Reatha Belle Clark King was born in Pavo, Georgia, on April 11, 193 8, the second of three daughters born to Willie and Ola Watts Campbell Clark. Her father, an illiterate farm worker, and her mother, a domestic servant, divorced when King was a young child. Shortly afterward,
King moved with her mother and sisters to Moultree, Georgia. There, her life centered around activities at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church and her studies at school. During summers and spare time, King and her sisters earned money by gathering tobacco and picking cotton. Having no role
models in scientific professions, they aspired to be hairdressers, teachers, or nurses. King graduated from high school in 1954, the valedictorian of her class.
Awarded a scholarship to Clark College in Atlanta, King originally set out to become a home economics teacher. This changed when she enrolled in an introductory chemistry class, a requirement for a home economics major. The course was taught by Alfred Spriggs, an African American chemist who had received his Ph.D. from Washington University, and the subject,
coupled with the professor's dynamic personality, inspired King to change her career path. As King's new mentor, Spriggs encouraged her to continue beyond college and obtain a Ph.D. After completing her undergraduate work, she received a Woodrow Wilson Scholarship and enrolled in the chemistry graduate program of the University of Chicago. There she was drawn to the study of physical chemistry and developed a strong interest in the area of thermochemistry. In the spring of 1963, she received her Ph.D. in chemistry.
Six months after leaving the University of Chicago, she accepted a research position at the National Bureau of Standards, in Washington D.C., and began work on developing materials that could safely contain the highly corrosive compound oxygen difluoride. Her research on other fluoride and intermetallic compounds had important applications for the use of rockets in the NASA space program. Her reputation at the bureau was one of professionalism and
perseverance; she often stayed in the lab overnight to supply quickly needed analyses. Her superiors cited King with an outstanding performance rating, and she won the Meritorious Publication Award for a 1969 paper on fluoride flame calorimetry.
In 1968 King left the Bureau of Standards to taking a teaching position at York College, in New York City. Two years later she was appointed Assistant Dean of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. Shortly after her promotion to Associate Dean, she took a leave of absence from York College to obtain an M.B.A. from Columbia University. In 1977 she became the president of Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Under her leadership the small college increased its number of graduates five-fold, added a graduate program in management, and expanded its general curriculum. In 1988, King left academia to become the President and Executive Director of the General Mills Foundation. Dr. King served as President and Executive Director, General Mills Foundation, and Vice President, General Mills Inc. from 1988-2002. She was elected Chairman of the Board of Trustees of General Mills Foundation in 2002 and retired in 2003.She also serves on several corporate boards, including that of Exxon Cooperation.
King has received a host of honorary doctorate degrees from institutions, including Alverno College, Carleton College, Empire State College, Marymount Manhattan College, Nazareth College of Rochester, Rhode Island College, Seattle University, Smith College, and the William Mitchell College of Law. In 1988 she was named the Twin Citian of Year for Minneapolis-St.