VERO BEACH, Fla. - Former Greenwich resident Henry DeBrunner Clarke Jr., the man who transformed Klondike bars from a local Pennsylvania frozen treat to a national brand with an unforgettable jingle, died March 31. He was 79.
Klondike bars were invented in the 1930s by Isaly’s, a small chain of restaurants in Pennsylvania and Ohio started by a family of Swiss-descended dairymen.
The squares of ice cream enveloped in chocolate were wrapped in silver foil with a Polar bear printed on it, as they still are now.
Clarke's company, Clabir, bought the chain in the 1970s. Headquartered in Greenwich, Clabir was a Wall Street darling at the time. (The name was a combination of Clarke's last name and his mother's name, Bird.)
It was known as the “guns and butter” company because in addition to Isaly’s dairy operations, it also owned an assortment of companies, including General Defense, which made tank ordnance and other military hardware.
Klondike bars were unknown beyond the small region of Pennsylvania and Ohio, where there were beloved by Isaly’s patrons. Clarke brought the frozen treats to the national market in the 1980s. With the help of the still-famous “What would you do for a Klondike bar?” jingle, they became the best-selling novelty ice cream treats in the country in the mid-1990s.
Sales soared from $800,000 annually to more than $60 million. This and other successes made Clabir and Clarke the talk of Wall Street, at a time when the stock market was skyrocketing and CEOs were becoming celebrities.
Clarke fell in love with the Klondike bars and brand, which carried on even after he was ousted from his own company. Clabir sold the brand during rocky financial times brought on in part by the company’s extreme diversification.
“I never cease to think about Klondike,” Clarke is quoted as saying, in Brian Butko’s 2001 book about Isaly’s, Klondikes, Chipped Ham & Skyscraper Cones.
“Any time I see one, even though it’s someone else’s product, it it’s not straight in the freezer, I find myself straightening them,” Clarke said.
Born May 19, 1933, in Pittsburgh, Henry DeBrunner Clarke graduated from Carson Long Military Academy in New Bloomfield and attended Dickinson College in Carlisle.
He was active in Greenwich civic affairs and donated the United Way building in Greenwich. He was a longtime member of the Greenwich Country Club.
He created the Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues at his alma mater, Dickinson College, where he served as a trustee from 1978 until his death. He later moved to Vero Beach and was a member of John's Island Club for many years.
Clarke is survived by his wife, Donna; seven children, Robert Clarke (Mary) of Naples, Terilynn Steele (Bob) of Sterling, Calif., Henry D. Clarke III (Dawn) of Orange, Calif., Michael Clarke (Kristi) of Vero Beach, Fla., Danielle Shader (Mark) of Yorba Linda, Calif., Kelly Heartquist (David) of Coppell, Texas, David Clarke (Kori) of Cos Cob, and and 21 grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held the weekend of May 19, in Vero Beach.
Donations may be made to the Alzheimer & Parkinson Association in Vero Beach or the Clarke Forum at Dickinson College in Clarke’s memory.