For Joseph Bailey Jr., graduating from Clemson University is about more than one individual’s achievement.

It is about his mother, Sheila Knight, who sacrificed so much and drew on her Christian faith to help her son after a diving accident took away his ability to walk and much of the use of his arms and hands. It is about Chris Norfolk, who taught him chemical engineering at his hospital bedside.

It is about Marion Collins and Lorie Rittman, who sat with him for hours to help him take tests. It is about Lorie’s husband, John Rittman, the Clemson Softball coach who befriended him. It is about Monica Kirk, who shuttled him around campus.

“I feel like this degree is a representation of all of those people who poured into me,” Bailey said. “I feel like it’s more about the people who supported me and my celebration of them.”

Bailey’s 10-year journey to a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering is a testament to the power of familial support, reinforced by the Clemson community, to overcome daunting challenges. It shows how inspiration can be found in unexpected places when needed most.

Bailey, an accomplished swimmer in high school, arrived at Clemson as a first-year student in 2014. By the Spring semester of his sophomore year, he was a standout student in one of higher education’s most challenging majors.

The world he knew changed abruptly on March 16, 2016, at about 2:15 p.m., when he dove off a pontoon boat into an area of Lake Keowee he didn’t know was shallow. He hit the bottom with his head, severely injuring his spine.

Bailey left Clemson for a few years to start his recovery but began his academic comeback with an early version of remote learning in 2019 and a physical return to campus in January 2023.

After graduating in May, he is headed to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in chemical engineering.

Those in the Clemson Family who helped him through his time on campus are many, Bailey said. But he may have helped them as much or more than they helped him.

‘God does send out angels’

Kirk, a transportation specialist with the University, said she got to know Bailey while driving him to classes. She said that, with his positive, can-do attitude, Bailey reminds her of her son, Anthony Martin, who worked as a shuttle driver for Clemson. When Bailey and Kirk first met, Martin was battling cancer, and he died in January 2023 at 35 years old.

Kirk said Bailey has been a bright spot in her life during a difficult time.

“That just proves to me that God does send out angels to be in people’s lives, and Joseph is one of them because he just lifted me up, and apparently other people as well, to realize, ‘We’ve got this — it’s not as bad as you think,’” Kirk said.

Marion, the recently retired director of the University Testing and Education Center, said he helped Bailey take exams remotely during the pandemic.

Marion said they rigged up a way of communicating, using Zoom and FaceTime simultaneously, and that Bailey would painstakingly tell him what to write. It was a task made all the more difficult by the arcane symbols used by chemical engineers. Tests could take as long as four hours.

Marion remembers his wife, Gail, would sometimes bound up the stairs to join the calls with Bailey. She was suffering through the latter stages of dementia, and she died in September 2022.

“When a card from Joseph came in the mail, it would just change her outlook,” he said. “Or if I had him on Zoom, she would just stick her face in front of the camera. Joseph would just light her up, and it meant the world to me.”

Hard to breathe

Bailey said that on the day of his accident, he was on a spring break boat trip with friends when he decided to dive in to swim to shore — not unusual for someone who excelled in the freestyle and butterfly in high school.

All around the boat was about 6 feet of water, but he leaped into a spot he didn’t know was only about half that depth.

“I dove in headfirst, and my spine compressed like an accordion,” Bailey recalled. “I was face down in the water drowning.”

He remembers seeing the boat out of the corner of his eye and being unable to move. Everybody was looking down at him, not knowing whether he was playing a joke.

Bailey said his swimming experience kicked in and that he knew the best way to save oxygen was to avoid panicking.

Just before Bailey passed out, his roommate jumped in, grabbed him under the shoulders and dragged him to the nearest beach, he recalled.

“I was on my back, finding it hard to breathe,” Bailey said. “I instructed him to first call the paramedics and then my mother.”

Bailey said a helicopter arrived in about 15 minutes, and he was flown to Greenville Memorial Hospital, where he was told he had a C-6 spinal burst fracture and a partially collapsed lung.

Knight, who was living in Washington, D.C., at the time, remembers she was on the Beltway driving home from work when one of Bailey’s friends called to tell her about the accident. She went home and packed her bags for South Carolina.

Knight didn’t have many details but knew it was serious when she learned a helicopter was transporting her son to the hospital. She called a sister in South Carolina and a brother in Atlanta to ask them to head to the hospital and see what they could find out. The family’s minister also began the four-hour drive from the family’s hometown of Andrews, South Carolina.

Knight said when she arrived at her son’s bedside, he questioned why such a fate could befall someone who was as faithful as he had been.

“God never puts us in a place and leaves us there,” she remembers saying. “I don’t think God did this to you to punish you.”

Still Joe

Norfolk, a principal lecturer in chemical engineering, said he remembers being at home when he received an email from a student telling him Bailey was in the hospital and was asking for him. There were no other details.

“I was terrified,” Norfolk said.

Norfolk put on a clean shirt and headed to the hospital. It was a day or two after the accident, and he arrived to find that Bailey had been stabilized and fitted with a device to keep his head in place.

“He had already recovered his spirit, though,” Norfolk said. “He was still Joe. He was still excited and enthusiastic. I walked in, and he was all but shouting, ‘Hey, I’m glad you’re here!’”

Norfolk remembers Bailey telling him he wanted to keep going with his studies.

“It was the least I could conceivably do to say, yeah, let’s keep talking about that,” Norfolk said. “And so, the next day, I went and got a small whiteboard, and I came back a couple more times on subsequent days to keep talking about engineering and working through the sort of problems we had been studying.”

Bailey’s injury proved too great to continue with his studies at that time. He transferred to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta for two months of rigorous therapy before heading home.

The biggest hurdle

In those first few years after the accident, Bailey struggled to make sense of how he could go from a 20-year-old having the best time of his life to feeling like it was all over for him. It was a dark time.

“I think the biggest hurdle to overcome was not necessarily the paralysis itself but the comparison of who I was before the accident and who I thought I was going to be after,” Bailey said.

Norfolk stayed in touch with Bailey by text and phone after the accident, encouraging him to finish his degree. When Bailey told him he was ready, Norfolk saw an opportunity for him to take Chemical Engineering 2110.

Norfolk and chemical engineering chair David Bruce worked with others at Clemson to figure out a way for Bailey to join the class in Fall 2019 via WebEx. That early form of remote learning, refined since quarantine, worked well enough for Bailey to follow along.

For Bailey, the harsh realities of COVID-19 and the unrelated deaths of his stepfather and his cousin in 2020 served as a wake-up call. Bailey remembers thinking of all the goals the deceased would never be able to achieve and how he still had a strong mind and opportunities ahead of him.

“One day, it just went from waiting to die and existing to ‘I need to live,’” he recalled.

A blessing to know him

The realization firmed up his resolve to finish his chemical engineering degree, but to do so, he would have to return to campus.

When Bailey arrived, he started making friends in many corners of the University, from the classrooms and labs of Earle Hall to the softball diamond.

Among them was Lorie Rittman, who met Bailey when she took over for Marion to help with tests. She found Bailey to be extremely patient and appreciative of the help. She and John befriended Bailey, and he joined the Rittmans and their grown sons for Thanksgiving dinner last year.

John said that he first knew Bailey was special when he saw his wife take a test online with him while they were on a recruiting trip for Clemson softball. He was even more amazed when Bailey physically returned to Clemson.

“He’s got his own apartment, he’s getting his degree and his goal is to walk again,” John said. “We root for him and pray for him, and it’s just been a blessing to know him and for him to be a part of Lorie’s and my life.”

Soon, Bailey will head to graduate school, bringing the can-do attitude and solid-orange spirit that made him so well-liked at Clemson.

Bailey said he plans to focus on molecular dynamics or catalysis as a Ph.D. student and that he is considering becoming a professor after that.

All he needs, he said, is a chance to show people what he can do.

“If you allow me to get my footplate in the door, I am going to give you everything that I have to offer and nothing less,” Bailey said.

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