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‘Prairie Home Companion’ talent winner, age 12, sings about faith for encore

WELLBORN, Fla. (BP)–Leilani “Lani” Clark, a 12-year-old Baptist church member, sang about her faith on “A Prairie Home Companion” as an encore to winning this year’s “Talent from Towns Under 2000” contest.

The talent show, broadcast live April 15 from Town Hall Theater in New York City, was flavored by a good dose of Garrison Keillor’s dry, Lake Wobegon-style humor, but the talent was no joke. Lani, from Wellborn, Fla., was one of six finalists selected by contest judges from hundreds of entries submitted on tape or other media, or even by calling and singing to an answering machine.

Lani emerged as the winner over the other five finalists — all adults — based on voting by the show’s live audience of 1,500 and about 7,000 radio listeners who voted online.

Lani’s family and members of her church — Westside Baptist Chapel in Lake City — were praying that she would win. The reason, said Lani’s mother, Victoria, was not so much the “Silver Water Tower Trophy” and the $1,000 prize she would receive, but the opportunity to sing the encore she had selected — a gospel song titled “I’m Amazed.” The music was written by Lani’s father, guitarist and keyboardist Dan Clark, with lyrics by Val Halloran and Donald Johns, friends of the Clark family.

The song’s central message: “I’m amazed at the works of Your hand. I’m amazed to be part of Your plan. I’m amazed at how good it can be … When You are the Lord, in me.”

The song Lani sang in the actual competition was a “family song” titled “Nitey Nite,” written in 1947, near the end of World War II, by Navy veteran Charlie Piliero, also a friend of the Clarks. The handwritten song stayed in the bottom of an old shoebox until 52 years later, when Piliero ran across it while cleaning out a closet and shared it with Dan Clark. Piliero, now 80, made the trip to New York with the Clarks to hear Lani perform the song, in which a mother, left behind while her husband is at war, sings to her child: “Nitey nite and say a prayer for all the daddies still over there … .”

Lani, who gave her first public performance at age 3 at Miami’s Stanton Memorial Baptist Church, managed to stay calm for her New York City performance, despite the large audience and the excitement of the trip.

“Once I got up there and sang, probably three or four words, and got used to the audience, I didn’t really feel nervous,” she said.

An interesting aspect of preparing for the Praire Home Companion contest, her father said, was trying to find out what the population of Wellborn actually is. Because the town is unincorporated, different people have different ideas about how much of the rural area to include. A “rough consensus” was under 500 people, maybe as few as 200 to 300.

Since the contest, Lani and her family have received a flood of letters, cards and e-mail. One e-mail message was from a student at Dallas Theological Seminary, a father of two girls, who was especially touched by “Nitey Nite” — partly because he travels from his home in San Antonio, 300 miles away, to attend the seminary, and he quickly identified with the feelings of separation from family expressed in the song.

Another e-mail was from a man going through the stress of a mid-life career change, who was encouraged by the words of “I Am Amazed,” reminding him that “God is always with us.”

As winner of this year’s contest, Lani will get to go back next year and perform as a special guest on the program.

Lani and her dad — who does guitar and keyboard work for Starlight Studios in Lake City — are now working on Lani’s first CD, which will feature primarily gospel songs. One song they’re recording, “A Miracle to Me,” was written by Lani and her father as a Mother’s Day surprise for Victoria. Another song will feature Dan, Lani and her 9-year-old brother, Timothy, as a trio. They’re hoping to have the CD completed in a couple of months.

Active in their own church, Lani and Timothy both accepted Christ as Lord and Savior last summer and were baptized together.

The Clark family is involved not only in the church’s music ministry, but in its prayer ministry and children’s ministry, said Westside’s pastor, Elmer Crews. “They’re certainly an asset to our church.”

He acknowledged that Lani’s appearance on “A Prairie Home Companion” probably will open a lot of doors for the family to sing in other places. But when the Clarks are home, he said, “they’re in church.”

The Clark children are instrumentalists as well as singers. Lani takes piano lessons, and Timothy sometimes plays bass guitar. They and their father enjoy sharing their musical interest and talents in a variety of ministry settings — schools, retirement facilities, nursing homes, hospitals and churches.

Lani and Timothy attend Epiphany Catholic School in Lake City, and Dan does some part-time music teaching there. As a result of that connection, the Clarks have been given the opportunity to lead music for Friday morning masses.

The Clarks can be contacted by phone, (904) 963-4941, or e-mail, [email protected]

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  • Shari Schubert