The Magazine of South Carolina

Walter Cox, Dean of Clemson


   Cox as a baseball coach.

Cox with a bronze replica of himself.

Cox with former Clemson University presidents.

By Jack A. McKenzie

An early draft for the inscription on the plaque next to Walter Cox’s statue on the Clemson University campus reads: The epitome of what love and loyalty for Clemson are all about Forever. Ultimately, a more biographically detailed narrative was chosen for the plaque, but one would be hard pressed to find a more fitting description of Walter Cox than as a man who represents timeless love and loyalty for Clemson, its students and alumni.

For more than 65 years spanning two centuries, Walter Cox has been a part of Clemson. He’s done everything from clear land for the football stadium to serve as the school’s president. Most importantly, he has touched the lives of tens of thousands of Clemson students, from the uniform-wearing cadets of the 1930s and ’40s to the baggy-pants-and-backward-cap generation of today.

Cox’s statue sits on a bench in a plaza dedicated to him in 1998. The message on a crumpled note someone left with the statue suggests that even when cast in bronze, Walter Cox exudes care and kindness. It reads: "Thank you for letting me talk with you."

"Dean Cox transcends time," says Clemson development officer JoVanna King, who has traveled thousands of miles with Cox on fund-raising visits. "Everywhere you go, people of all ages know him and love him. I’ve even seen a court case stopped because both of the lawyers and the judge wanted to speak with Dean Cox."

Almost 100,000 students have enrolled at Clemson since Walter Cox first stepped on the campus as a freshman from Belton in 1935. He feels a special kinship with them all. "Nothing is more satisfying than when they come back for a reunion and I get to visit with them and hear about their successes," he says. "To have the opportunity to be associated with so many wonderful young men and women is the best part of it all. I’ve been blessed to have had the experiences I’ve had."

Cox’s Clemson experiences started with a surprise visit from a young Tiger football coach - Frank Howard. "I was the captain of the football team at Belton High," Cox says. "We were not really very competitive, but we had a lot of fun playing. I came home one day to find Coach Howard talking with my parents about my going to Clemson. My father and uncle wanted me to go to Furman, but my mother and aunt favored Clemson. Clemson offered to pay one-fourth of my expenses - about $100 - so off I went."

Except for a year of military service in the South Pacific, he’s been at Clemson ever since.

Clemson was an all-male military school until 1955. Thus, the founder of the broad-based, multifaceted program of activities and services that Clemson students enjoy today began his own student days as a freshman "rat" in a cadet corps. While rising through the ranks to become a company commander, he improved his position on the football team. After two years on the sidelines, he became an all-state guard. After graduating in 1939, he gave West Point a brief try but returned to Clemson for a year of postgraduate study, during which he anchored the Tiger front line that helped defeat Boston College in the January 1, 1940, Cotton Bowl.

During the ’40s, he worked for Clemson athletics in a number of capacities: assistant football coach, business manager, baseball coach, recruiter, fund-raiser. He even filled in for the boxing coach, who was called into the military, and helped clear land for the football stadium with handsaws, chains and mules.

"We called him ‘Git-Lo’ back then," says Phil Prince of Mount Pleasant, who was a lineman on the Clemson football team in the 1940s and who, like Cox, later would serve as president of the university. "Dean Cox was our line coach, and he would yell at us to ‘Get low! Get low!’ which we adapted into a nickname for him."

Prince tells that story with a smile in his voice, then continues: "But what really makes Dean Cox so special is his longevity and the number of young people he has helped and counseled through all of those years. He has helped so many people get into Clemson and then stay at Clemson and then stay in touch with Clemson."

Cox’s transition from coach to dean occurred during the 1950s, perhaps the most pivotal decade in Clemson’s 112-year history. Enrollment surged after World War II, and Clemson president Robert F. Poole realized student needs and expectations were changing. He appointed Cox special assistant to the president and charged him with developing a student activities program. Soon, Cox also was serving as director of public relations and alumni affairs.

Then in 1955, the Board of Trustees, acting on recommendations in a comprehensive management study, made Clemson a civilian, co-educational institution. "The Board made its decision in the summer, and we were told to be co-ed and civilian by September," says Cox, who subsequently became dean of students. He would be Clemson’s chief student affairs officer for the next 30 years.

During that time, as annual enrollment grew from 2,700 to more than 12,500, Cox presided over milestones ranging from the peaceful desegregation of the student body to the development of a student government and student judicial system. But as instrumental as he was in Clemson’s transformation into a university, his care for individual students is his strongest legacy.

"During my sophomore year, I had hit an emotional low," remembers John Walker, Class of 1958. "My father had died unexpectedly the previous year, and Clemson had just eliminated the Corps of Cadets. I was very confused about what I wanted to and should do with my life.

"I visited Dean Cox and discussed the situation with him. At the end of the meeting, he said, ‘John, I think you need to get away from the pressure of school and relax so you can sort things out. Stay as long as you need, and when you return, come see me and I’ll provide you with excused absence slips for all your classes.’ In the current world, this may not seem like much. At Clemson in 1955, this was a very big deal!

"I followed his suggestion and went home for a couple of weeks," Walker says. "It was exactly what I needed."

Walker today is a successful businessman and one of Clemson’s major benefactors and most active volunteer leaders. The golf course at the Clemson conference center complex is named for his father. At the course’s dedication in 1995, Walker spoke of his admiration for Walter Cox. "I stated that Clemson is unique - an institution with a heart. My contact with Dean Cox played a major role in convincing me of this fact."

Time has strengthened Walker’s opinion: "I have visited with Dean Cox through the years, and he has always had time to say hello, even if he had to interrupt a meeting. His sincere ability to make me feel important is a gift that I know he has freely shared with others, as well. Here truly is a Clemson gentleman whom we all would do well to emulate."

Horry County native Bob Brooks tells a similar story. He arrived at Clemson in the late ’50s with a picnic lunch, a high school transcript, "maybe a buck or two in my pockets," and no idea how he was going to pay for college. Then he met dean of students Walter Cox, who helped the boy secure a loan and get through the enrollment process.

"That’s what Clemson is all about, to me - taking a personal interest in students and helping them achieve their potential," says Brooks, who graduated in 1960. He went on to start his own business, Eastern Foods, and become the principal benefactor for Clemson’s Brooks Center for the Performing Arts and Brooks Institute for Sports Science.

Clemson was still adjusting to civilian status when events such as war, Woodstock and Watergate sparked student protests and activism on the nation’s college campuses in the 1960s and ’70s. Cox says Clemson students "always acted very responsibly. They wanted to be heard, but they were not interested in stirring things up."

Jerry Stafford, Class of 1963, says Cox provided the right combination of respect and guidance for students during those turbulent times. Stafford was editor of The Chronicle, a student-run, often controversial literary magazine. "Like most college editors, I pushed the envelope, so to speak, in seeing how far we could go with liberal and creative expression. Dean Cox provided invaluable influence in helping us maintain the right balance between being informative and entertaining while maintaining good taste and effective representation of the Clemson spirit."

Stafford is today vice president for corporate communications for Santee Cooper, the state-owned electric and water utility headquartered in Moncks Corner - another organization upon which Cox has had a major impact. Cox served for 21 years on the Santee Cooper board of directors, setting the record as the board’s longest-serving member. In his honor, Santee Cooper donated funds in 1996 for a 6,000-square-foot facility at the Robert M. Cooper 4-H Leadership Center in Clarendon County. The Walter T. Cox Center is the focal point for Camp Bob Cooper’s year-round educational program.

At the request of the Clemson Board of Trustees, Cox left his post as vice president for student affairs in July 1985 to become the university’s 10th president, serving until Max Lennon assumed the presidency in March 1986. A few months later, Cox once again was called on to fill a key position temporarily. From July 1986 until March 1987, he served as vice president for institutional advancement. Although he retired from full-time employment in April 1987, he remains active as a consultant and goodwill ambassador for the university.

"Walter Cox embodies the spirit of Clemson," says Jim Barker, the university’s current president and a 1970 Clemson graduate. "His life’s work is everywhere around us on the Clemson campus. It is a remarkable legacy of a remarkable man."

The legacy grows. "When we travel around, people often ask Dean Cox if he has spent his whole life at Clemson," says JoVanna King. "He always answers, with a twinkle in his eye, ‘Not yet.’ "



Jack A. McKenzie is a stewardship director in Clemson's development office and former editor of The Tiger, Clemson's student newspaper.  Patrick Wright is a long-time photographer at Clemson University and frequent contributor to Sandlapper.

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