By Helena Rodriguez, PNT Staff Writer
Retirement was the last thing on Cotton Clark’s mind until the 80-year-old suffered a stroke three years ago, thus bringing to an end a 53-year career in the grocery business.
These days Cotton is keeping a lower profile after spending more than two decades as a Portales city councilman and mayor pro-tem. He and his wife, Ila Jean, have been residents of Heartland Continuing Care Center since 2004.
Dawn Kryder, the activities director at Heartland, said the Clarks are among the most active of residents and bring a wealth of history into the hallways.
“If you could draw an American family portrait, it would be the Clarks,” Kryder said.
Most people identity Cotton with the former Furr, Food Town and La Tienda grocery stores, where Cotton was a fixture for more than half a century and was known to deliver groceries to the home-bound.
Although Cotton said his disability left he and his wife of 59 years with little choice to enter a long-term care facility, he said it was for the best.
“It takes the worry off of our minds and the mind of our children,” said Cotton, who was born and raised in Roosevelt County.
Ila Jean admits, however, that it was not easy at first.
“With every cycle in life, there is always trying times,” said Ila Jean, who worked for 25 years at the Portales Junior High School cafeteria and was active with an extension club. “I’m glad that the Golden Years didn’t start sooner because I like to do things for myself, cleaning my home and having a garden.”
As a compromise, Ila Jean tends to a corner of plants in her nursing home room.
Kryder said she admires the Clark’s upbeat attitudes.
“It could be worse,” said Ila Jean, who is still able to walk around on her own. Cotton is in a wheel chair. “After I had back surgery a while back, I was in bed for four months.”
Cotton said he misses the grocery business but added, “We’re not forgotten here. We have a bunch of friends who come see us. The old theory is that people do not want to put their parents in a nursing home, but I do not blame my kids. Here, we are waited on for everything we need.”
He noted that Sundays his children take him and Ila Jean to attend services at First United Methodist Church, where Ila Jean taught Sunday school.
The nursing home was not an easy decision for the Clarks’ four children either.
“I am not going to sugar coat it,” Larry Clark said. “It was very hard the first two years and there was a lot of guilt, but for me and my brothers and sister, this has really made us work together.
“We prayed a lot about this. For something like this to work, everybody has to be on the same page. We were all busy with our own lives, but this experience has made us all closer.”
In June the Clarks, who met at a basketball game in Portales, will celebrate their 60th anniversary.
Kryder said of the Clarks, “They are not willing to do anything less than live their lives. Some people think people come to nursing homes to die, but they come here to get assistance with living.”
The long-term care facility is also home to Cotton’s brother and sister, Polk Clark and Elizabeth Wortham.