It was 1977, the week of the annual rivalry football game between Clemson and the University of South Carolina, the year of “The Catch,” when Steve Fuller ’79 hit Jerry Butler ’80 to win in the last few seconds.
The week preceding the game had its share of drama as well. Zan Wells still gets excited when she talks about it. “It was my idea,” she says, “painting Tiger Paws from Greenville all the way to Columbia.”
Her husband, Joel Wells ’57, bought into the idea, and they started work. Zan made stencils out of brown kraft paper; they figured out the correct Sherwin-Williams paint shade of orange. They tested out the idea in their driveway.
Joel held a meeting of other alumni and friends who were equally enthusiastic — at the Holiday Inn on I-26 in Clinton. He and Zan distributed kraft paper templates of the Tiger Paw along with paint specifications. Several days before the game, the templates were distributed to a larger group with strict instructions.
Fifty small teams were assigned either one or two odd-numbered mile markers between Mauldin and Columbia, with instructions to be at their designated mile marker at 2 a.m., ready to paint a Tiger Paw in the center of the right-hand lane of I-385 and I-26. They were equipped with CB radios, and each team had a one-time “handle” to identify their location and report completion.
By 2:05 a.m., they were done. Almost.
The first paw in Mauldin had been assigned to Joel’s brother Jimmy Wells ’54. According to Zan, Jimmy and Buddy Wallace ’56 reached their destination, parked and got the equipment out when the Mauldin Police drove up and inquired about what they were doing.
“Changing drivers” was the quick response, and they threw everything back in the car. A bit spooked, they didn’t go back to finish.
So Zan and Joel painted that one after they finished their own assignment. “Then we drove all the way to Columbia to make sure they were all painted,” says Zan.
Cal McMeekin ’65 had been assigned the last mile marker coming into Columbia on I-26. He was prepared. He had taken a jigsaw and a sheet of 3/4-inch plywood and used the brown paper stencil to create a sturdy plywood stencil. “With a paint roller,” he says, “you could put that down on the highway and get it done in 15 to 20 seconds.”
That first paw went so quickly they decided to keep going — “down Huger Street, to Bluff Road, and on to the stadium.”
“We painted a second paw at the end of I-126 where Elmwood Avenue forks off to the left,” says McMeekin. “About a mile down Huger Street we placed a third paw.” As they were finishing that third paw, they realized that they were almost directly in front of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and county jail.
“I realized it was not the wisest thing for a 34-year-old with a wife and family to be doing,” says McMeekin. “The next day, the last paw on Huger Street appeared in The State newspaper along with a story about the paintings.” That photo still hangs in McMeekin’s office at his home.
It’s the kind of prank you might expect from a group of college students. But, McMeekin says, “These paws were not painted by students, but by 35- to 50-year-olds with a passion for Clemson and a spirit of having fun.”
Editor’s note: In the fall 2022 issue, we ran a story about the first Tiger Paws painted on the road leading to Clemson. Shortly after that, my phone rang, and trustee emeritus Allen Wood asked, “But do you know the story about when Tiger Paws were painted all the way from Greenville to Columbia? You need to talk with Cal McMeekin.”
That phone call started a process that has ended with this story — and our gratitude to Allen Wood for giving us a tip.