Dick Clark Defied Age and Illness

The “American Bandstand” host will be best remembered as a symbol of youth culture. But his greatest legacy may be the way he tackled a stroke in his final years.

Dick Clark earned the joking moniker of “America’s Oldest Teenager” during his three-decade run on “American Bandstand,” which started when he was pushing 30 and ended as he neared 60.

But even if he’ll be best remembered for giving a national television platform to the powerful, music-driven youth culture of the Baby Boomer-era, his greatest legacy may be the by turns graceful and defiant way he tackled the challenges of illness and aging.

Clark, who died Wednesday at age 82, could have simply disappeared from public life after a stroke all-but robbed him of the power of speech eight years ago. But Clark bravely fought back to regain his ability to make himself heard and return to his perch in Times Square, counting us down – sometimes haltingly – into an annual rebirth. 

It’s that spirit that helped propel Clark to the top of the entertainment business for more than five decades, despite never being a traditional entertainer. He didn’t sing or act or tell jokes particularly. But he found that just being a version of himself – affable, but no fool; good looking, but not threatening to guys or parents; eloquent, but plainspoken – served him well, from “American Bandstand” to various incarnations of the “Pyramid” game show to his nearly four-decade run on “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve”

His most admirable triumph may be sticking to that successful formula of being genuine, even after a December 2004 stroke forced him to bow out of that year’s New Year’s Eve show on ABC. He returned to ring in 2006 – a performance both rousing and uncomfortable as he struggled to keep up with the countdown.

Some critics – and, no doubt, many longtime fans – cringed. But he became an inspiration to stroke victims and offered a defiant answer to a youth culture – one he helped create – that favors beauty and flawlessness over not-always-pretty reality.

He showed up year after year, impeccably clad in a tuxedo, glimmers of his once preternaturally boyish face shining through occasionally as he soldiered through his on-camera stints. Still, his voice seemed to get stronger with each passing post-stroke year, with his final countdown emerging as perhaps his finest.

Bandleader Guy Lombardo, the New Year’s Eve host favored by the parents of the generation Clark most influenced, used to quip that he’d take New Year’s Eve with him when he died. Dick Clark made no such claim on the big day, grooming Ryan Seacrest as his replacement. But perennially packed Times Square will feel far emptier without Clark this year, and for many New Year’s rockin’ Eves to come.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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