STEPHENS CITY — It was supposed to be a surprise — one eight months in the making — but it all fell apart at the last minute.

Frederick County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Matthew Clark, who is wrapping up his first year as a Drug Abuse Resistance Education officer for Frederick County Public Schools, was presiding over Bass-Hoover Elementary School‘s D.A.R.E. graduation on Tuesday afternoon, awarding certificates to 88 fifth graders who successfully completed the program that helps kids make good decisions in life.

Seated near the back of the room was Matthew’s father, Jerry Clark, who was the Frederick County school system’s D.A.R.E. officer from 1990 to 2010 before retiring from the county Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff Lenny Millholland had arranged for Jerry to surprise his son at the graduation — sort of a symbolic passing of the torch. But the surprise was botched before the ceremony started because Matthew saw his dad’s SUV pull into the school’s parking lot.

“I said, ‘I know that vehicle,’” Matthew said. “I guess my dad was making sure I was in school today.”

Even though the planned surprise fizzled, Jerry said he enjoyed seeing his son interact with the fifth graders the same way he had for 20 years.

“It was funny sitting back there watching him,” said Jerry, who celebrated his 72nd birthday on Monday.

On the flip side, Matthew said it was a bit nerve-racking to have his dad watching how he handled the graduation ceremony.

“I would definitely say there was some extra pressure,” he said. “It’s one thing going to the house and talk to him about my graduations, but it’s another thing to actually have him sitting there, watching. But it was a good feeling as well.”

The 28-year-old Matthew always knew he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. If you need proof of that, just ask Jerry to tell you the story about when his son was in first grade at Middletown Elementary School.

“His teacher stopped me one day and said, ‘I’ve got to share this,’” Jerry recalled. “All the kids [in her classroom] were saying what they want to be when they grow up. She started to get misty eyed and said, ‘Your son stood up and said, “I want to be a D.A.R.E. officer like my dad.”’ So I got kind of misty eyed, too.”

“My father taught for 20 years and made a very big impact with the D.A.R.E. program,” Matthew said. “I try to fill those very big shoes every single day and make him proud.”

Millholland said he hopes Matthew’s tenure as a D.A.R.E. officer lasts just as long as his father’s.

“Twenty years from now, when he’s like his dad and decides he’s going to retire, we will hopefully have another Clark to stick in the D.A.R.E. position,” Millholland said with a smile.

By Brian Brehm for The Northern Virginia Daily.
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All Rights Reserved.