Pitt professor a mentor for gay and lesbian students

By John Manganero

Pitt’s LGBTQ community lost one of its principle faculty mentors earlier this fall when… Pitt’s LGBTQ community lost one of its principle faculty mentors earlier this fall when literature professor Eric Clarke died of an apparent accident in his Bloomfield home.

Since his death on Oct. 10, students and English department faculty have shared stories and anecdotes from the times they spent with Clarke, and many of them attended a memorial service held late last month at Phipps Conservatory. Clarke was 46. The medical examiner’s office is waiting on test results before declaring his official cause of death.

The ceremony for Clarke was modest, according to Dr. John Twyning, chair of the English department and a friend of Clarke’s. He said the event was well-attended by a large group of Clarke’s friends, all of whom remembered him fondly as an asset in both the classroom and campus life.

“Eric was very active in the LGBT community here at Pitt,” Twyning said a few days after the memorial. “It was good for all of us, I think, to have a colleague who was so well-versed in the issue of sexuality and culture. Anyone who can really relate to a wide range of the demographics we have on campus is a huge asset both in the classroom and just in campus life.”

Clarke had been a faculty member in Pitt’s English department since 1992, according to the English department’s website. He graduated from high school in Washington state and received a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Puget Sound in 1986, graduating cum laude.

Clarke went on to earn a master’s degree and doctorate from Brown University. He was promoted to associate professor at Pitt in 1998.

In that time, Clarke distinguished himself as a commentator and activist in queer culture and politics, as well as a mentor to gay and lesbian students.

Twyning said that role of mentor is an important one at any university, where students in minority demographics can feel isolated or marginalized.

“We came to Pitt around the same time. He was always a dynamic person,” Twyning said. “I helped him move into his apartment. He had many friends in the department, and I can see that there are a lot of people here at Pitt that are going to continue to miss him.”

Recent graduate Peter Mastracci grew close to Clarke during his time at Pitt, looking up to the professor as a successful gay man.

“I first met Eric in the classroom, as his student,” Mastracci said. “By the end of his life he talked to me not as a student, but as a friend and a guide. His courage and confidence helped me through a difficult point in my life.”

Mastracci announced that he was a homosexual a few years ago, right around the time he met Clarke.

“He was a mentor, because I was an English major and he was an English professor, but we were also dealing with a lot of the same issues in our lives,” Mastracci said. “One of the things I’ll always remember is that his father and my father died within a few weeks of each other, and even though we were a generation apart we were going through the same experience.”

Mastracci said that shared experience further solidified their friendship. When Mastracci heard of Clarke’s death, he said it was crushing.

“He was so full of life all the time. He told the most amazing stories of traveling abroad and teaching and just living,” Mastracci said. “It was really nice to have someone who was gay and making a way for himself, an inspiration.”

Mastracci said Clarke’s confidence and comfort with his own sexuality was “astonishing.”

“It helped me a lot to see that, to see someone who was in a position of authority was out and proud to be out,” he said. “I think a lot of other students feel the same way.”