The Magazine of South Carolina

Our College "Out West"

"Due West of where?" Erskine students quip of their campus' remote location.


Students Learn on the Steps of the Bowie Arts Center

Erskine Tennis Player

Erskine Is a Technological Leader

Erskine Students Relax on Campus

Erskine Buildings Exhibit Intriguing Architectural Styles

The Erskine College Choraleers

Math Professor Dr. Mike Bowe

by Jason Peevy

Erskine College could have spilled perfectly from the brush of Norman Rockwell onto the South Carolina upstate soil. Erskine has been around longer, but the same Rockwellian, American vision has been taught in this charming, rural academic village for more than 160 years. Erskine is a hamlet where everyone knows everyone, and the campus canvas is painted in the hues and colors of thousands of lives. The college is simply focused, community-minded and elegantly small. Its people are its rallying point, knowledge and morals its mission. The place is hard to find. It’s even harder to leave.

Those who know say you have to visit to understand. Erskine’s beauty is that it is 20 miles from anywhere, and its location ("Due West of what?") is its intrigue. It is a treasure of contrasts. Ante-bellum buildings are wired with high-speed fiber-optic connections and links to anywhere on earth. And it is populated by some of the brightest students in the country, preparing to enter the work force or the most prestigious graduate, law and medical institutions.

Erskine students are in Due West because they enjoy its remote, adventuresome qualities. They thrive on it. Most of them are passionate and involved—not the room service type. They don’t come to Erskine because the town has the best bars or the biggest Wal-Mart; they come for the superb academic reputation and the desire to get away from it all. In a sociology class this year, students were asked to come up with potential marketing slogans for the college. Some couldn’t resist tossing out a few barbs about the location. "Suffer from road rage?" one student suggested. "Due West is the cure." Another: "Mom, I live in Due West. How wild can it be?"

So what is there to do in Due West? Students create and invent, in an environment where stress has interesting ways of resolving itself. An Erskine graduate of the mid-1980s tells of the spring afternoon when some guys in his dorm decided they all needed milkshakes. The nearest place to get a milkshake was 20 miles away in Greenwood. He was sent to buy 18. His car had no air-conditioning, so the return trip had to be fast. In his haste, he was stopped by a local policeman. After the student explained the circumstances, the policeman looked at him and said, "Son, now I’ve heard just about everything. But I tell you what. I’m going to open your back door, and if there’s 18 milkshakes in the back seat, not only will I not write you a ticket, but I’ll give you a police escort back to campus." The officer escorted him to the dorm’s front door and helped carry the shakes inside.

Life in Due West is not as predictable as an outsider might think, but police do have time to help deliver shakes, and the only drive-by they are concerned with is someone firing an apple core out of a car window at a stop sign. Parking is never a problem; bring up the subject of traffic to Erskine students and listen to the snickers. The Erskine campus is a safe place to live and learn. According to FBI and SLED statistics, Erskine was ranked the safest college campus in the South Carolina upstate and among the top 15 percent nationally in campus safety.

Students who visit Erskine before enrolling are enchanted by the school and its location, and their visit is traditionally the most important factor in their decision to attend. The campus visit appeals strongly to those who value a small, charming, traditional setting and genuinely friendly, supportive environment where faculty work effectively to develop students to their full potential. So growth has been guarded—there never have been more than 1,000 students—to protect the college and community environment. There’s no Mini-Marriott and no likelihood of a Puff Daddy concert, just a close-knit group of people with size XXL hearts.

Because the small size and rural location are so important to students, the college promotes it vigorously. But there have been times when location was perceived as the institution’s greatest weakness.

Erskine was founded in 1839 by the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church to increase the supply of loyal ministers to the denomination. The congregation at Due West, whose roots predated the Revolution, pledged $3,000 to locate the school near its church.

The college was born in a two-room building with a three-man faculty and a student body of 46, some coming from as far away as Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi. Students boarded in groups of two or three with Due West families, beginning a relationship with the community that continues to this day. Students then, as now, ate and worshipped with members of the community and developed lifelong bonds.

By 1890, however, many church leaders felt the college should be moved to a more populous locale. Church leaders took the issue to the college trustees. The sometimes-tense six-week debate known as the "removal issue" included arguments that the college be moved to Rock Hill, Chester or Mecklenburg, NC. The Erskine trustees heard all the proposals and finally voted, deciding 12-3 to leave the college in Due West. Since that time, the college and community have been irrevocably intertwined. The Erskine student newspaper put it best in 1949 when it said, "Due West is a college town. It will never become a thriving metropolis, and if it did, it would certainly lose the charm that is so much a part of the memory of countless alumni."

In 1859, three colleges were in Due West: Erskine College, Erskine Theological Seminary and Due West Women’s College. In the 1920s, The Female College and the Theological Seminary consolidated with Erskine, not only doubling the college endowment but doubling the student body and leading to accreditation. Another consolidation occurred in 1929 when Bryson College in Tennessee, the only other Associate Reformed Presbyterian College, disbanded.

From the times of students living in homes to the active social scene in the dorms today, people have been Erskine’s main product, and people have been the institution’s inspiration during difficult times. Today’s Erskine student is academically capable and committed; conscientious and hard working; ambitious; dedicated to Christian values; well rounded; interested in a small, nurturing, friendly academic environment; extroverted; and willing to become involved. Most are from South Carolina, with a majority from small towns within a 200-mile radius of the campus.

While collegial and close, an Erskine experience is enhanced through internships and hands-on labs. The emphasis is on the liberal arts. Students benefit from exposure to different academic disciplines in choosing the best major and career. They also value citizenship and devotion to social as well as personal achievement.

They live by a self-imposed code guided by the atmosphere of learning that stems from cooperation, not competition. Students work and play hard because it’s the right thing to do. Faculty and students work together like mentors and apprentices. Everyone has a stake. The faculty, while providing an academic challenge, also want students to enjoy their years at Erskine. Faculty will tell you they teach students, not classes. Students tell stories of faculty commitment. "One night before a chemistry test, we were all confused about one problem we just couldn’t do," a student said. "We called our professor at 11 p.m. and woke him up. He came to the dorm and did the problem on the board. He stayed until he was sure we got it."

It was these relationships that carried Erskine through its darkest times. In 1861, when the Civil War began, Erskine’s all-male student body were pressed into Confederate service. They fought alongside their professors—even President E.L. Patton—as privates in a rifle company that went to Sullivan’s Island after the taking of Fort Sumter. The following year, Erskine’s finest were in the thick of fighting in Virginia. At the Battle of Gaines Mill, the company suffered savage losses, including 30 from the Due West area. According to an Erskine Alumni Association survey in 1867, 36 of the 244 graduates of the ante-bellum classes through 1860 lost their lives in the struggle.

The war dealt a near-fatal blow to the college. Although there had been no fighting near the campus, disuse and the urgent claims of the war years had left the buildings in poor shape. The prewar endowment of $70,000 largely consisted of investments that were nearly worthless with the collapse of the Confederacy. Few if any prewar students were able to return to campus. But a heroic effort was made to reopen the college. The first postwar commencement celebration was used as a beginning. More than 1,000 people were attracted to the event—despite the fact that there was no graduating class. They came to honor the class of 1861, some of whom lay far away from the serenity of the campus.

To revive college finances, the denomination started a new endowment plan by which 200 persons would be recruited to contribute $20 each for five years. People responded. The new plan soon attracted a growing student body and provided funds to pay the faculty. That endowment today is more than $40 million, thanks mostly to many sacrificial gifts by Erskine’s people.

Athletics have always been a source of recreation at Erskine, as noted by former president R.C. Grier, who once wrote that boys growing up in Due West in the early 1900s either wanted to become professional baseball players or preachers. The faculty considered discontinuing intercollegiate athletics at Erskine in 1917 when America entered World War I, but the football team was allowed to play, and Erskine fans watched the debut of one of the greatest athletes in South Carolina history.

David Gardiner "Dode" Phillips, whose father and grandfather were ARP ministers, dominated the state’s sports pages and led Erskine to its most famous gridiron victories. The first memorable one was in Columbia in November 1917, when the Phillips-led Erskine team defeated South Carolina, 14-13. Back in Due West, the bells of the Erskine Building, the Female College and the Due West church rang, and the steam whistle of the Due West Railroad blew. Four years later, Erskine upended Clemson, 13-7, in the college’s most famous game.

Erskine athletics today offer 10 varsity sports—five for men, five for women—and the school competes at the NCAA Division II level in the Carolinas-Virginia Athletic Conference. Erskine competes in soccer, basketball, tennis, baseball/softball and cross country. There are also club teams, including equestrian and golf.

At the core of the college mission, however, is the award-winning faculty’s commitment to teaching and to students in academic programs such as the sciences, English, business, history, music, family life and innovative programs like athletic training. Students study under outstanding educators in their fields, such as biology professor Dr. David Ritland, the South Carolina Professor of the Year in 2000; physics professor Dr. William Junkin, South Carolina Professor of the Year in 1995; and English professor Dr. William Crenshaw, recent recipient of the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best mystery short story. "Most people believe it is impossible to maintain a rigorous academic standard and remain true to our Christian mission," said Dr. Steve Sniteman, professor of sociology. "But we have proven it can be done."

Almost half of Erskine’s students continue their education in graduate or professional schools. Close to 100 percent of Erskine graduates who apply to medical and dental schools are admitted. About 95 percent of graduating students who choose employment rather than postgraduate study find employment within months of graduating.

Erskine is one of the few colleges in South Carolina to offer a 4-1-4 academic calendar. It includes a month-long winter term in January during which students may pursue concentrated study in a single field. Students study theater in New York City or wolves in Minnesota, or explore the tropical rain forest in Costa Rica. Many of Erskine’s programs and organizations encourage study abroad and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The Spanish program requires a semester at the Universidad de Madrid. When students are interviewed about the academic program at Erskine, they repeatedly comment that "the Erskine grade means more" and that a stiff academic challenge is what they expect and want. Capable students recognize the benefit of a hands-on learning environment and individualized attention from faculty. They participate in educational enrichment programs—common at Erskine—which many other schools call "honors college."

Erskine president Dr. John Carson says the Due West school is not for everyone, particularly if students are looking for a strictly secular or Bible college education. "We have a vision of an excellent, Christ-centered education for the whole person," Carson said. He added that Erskine is the only school in the South that is ranked as a prestigious national BA1 school academically and is also a member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. BA1 is a national classification given liberal arts schools by the independent Carnegie Foundation for Teaching. US News & World Report uses it in its annual college rankings, and it’s considered the highest classification for liberal arts schools in the country.

Carson, a 1967 Erskine graduate, is one of many former Erskine students who have found it hard to leave Due West. He returned to teach at the seminary from 1985–94 and returned again in 1998 to accept the presidency. Half the vice presidents at Erskine are graduates, and Erskine graduates blend throughout the staff, faculty and coaches.

Vice president for student services Monty Wooley, also a 1967 graduate, has been an administrator at the school since 1978. "The people of the college constitute the heart of the campus," Wooley said. "Small communities like Erskine have value because of the people and their character. Erskine’s intimacy provides each of us with an opportunity to make a difference. That’s why we’re here."

Jason Peevy has been director of public relations at Erskine College since 1994.

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