Seventy-five years ago, thousands of Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy or parachuted behind enemy lines — Clemson alumni among them.
As the executive director of Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, Burdette is motivated by his passions for history and the military.
PATRIOTS POINT Naval and Maritime Museum is home to the USS Yorktown, known affectionately as the Fighting Lady. The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, decommissioned in 1970, earned 11 battle stars in the Pacific offensive of World War II and five more in the Vietnam War.
In 1968, the Yorktown recovered the Apollo 8 astronauts and their capsule in waters south of Hawaii. Now, moored in Charleston Harbor, the ship falls under the watch of Robert McPherson “Mac” Burdette.
“It’s almost a feeling of destiny,” Burdette says. “This is where I was supposed to end up because I do have a passion for [the military]. Frankly, everybody who works here does. No doubt Clemson prepared me for what I do today.”
Burdette was a history major at Clemson when his studies were disrupted by the Vietnam War. He enlisted: “The wisest thing to do was enlist because you assumed you were going to be drafted. Enlisting meant getting a commission, and that was the smartest move.”
After serving in active duty as a second lieutenant in the Army, Burdette entered the Army Reserve, where he achieved the rank of colonel after 30 years of service, including a year in the Persian Gulf War.
Outside of the Army Reserve, Burdette spent much of his career as the city manager for Mount Pleasant, helping it grow and develop for almost three decades. In 2010, he was considering retirement when the executive director opportunity at Patriots Point came into view. Burdette couldn’t resist.
Along with the USS Yorktown, Patriots Point hosts the USS Laffey, a destroyer, and the USS Clamagore, a submarine, as well as a Vietnam War exhibit and a Medal of Honor museum. Each year, the museum sees more than 300,000 visitors and hosts 24,000 overnight campers. The site also has an economic impact of more than $29 million on the area, according to a 2014 College of Charleston study.
Burdette’s goal for the museum is to help younger generations of Americans understand the sacrifice and courage of veterans. “I like to think we’re a lot more than a museum,” he says. “It’s more about gaining perspective on what war is all about. As difficult as it is, there are times when men and women are called to preserve the values we hold dear as Americans.”
An extraordinary U.S. Army career came to an end this spring as Lt. Col. Jimmy Mullinax, commander of Clemson University’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, retired on the same stage where he was commissioned 21 years earlier.
Army officers do not get to choose their assignments, so getting orders to come back to Clemson was a highly unusual but serendipitous twist in Mullinax’s career.
“How do you get to go back to your alma mater?” he asked during his retirement ceremony. “I only have one answer for that: God brought me back here. Because it wasn’t my doing, and it couldn’t have been the Army because it made no sense. It was orchestrated for me to come back, and I’m blessed to be here.”
Retired Col. Eric Schwartz, who was assistant professor of military science for Clemson’s ROTC in the early 90s, returned to help retire the young officer he had mentored more than two decades before and recalled the instantly recognizable potential of the young cadet he knew. “I wanted to tell stories about little Jimmy Mullinax when he was a cadet in the Army ROTC program, and I was his instructor. I wanted to tell you stories about Jimmy getting lost in the woods, or showing up late for physical training, or losing his weapon, or [being] afraid to rappel of a cliff — but I got nothing,” said Schwartz. “From the moment he stepped out on the parade fields of Clemson he was a beautiful young man to serve with. Everything about him represented what we believed were the core values of being a good soldier, a good leader and a good American.”
Mullinax graduated from Clemson in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in industrial management and was commissioned as a second lieutenant into the quartermaster branch (supply and logistics support), detailed to the Air Defense Artillery Branch. He earned a Master of Military Studies from the Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. He went on to hold numerous positions of leadership in quartermaster and logistic elements, including two tours of duty in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, culminating in an assignment to Fort Knox, Kentucky, prior to returning to Clemson.
Mullinax said it was a blessing to return to Clemson in a military capacity, because the school has such a rich military history and goes out of its way to support its ROTC program. He returned to the theme of being blessed throughout his remarks, emphasizing a point made at many Army retirements; he only got through the last 21 years because of his faith and his family. He noted that he and his wife, Angie, moved their family to nine different duty stations together over the course of his career.
He closed by addressing all the people who had taken the time to be there for this seminal moment in his life. “I started this saying I was blessed. I hope you can truly see why I’m blessed. It’s not about me. It’s about you and what you’ve done in my life. You’ve given me the best life I could ever dream of. Continue to support our military men and women.”