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Jim Clash: Laurel’s own George Plimpton continues legacy of participatory journalism

Jim Clash: Laurel’s own George Plimpton continues legacy of participatory journalism
Jim Clash prepares for his 200 mph run at Texas Motor speedway. (HANDOUT/Courtesy photo)

In the 1960s and ’70s, writer George Plimpton became famous for a new genre: participatory journalism. He was an amateur competing against professionals and writing about it.

His efforts were with Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the PGA golf tour, the National Hockey League, and others. A successful attempt at acting led to a second career where he appeared in numerous films, television shows, and documentaries. Plimpton’s popular books and magazine articles about his exploits spawned a new wave of journalists following in his footsteps.

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Jim Clash, who was raised in Laurel, has continued Plimpton’s legacy of participatory journalism. Clash’s eclectic career — he has driven race cars, bobsledded with the Olympic team, flew supersonic MiG jets, attempted bullfighting — has made him one of the premier “adventure journalists” working today.

The bug started in Laurel

His connection to Laurel started like so many others: his father worked overseas with the U.S. Army. Jim Clash and his brother, David, were born in Toyko, Japan, and the Clash family moved to Laurel in 1959 when his father was transferred to Fort George G. Meade.

In an interview at Oliver’s Old Towne Tavern on one of his recent trips home, Clash recalled how his family was very involved with St. Mary’s Catholic Church while the boys were growing up in Laurel. Both served as altar boys, and later, in the early 1970s, Clash played drums when St. Mary’s experimented with rock music as part of its mass and at St. Mary’s Teen Club dances.

Jim Clash at The Explorers Club, New York City.
Jim Clash at The Explorers Club, New York City. (Courtesy photo/Jim Clash)

After St. Mary’s, Clash went to Laurel Junior High for a year before entering Laurel Senior High School. He developed an interest in science and became a ham radio operator, which opened his eyes to the rest of the world. Along with friend Mike Oakes, he remembered evading the Laurel police after launching homemade rockets from the Laurel Sanitarium water tower.

In an interview with the website inspiring-figures.com, Clash credited his time in Laurel with inspiring his career.

“I was always interested in science. When I was a kid, I built a laser and won the physics category in the science fair. I was a ham radio operator with an FCC license, so I talked to people all over the world," he said.

"I think that instilled in me this desire to visit those places, and one of the places was the South Pole; another was the Seychelles, and yet another was Siberia. I think that partly had to do with my quest for adventure — living out the childhood curiosity that came with talking to people in these weird places.”

Clash credits Laurel High School teacher Bernie Riefner with introducing him to American writers like Ernest Hemmingway and John Steinbeck, leading him to consider writing as a career, and also English teacher Elsie Borsch with encouraging his writing.

In 1970, Clash, along with almost 400 other Laurel residents, was in the cast for Laurel’s Centennial anniversary play, “The Laurel 100 Story.” He recalled that his dancing partner was Class of 1973 classmate Kathy Coleman. He had typical teenage jobs during high school, such as lifeguard at both Larchdale Woods Apartments and the Laurel Pool, and at the car wash in the Laurel Shopping Center. Clash also played in a rock band, Tram, with friends Bob Jeschelnik, Donny Mitchell and Pat Dawson.

Jim Clash is No. 33.
Jim Clash is No. 33. (Laurel Leader file)

Things started to fall into place for Clash when he enrolled at the University of Maryland and joined the staff of The Diamondback, the university’s newspaper. He recalled that his first assignment was to cover “The Bong Show” playing at the Italian Gardens in College Park.

After graduating, Clash went to New York City and got his MBA from Columbia University. After a few years of different writing jobs, he landed with Forbes magazine in 1993. He wrote mainly about finance and hedge funds, with an occasional story about his own mountain climbing adventures.

The adventure journalist

His stories about mountain climbing led to his becoming an “adventure journalist.”

As he told inspiring-figures.com, “It caught on and the magazine decided they would let me write about other adventures, too, so I went into race cars, bobsledded with the Olympic team, flew supersonic in MiG jets, went bullfighting — everything you can imagine, and wrote columns about it. I really had two jobs: one was to write about mutual funds and finance in the front of the book telling people how to make money, and then, in the back of the book, I told them how to spend it.”

The popularity of his columns allowed him the luxury of making a career out of pursuing his passions, as he explained to inspiring-figures.com.

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“I was like a modern-day George Plimpton. When I saw what he did, I thought, that’s what I want to do. I would actually pay to do what he does. Forbes had hired me for my business acumen, but I also was making adventure part of my career. Eventually, the advertisers started getting interested in the adventure stories because wealthy people were spending a lot of money to do it.”

As an adventure journalist, his writing falls mainly between describing his extreme adventures and interviewing famous and iconic personalities.

Jim Clash after his interview with Roger Daltrey of The Who.
Jim Clash after his interview with Roger Daltrey of The Who. (HANDOUT/Courtesy photo)

His extreme adventures truly have spanned the imagination. Driving race cars, in particular, has become one of his passions. Clash has driven at numerous racetracks across the country in a variety of race cars, some well over 200 mph. It also spawned a friendship with Mario Andretti.

His other adventures included piloting a super-boat at 140 mph, flying to 84,000 feet at Mach 2.6 in a MiG, skiing to the South Pole, swimming without a wet suit at the North Pole, climbing the Matterhorn, being shot at point-blank range with a .38 caliber pistol while wearing a bullet-proof vest, performing as a rodeo clown, figure skating with Olympian Sasha Cohen, bobsledding with the U.S. Olympic team at Lake Placid, experiencing weightlessness on a parabolic flight over Russia, and many more.

The adventures haven’t been without mishaps. He broke three ribs when a rodeo bull attacked him, sustained a nasty three-week bruise and pain from the bullet he took, and suffered a concussion while figure skating.

His interview subjects, with an emphasis on adventurers themselves, include: Neil Armstrong, Chuck Yeager, Buzz Aldrin, John Glenn, Sir Roger Bannister, Sir Edmund Hillary, boxer Joe Frazier, Mario Andretti, Jeff Bezos, Jackie Stewart, Dr. Edward Teller, Elon Musk, and others. He has also interviewed dozens of rock stars and celebrities: Art Garfunkel, Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull, Roger Daltry, Pete Townsend, Grace Slick, Butch Trucks from the Allman Brothers Band, Johnny Rivers, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and many more.

His writing has also appeared in Departures, Black Ink, Bloomberg Businessweek, AskMen, Huffingtion Post, the New York Times, Automobile, Popular Mechanics and others. He is the author of three books, “Forbes to the Limits,” “The Right Stuff: Interviews with Icons of the 1960s” and “The Right Stuff: Interviews with Icons of the 1970s and 1980s.”

In our discussion about his interviews, he said the hardest one to get was Neil Armstrong. It took Clash 12 years to convince Armstrong to do it. He also revealed the most popular of all his interviews, based on internet hits, was surprising: Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann on “Gilligan’s Island.”

Jim Clash performs as a rodeo clown in Texas. The bull threw him against a fence, breaking three ribs.
Jim Clash performs as a rodeo clown in Texas. The bull threw him against a fence, breaking three ribs. (Courtesy photo/Jim Clash)
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