales manager after 20 years in Chicago. Their company, Fiserv, was outsourcing computer software to the same banks on which I had been calling, so I knew the clients. During my Chicago days, my territory was Illinois, Wisconsin and parts of Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan and Indiana. Then they sent me to Boston to manage the sales team in nine states. With the new company, I also sold to that area. Everything a bank does would plug into our system, so it’s software specific to financial institutions. They had about 2,800 employees when I joined them and they just went to 33,000 employees and are now a Fortune Top-300 company. I moved to Orlando in 2001 and ran their operation in Lake Mary.

 Q: So were you a financial guy who became a tech guy? A: I worked at the bank and met the tech guys there. I ended up studying at the school of bank marketing at the University of Colorado and going to graduate school in banking at the University of Wisconsin. I got more into the banking experience, but the new company was really more about the tech side. It was about bankers selling technology to banks. I worked with a colleague in Boston and when we made calls, each of us brought strengths in both the banking and technology side. And we had great support teams who worked with us. When you get into the tech world, they speak a different language.

 Q: How long did you work in Orlando? A: I worked in Orlando for about six years as a sales manager — working with the big banks for a while, before going back to the small banks. I retired in March 2016, but moved to New Smyrna in 2015.

 Q: So how does a guy from the upper Midwest land in Central Florida? A: I grew up in a little town and two people in my town used to vacation in New Smyrna Beach. There are probably 10-12 people from our town who live here now. In the mid-1970s, my parents would come down here and eventually did the snowbird routine. When my wife and I, along with our two daughters, were still living in the Midwest, we’d come down to visit. By the time we moved to the Orlando area, we knew New Smyrna Beach quite well. As residents of Oviedo, this was the beach we came to, and when I retired and moved over here in 2015, we knew this was where we would move.

Q: When did you start volunteering at MDC? A: I started volunteering in the spring of 2016. When we moved to Oviedo, my youngest daughter was going to the University of Central Florida. I learned about MDC’s summer camps through my neighbor’s grandchildren, who came to camp here. I drove over here a few times to see what MDC was and what it was about. I was preparing to retire and I wanted to do something. So I volunteered in the springtime, with summer camps coming up. 

Summer camp was where the most need was at the time and I totally enjoyed it. It was like being a grandpa to all of those kids. This summer, I saw the same kids for the third or fourth year in a row.

Q: It’s almost like watching those kids grow up, isn’t it? A: It’s wonderful. You really do watch them grow up. I also run into them at the street festivals around town and at Publix, and then I also get to know their moms and dads.

 Q: What do you like about working with these kids? A: I think I’ve helped a little bit and I’ve met a lot of good folks who run the camps. I’m just a volunteer. I’m not running the camps or classes. If they need a bucket of water, I’ll go get a bucket of water so they can keep teaching the class. I like being out here and I’ll do whatever they need for me to do. It’s pretty cool because one day, we’re going to Ponce Inlet with the kids and another day, we go to Blue Spring Park or to Disappearing Island or we go fishing. It’s fun! And this year, my grandsons came over for camp.

Phil Clarke helping with MDC summer camp

Q: Did you go to camp as a child? A: Yes, but my camp when I was a kid was in tents – more like Boy Scouts and local church camps. There was no education focus. It was mostly about going to play in the river, paddle a canoe and ride horses. This is a lot more organized with a real purpose behind what we do here. We’re teaching the kids to appreciate what we have in our little paradise.

Q: Do you volunteer all summer at MDC summer camp? A: Yes, as much as I can, almost every week. I’m flexible enough that if somebody doesn’t show up, they can call me and I’ll come over to help out. When I’m not doing summer camp, I just watch the MDC newsletter and see what I want to get involved in. I’ve helped get rid of Brazilian pepper and helped with some post-hurricane cleanup. There’s always something to do.

 Q: You have had so many professional experiences. How does a man who is 70 come here and make a connection with these children in our summer camps? A: They remind me so much of my grandkids. I’ve actually had some of them call me Grandpa. Sometimes they miss their mom or dad on that first day, so I try to give them extra attention. Some kids come from far away to go to camp. We’ve had the same girl from France for the last two years. One little girl made something for me from Bible school. Little things like that keep you going.

 Q: What do you enjoy most about volunteering at MDC? A: What I enjoy most is that parents are giving us their kids for the whole day and for a 5- or 6-year old, that’s a big deal. By the end of that week, it’s fun to watch the slideshow with the parents of what we did during camp. They are surprised at how much we do. It’s not just daycare. We keep the kids going and the parents thank us. But it’s really about educating the kids about what’s important, keeping the plastics under better control, appreciating the wildlife and teaching them about keeping both the ocean and the lagoon clean.

 Q: Working with kids sounds like a lot of hands-on educational experiences. A: It is about stewardship, but it’s also about holding their hands if they need a little bit of help and pushing them a little bit to put their faces underwater when we go snorkeling — just a lot of encouragement. Sometimes it backfires a little. Twice this summer when we took the kids to the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, I had to walk down those stairs backwards. Once, I held a little girl’s hand and went down the stairs backward as she slid down each stair step on her rear end with her back against the wall because she got up to the top and had a panic attack. I can tell you that 203 steps backwards is a lot slower than 203 stair steps up.

Q: You could be playing golf or sitting on the beach. Why do you want to do this? A: I get to go fishing with the kids and I still have plenty of time. I leave here around 3 p.m., so I can do other things after a day of camp. I have time to ride my bike and play golf with my friends.

Q: Do you volunteer in other places? A: Yes, when the church needs something, I’ll help. I go to St. Peter the Fisherman Episcopal Church. I used to volunteer with the Jaycees when I lived in the Midwest. I’ve volunteered with my condo association, but that got to be too much.

Q: Is your family here? A: I have two adult daughters. We moved here from Boston in 2001, my wife got sick with cancer in April 2002, and she passed away in 2003 at age 43. She was at home in hospice care for the last six months of her life. My daughters were in high school when that happened. I’ve stayed close to them and have really tried to focus on them. One daughter is in Orlando and she and her husband have two boys. The other daughter is in Ohio and she has a son and daughter. When my grandkids come to visit, it’s like camp at Grandpa’s house.

Q: The death of your wife at such a young age must have been tragic for your family. A: Yes, but you learn that life goes on. You might have issues, but the rest of the world is still going on. I was rearing two teenage girls, but through that, my daughters and I really got close. Fortunately, they’re very responsible people. My wife died three days away from one daughter’s 18th birthday. That daughter rode horses and even though this had happened, she still went to the barn to do what she needed to do. She still rides horses and teaches riding lessons in Ohio. My other daughter got her bachelor’s degree in actuary science and earned her master’s degree and went to work for Disney in pricing strategy.

Q: What excites you the most about being a part of our mission at MDC to educate others about the Indian River Lagoon? A: One thing I’ve noticed since I’ve moved here is the awareness around town. More people know about MDC and send their kids here. Their parents are aware of the lagoon and the issues, and then want their kids to learn more.

Q: Your life empathy level is probably greater than most. Do you find there are real chances to connect and support the children at MDC? A: Oh sure. It’s a compliment when they tell me I remind them of their grandpa. Sometimes, they will come ask me to help them open their sandwich or help them with their milk carton. When they do arts and crafts, it’s fun because that activity links to the theme of the day. Maybe we have been out and they have seen oyster reefs and now they are painting oyster shells in art class. They now understand where the oysters come from and they appreciate it. We hope that the next time they are at a restaurant with their parents and someone is eating oysters, they will know a story about it. It’s not just about what Dad’s eating for dinner. The same thing is true about Disappearing Island. Maybe they have been out there on the weekend having fun, but these kids know when you walk around out there, there are crabs, fish and birds. These kids growing up here have learned more about where we live and what is living around us

Phil at Sea Squirts

Q: What do you try to give kids when you volunteer? A: I just want to open their eyes to what we have here and how important it is to keep it. I want our campers to learn to think local and to support local and to be proud and protective of what we have here. This is a nice place, but let’s not take it for granted. Let’s keep a balance. It’s going to grow, but let’s be smart in how our town grows. 

Q: Do you have hobbies? A: I love to read and I read a lot, but mostly, I spend time with my grandkids. I go everywhere with them. One of my grandsons is a dirt-bike racer and he travels all over the state, racing every other Saturday. I’m also a huge UCF football booster and I try to go to their games.

Q: What has been the highlight for you at MDC? A: It’s nice to see the physical plant improve here with the renovations and building of the new amphitheater and kayak shack. I’m also seeing the MDC logo around town on more things. Whenever I wear my MDC shirt around town after I have spent the day here, people will say things to me and thank me.

Q: After a career in business, I suppose you can see how one could make a lot of money in our town without the stewardship being intact. How do we balance free enterprise and growth while also taking care of what we have? A: I think getting the different businesses and getting the city involved in what we do is the best way to create that synergy. On our on, we can’t do it. We need help from the outside. I took a graduate class called the “social responsibility of business.” The name of the class was almost a question. How much do you give back? I think businesses have some responsibility for the health of the community they are in. When there is a partnership, it works better. I’m trying to help get sponsorships for this year’s Plein Air Paint Out and when I go talk to local businesses on behalf of MDC, I expect them to have some understanding of what we are trying to do here. We have a partnership with the Indian River Lagoon and it relies on us to make sure it is healthy.

 Q: Our volunteers come from so many different backgrounds. How do you transfer your high-level skill set of working with financial institutions to working with children? A: At times the people I managed gave me training for the kids I work with today. There’s a commonality in managing people, regardless of the size. You have to get to their level. With little kids, I get down on a knee and look them in the eye. I’m 6-foot-5, so I have to do that, but it works. Kids are funny, though. One little girl was telling me about her grandfather and I asked where he was and she said he was in a box at her grandmother’s house. [He had been cremated.] I didn’t even know what to say.

 Q: Why is it important to volunteer? A: I knew that when I retired, I wanted to do something to give back a little bit. I wanted to get involved in something positive and local in the community. There are always things you can volunteer for. I don’t think you can sit and complain about a place if you don’t try to get involved and try to understand it. I go to city and county meetings. I’m not vocal, but I go to try to learn. I think it’s important to pay attention to what’s going on. At MDC, we can get involved and really be proactive in something that is positive – whether it’s cutting down invasive Brazilian pepper plants or taking out the ice cream for the kids on Friday afternoon at camp, there’s always something to do here. You can do as much as you want. And I love it all.