I suspect this spot is typically reserved for alumni who have made a big splash in the world via contributions of money or expertise. It is understandable. They reflect well on Clemson and help to tell its story.
But I often wonder about the thousands of alumni also woven into the Clemson fabric. Through their loyalty to and love of the University, they also help tell an appealing story of Clemson, but their thread is of a sturdy cotton rather than a shiny metallic and, so, easily overlooked. I think of my dad, Carl R. Thayer ’59.
The two things that readily come to mind about my dad: unconditional love and Clemson. Certainly, he had many other qualities and experiences in life, but these two elements stand out. I had never really stopped to analyze his fierce love and loyalty for his alma mater until contemplating his obituary after he passed away in April 2020.
Those who knew him know that my father was rarely without at least a splash of orange somewhere on his person. My siblings and I have always joked that the first words we learned to speak were, “Go Tigers!” It might not be far from the truth. And though our father was not one to swear, a bad call for his beloved Tigers — whatever sport it might be — was likely to bring forth a forbidden word or two.
But it wasn’t just about sports. I went back through my mental files replaying all the stories my parents shared about how they ended up at Clemson living in married housing on campus.
They shared stories about how the friendships they made with other married couples were forged in shared financial hardship.
Gradually, I began to realize that following Clemson’s teams gave my father a tangible way to stay connected to a place he held deeply in his heart, even while living hundreds of miles away in Maryland.
After all, he was not supposed to ever go to college. His family could not afford it. Instead, he worked on the railroad with his father and as a house painter. But after serving in the Korean War, the G.I. Bill allowed him to challenge his own ideas about what he could be, and thankfully, he seized an opportunity that was both unexpected and genuinely appreciated.
Having not planned for college as a high school student, he hadn’t taken all the courses he needed in order to get into an engineering school. Most colleges turned him away — hard to stomach as a newly married 20-something eager to get his new life started. He began to doubt his capability.
But thanks to an uncle who lived in South Carolina urging my father to look at Clemson, he finally did. Just as he was about ready to give up on his dream, Clemson welcomed him and gave him the support he needed to get started.
He was the first in his family to earn a college degree. He was a mechanical engineer, and while his career achievements may not have landed him the cover of TIME, they are interesting, nonetheless. He worked on a camera that went to the moon. He helped develop medical equipment designed for the battlefield and secret Cold War projects we will never know about.