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Erskine memories evoke gratitude and pride for 1990 graduate

The following reflection by Lee Atkinson ’90 was originally written in May 2020, just prior to the 30th anniversary of the Erskine College Class of 1990. His daughter, Rebecca Delaney Atkinson, graduated magna cum laude in May 2021. Father and daughter are pictured above, showing off their college rings. 

“I wear the ring” was the opening line of Pat Conroy’s commencement speech to the graduates of the Citadel in 2001. The line is taken from his novel The Lords of Discipline, a book I have read at least five times. I have been enamored with the concept of the ring ceremony. I think about the difficulties a student must endure and overcome at the Citadel to earn the ring. It is a very proud tradition. As I think about the college ring and its importance to Citadel graduates, I think about other colleges whose alumni wear their rings just as proudly. All universities and colleges offer rings to be purchased. Of course, not everyone feels the same about college rings. Buying a ring could be an additional burden on a family already paying tuition, room, and board. Some students choose to go without the ring. That was me.

I was born to parents who worked very hard to provide a nice house and groceries for my four siblings and me. At the time I was graduating from high school, I had a sister in a nearby state-supported college. She commuted, and her job, along with some financial aid, significantly reduced the tuition my parents had to pay, which made it easier on them. I took a different road. It was a road that headed west—due west, actually—as in the town of Due West, home of Erskine College.

Why Erskine? I thought I was a baseball player and wanted to play—or prove to others I could play—at the college level. How did I know about Erskine? My high school baseball coach, Don Cribb, went there. My junior high principal, Coach Ronnie Rice, went there. Our head football coach, Bob Rankin, went there. I heard that Coach Harry Stille took walk-ons at Erskine, so I applied, got in, and made the team.

Lee Atkinson, right, with his proud father at commencement in 1990

My dad wanted to leave a day early and stay the night in Greenwood to be ready for the big Erskine move-in, which was on a Monday. I’m not exactly sure that my parents knew what they were getting into when they were helping me load the station wagon the Sunday morning we left. I was so excited, but also very nervous, because I had never seen the campus before. I never made it to orientation in the summer of 1986 because of baseball obligations. I had only talked to my roommate twice on the phone. Nevertheless, there I was in Greenwood, a town I’d never been in before, all jacked up about moving into Erskine, a college I’d never seen before. I could hardly sleep.

Finally, the wake-up call came. We dressed, grabbed some breakfast at a fast-food restaurant, and headed to Due West. After checking in at Belk Hall, I found out I was rooming in Grier Dorm, third floor. After asking for directions—OK, laugh, but remember, we had never been there before—we drove over to Grier where smiling, happy people grabbed my stuff out of the car, walked it up three flights of stairs and set it in my room. Once my mom helped me make my bed and set up my side of the room, it was time to say good-bye. Hugs were exchanged. My dad handed me a twenty, said, “Give us a call when you can, son,” and my family left. I wasn’t sad. I was happy to be in my new element. I was on the campus where I would meet some of my best friends.

I quickly learned my way around Erskine College. Moffatt Dining Hall, Watkins Student Center, the Erskine Building. I already knew where Grier and Belk were! Piece of cake. It did not take me long to learn and to appreciate my new home.

The classes were tough, but fair. I ended up majoring in history with great professors like Dr. Nancy Erickson, Dr. Lowry Ware, Dr. Jim Gettys, Dr. Hunt Tooley, and Dr. Gary Freeze. I enjoyed many of my other classes, some of them tougher than others, but I survived. (One of my favorite classes outside of my discipline was Astronomy with Dr. Bright Lowry.) I would eventually minor in secondary education and later I would do my student teaching at nearby Belton-Honea Path High School.

In baseball, I found out that I was a marginal player at best. I still had great teammates, and although we never had an outstanding year, we had some amazing experiences. My coaches were the legendary “Doc” (Harry Stille), Mike Bouchillon, and Tony Caricari. Each taught me lessons that I have not forgotten.

Of course, we had fun on campus as well. I think about the Philos; Jackson Station, ping pong, pool, and arcade games; Little River; debates, plays, and games; the Towers; dances at Moffatt; snowball fights; hall gatherings; fried chicken, broccoli casserole, and cookies and cream ice cream for Sunday lunch; Sunday night movies; Convo; and many trips to Lou and Perry’s.

My four years (plus a semester for student teaching) went by so quickly. I cannot figure out exactly how that happened. I have also realized that college years are not the only years that pass by at lightning speed. Here I am, 53, married, with three great kids, one of whom is entering her senior year at my alma mater. Since she entered good ole EC, I have been flooded with memories of my days on campus, which got me thinking and eventually writing.

In May 2019, my family and I made that all-too-familiar trip to Due West to pick up Delaney (my oldest daughter by one minute). Her fraternal twin sister Audrey was already home from Winthrop. Delaney had just finished her sophomore year. She had to stay a couple of days later than the other underclassmen because she was an RA—what was called an SLA during my time at Erskine. We filled the car with the usual things—microwave, fridge, clothes. Of course, we had to drive down Main Street one more time…just because. Passing the same trees that still stand guard beneath the Towers, I saw that the chairs were in position for the graduation that was to take place the following day.

We parked and got out and walked down the sidewalk past the Grier Statue to the front row of seats reserved for the graduates. Delaney and I sat on the front row, with my wife Sonya, my daughter Audrey, and my son Campbell on the row behind us. Oddly enough, according to my count, I was sitting in “my” seat from 1990. I remembered my graduation day very well. Suddenly, I was overcome with emotion.

I thought about my parents first. I never really thought about the sacrifices that they made so that I could go to Erskine. I knew that money wasn’t easy to come by, so I appreciated the $20 I received every month. Nor did I think about the emotional stress they were under with their son three hours away from home, but I know that feeling all too well now. I thought about how proud they were sitting somewhere behind me, my mom doubtless complaining about the heat, the chairs, or both. They are both gone, so I’ll never get to ask them how they felt about my living so far away or how much money it cost them.

I thought about my classmates. I knew their names, their hometowns and most of their majors. I thought about my professors, some of whom convinced me NOT to drop certain classes when I did not start off too well. I thought about the Philos who were watching the graduation from the double windows of Philo Hall. I thought about how I left Erskine late that afternoon. It was more like evening because it was dark outside. I may have been the last graduate to leave Due West. I don’t think I made it back to my hometown of Marion before 11 p.m. I was sad to leave the place that had truly become my home.

As I sat under the Towers in “my” old seat surrounded by my family, I was proud. Proud of what Erskine did for me. It was Peggy Junkin (a former dean at Erskine) who called me in July of 1992 to let me know of a job opening at Bell Street Middle School in Clinton. I came up for an interview, got hired two days later, met Sonya, was married a year later, moved to Clinton High and over the course of a few years had three precious children.

Then I thought about Delaney, who chose Erskine after visits to at least 10 different campuses. I did not force her to go to Erskine. But maybe Delaney didn’t choose Erskine. Perhaps Erskine chose her. Maybe Erskine somehow chooses, or at least draws students to live in the tiny town of Due West. As I drove home from Due West that evening and glanced at my hands on the wheel, I decided that not only would Delaney and her sister Audrey get their college rings, but so would I.

Delaney has had a great experience at EC. Not the same experience as me, but nonetheless a great experience. She knew what she was getting into when she entered as a freshman. She had great professors and wonderful classes and she excelled in the classroom—unlike her father, who struggled.

May 20, 2020 will mark the 30th anniversary of the graduation of the class of 1990. I will think fondly of my college days at EC. I will again be under the Towers for graduation in 2021, provided life is back to normal. My wife and I will be seated somewhere behind the graduates. I will be just as proud as my parents were in 1990. I won’t complain about the heat or the seats. I will be overcome with joy and happiness as Delaney receives her diploma, because she AND I wear the ring.

Postscript: It is now late October in 2021. Delaney and Audrey both graduated on May 8, 2021, in separate cities. I went with half of the family to Due West while Sonya took the other half to Rock Hill. The ceremony was as beautiful as I thought it would be. I was more emotional than I expected, but that is OK. Thank you, Erskine, for yet another extraordinary memory.

 

 

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