Claflin University President Dr. Henry N. Tisdale said he got his strong work ethic from growing up in the cotton fields of rural Williamsburg County.
His parents were farmers, and he worked on the farm as a young man.
“We worked from sunup to sundown. That was the life of a farmer,” he said. “You did it seven days a week because things didn’t stop on the weekend.”
Neither of his parents went to college, but they always stressed the value of education. There was never any question that he was going to college, he said.
“The farm work and coming from the farm gave me something special in terms of my work ethic,” he said. “Hard work doesn’t bother me. Working long hours doesn’t bother me – that’s the way I grew up.”
That work ethic has served him well as president of Claflin, where he is the first to arrive in the morning and among the last to leave in the evening. And with the school’s homecoming this week, he’s been working especially hard.
“When we think of homecoming, the Claflin University Homecoming is a homecoming like no other,” he said. “We get excited about it, and at the same time, while we know the university must go on, classes must go on, meetings must go on, fundraising must go on, the business of the university must go on ... we find time and we take time to celebrate during this special time that we call Homecoming Week.”
Claflin’s Homecoming is a significant event for students and alumni.
“Homecoming is always an exciting time,” Tisdale said. “It just reaffirms the importance of the institution.
“One, it speaks to the vitality of the current students and their excitement and their desire to celebrate their institution.”
“And, of course, it’s reaffirming when the alumni will take time out of their busy schedules to return home to their alma mater – not only just to reunite and get reacquainted, but also to sort of touch that special place, considering Claflin as a hallowed ground,” he said.
The Founders Day program on Sunday is particularly special as the culminating event for homecoming, Tisdale said.
Founders Day “celebrates the history, the founding of the institution, celebrates the alumni, the supporters and the achievements of this institution,” he said.
Other events include last weekend’s concert, the crowning of Miss Homecoming and the Gospel Explosion, sponsored by Claflin’s D.R.E.A.M. gospel choir.
“So throughout the week, you name it, every day there’s something going on,” Tisdale said. “There might be a ‘stroll-off’ in Panther Plaza by the residence hall groups. There might be a step show given by the members of the residence halls.”
There are also comedians and other types of entertainment, he said.
“And of course, one of the biggest events for students, I would say, would be the actual Greek step show on Saturday evening,” he said. It’s a “standing-room only” event put on by Claflin’s fraternities and sororities.
The whole community looks forward to Saturday morning’s Homecoming Parade, he said.
“This is where we get to show it all, inviting not just the community but high schools from all over, sometimes from out of state, class queens from years gone by, classes in reunion ... various civic organizations, Miss Claflin, Miss Homecoming,” he said.
This year’s parade marshals are alumni couple Walter and Laura Moore, who Tisdale calls “two outstanding graduates of the university, and we are very excited to have them.”
“As a community event, there’s also the basketball games that we have, and of course, what is homecoming without athletics?” he said.
On Saturday, the Lady Panthers will host Florida Tech in Claflin's homecoming game. Tip-off is set for 1:30 p.m. in Tullis Arena. The Claflin men will host Young Harris at 3:30 p.m. that day.
“But one of the events I get excited about is the Presidential Scholarship Gala,” Tisdale said.
The gala first began as Tisdale was coming in as president as a celebration of Claflin’s 125th anniversary, he said.
“And we just decided that we wanted it to be sustained,” he said.
So instead of naming it the 125th Anniversary Gala, it was called the Presidential Scholarship Gala and became an ongoing event “raising scholarship dollars for outstanding students (and) just having a great social event for the Orangeburg community,” Tisdale said.
Singer, songwriter and record producer Evelyn "Champagne" King headlined this year’s gala, held Friday in the Tullis Arena of the Jonas T. Kennedy Health and Physical Education Center.
King is best known for her hit disco single "Shame," which was released in 1978 during the height of disco's popularity. King had other hits from the 1980s, including "I'm in Love" and "Love Come Down."
Tisdale said that the best part of his job is engaging and interacting with the students.
“I think I’ve had the greatest fulfillment out of doing two things – teaching since I’ve been here,” he said. “There is nothing that compares to actually engaging with students in the classroom. ... It tells me who they are.
“And also being able to have one-on-one conversations with students, listening to them, having them share their aspirations, having them ask me questions.”
He said that the part of the job he least enjoys is “not having enough time to share with faculty, students, organizations. Not having enough time to show appreciation for what they are doing.”
He said that he gets invitations all the time, such as from an honor society asking him to attend an event.
“And sometimes my schedule just doesn’t allow it. That’s a very difficult thing,” he said.
Tisdale was named Claflin University’s eighth president in 1994.
Before coming to Claflin, he worked at Delaware State for 24 years, teaching and eventually working his way up to senior vice president and chief academic officer. He began his teaching career in the Philadelphia public school system.
He graduated magna cum laude from Claflin in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. At Temple University, he was awarded a master’s degree in mathematics in 1967, then a master’s degree in mathematics from Dartmouth College in 1975. This was followed by a doctor of philosophy degree in mathematics from Dartmouth in 1978.
While working in Delaware, he said, “There was something that called me back home. There was something that said ‘Go back to South Carolina. Go back to your alma mater.’”
Tisdale said that returning to Claflin wasn’t something he planned, “but then God had his plan.”
“It was God’s plan for me to return to South Carolina and to my alma mater,” he said.
He is married to Alice Carson Tisdale, and the couple celebrated their 40th anniversary in August. They have two children, Danica Camille Tisdale Fisher and Brandon Keith Tisdale, and two grandchildren, Asa and Theodora Fisher.