Clarke Otten does what he wants and lives how he likes.
His eclectic Sandy Springs home contains artifacts from around the world: statues, ornaments and old weapons. When a reporter visited him at his home for a recent interview, Otten wore blue jeans and a T-shirt featuring a picture of a giant lizard.
Otten, 60, has devoted the past few years of his life to recounting Sandy Springs’ heritage. The amateur historian has done it so well that he received the Sandy Springs Society’s “Spirit of Sandy Springs” award. Past recipients include Mayor Eva Galambos, awarded in 1997 when she was still rallying residents behind the idea of a new city.
The society has bestowed this honor since 1995, well before the city incorporated in 2005.
But Sandy Springs’ history didn’t begin in 2005, Otten said.
Otten said he often finds interest in the city’s past at odds with the city’s present interests. He’s vocal about his opinion that city government needs to better protect its history.
“I get a surprising amount of support from the general public and a few people from the city,” Otten said. “There is an awful lot of indifference to history on the city’s part.”
City Councilwoman Karen Meinzen McEnerny said people are appreciative of Otten’s work. She said his lecture series at City Hall in 2011 was well attended.
“He’s just wonderful,” McEnerny said. “He’s just really bringing the history of our community into the forefront.”
The history lessons aren’t always welcome, however.
Otten found himself crosswise with the city and a local school in 2011 when he accused Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School of damaging a grave during its expansion project. The city said it could find no evidence the grave existed.
Otten keeps in his collection a chunk of the handmade brick that he found at the site.
“I learned my lesson with that,” Otten said. “You can’t get everybody else to care as much as you care, they either do or they don’t.”
Otten cares. He grew up in Sandy Springs, graduated from high school, and received a little college education. He started a chain of auto repair shops, Professional Automotive Repair, that became so successful, it allowed him to retire.
He wandered the globe, visiting 66 countries. The economic collapse in 2008 and 2009 altered his travel plans. “When the economy failed, the first thing that happened is my travel budget disappeared,” Otten said.
With his suitcases stored away, Otten found a hobby closer to home. He said Kimberly Brigance, director of programs and historic resources at Heritage Sandy Springs, asked him to give an oral history about his time growing up in Sandy Springs. Otten said he had always been interested in history.
He said recollecting Sandy Springs quickly turned into “an addiction.”
“It’s the research that intrigues me,” Otten said. “It has that calming effect, for people who have (obsessive-compulsive disorder), of putting together picture puzzles.”
For the last three years he’s been working on a book that he hopes will be the definitive word on what happened in Sandy Springs and, more importantly, what didn’t. It’s currently at 400 pages, and counting.
He said what little has been written down are no more than “fables” unsubstantiated by the facts. He sees his book project in some ways as a massive correction.
“I think this is my real point of pursuing this,” he said. “I feel like educating local people in Sandy Springs about their rich cultural heritage will create a stronger sense of community.”
Otten’s research also took him in another direction. He founded a film studio, Southern Heritage Productions, which will produce historical documentaries.
He said he won’t focus solely on the Civil War, because that’s only a brief moment in time. The American Indians, early settlers, struggling farmers and wealthy investors all played their part.
So what part does Otten play?
Otten takes pride in helping Sandy Springs residents better understand their roots. He also sees it as a way to leave a little part of himself behind.
“I don’t have any children,” Otten said. “What legacy will I leave? My legacy will be my research.”