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‘The Middleton touch’: Alumnus, fundraiser worked tirelessly for Claflin
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‘The Middleton touch’: Alumnus, fundraiser worked tirelessly for Claflin

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The last line of the three stanzas of Claflin University’s alma mater says, “May thy Sons be leal and loyal to thy memory.”

When Whittaker Vernon Middleton first learned and sang the words “leal and loyal,” they may have been to keep a freshman’s pious pledge, then later a nostalgic promise from a graduate. Ultimately, what he heard in those words would become his lifetime’s undertaking.

Over the course of nearly 47 years at Claflin University, Middleton would direct campaigns that would raise more than $145 million for his alma mater, which from its founding, in 1869 and more than once, and up until his entry as a student, had faced many financial uncertainties, some bordering on crises.

What Claflin often lacked in fiscal security, infrastructure and resources, it made up for in its confidence-building environment, visionary in its mission and liberal in academic instruction. Middleton, entering as the class of 1973, found an institution most seriously aware it must achieve firm financial footing, while continuing to be dedicated to the wellbeing of the optimistic young men and women entering its gates, monetary stability or not. Little did the faculty and staff know they were educating and mentoring the person who would see a small Methodist college become an acclaimed university renowned throughout academic spheres for prodigious fundraising.

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The Claflin that greeted young Middleton in 1969 instantly evokes memories for him.

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“Well, I must say that my four years at Claflin were glorious days. Perhaps the four best years of my life, ” he said.

He didn’t return to his home in Pineville, South Carolina, until Thanksgiving.

“I had such a good time being at Claflin. I met some of my best and lifelong friends.”

The friends and good times had nothing to do with privilege or money.

“We didn’t have much and most of us came from the same background. We didn’t have a lot of wealthy students at Claflin,” Middleton said.

What they did have were dedicated faculty, patient and determined.

“I had loving professors. We had professors who, if you were having difficulty with course work, they would have you stay after class and take the time to explain things to you. That was something that was very special to me. Coming to college was the pinnacle of my life.”

Having acquired the “Claflin Confidence,” armed with a coveted degree and looking out on a country whose companies were vowing to open doors once closed to African Americans, Middleton was ready to pursue his dream.

“When I graduated in ’73, I had a sense of mission and I tried as hard as I could. I tried desperately to get a job with Xerox Corporation. I tried to get a job with several other agencies.”

Eventually he found a position as a supervisor in a manufacturing plant in Moncks Corner. Being a professional in the corporate world hadn’t materialized.

However, he had steady employment and was engaged, and he believed in his ability to be a strategic thinker. So did someone else: Claflin College professor Aletha Worthy sent word, via his fiancée, that she wanted to see him. Worthy was a presence in Tingley Hall, the administrative building, and a request from her was akin to a royal summons.

“She said ‘Mr. Middleton, I have a job for you.’ And I said, ‘You have a job for me? What kind of job do you have for me?’ She said, ‘I need a person to serve as Head Counselor and to teach some Humanities courses and I’ve checked your records and you stand out in your classes.’ She said, ‘I want you to come and work. And I said, ‘Mrs. Worthy, I have no intentions of coming back to Orangeburg.’”

Nevertheless, he talked it over with his fiancée and his mother.

“For some reason, I could not escape my destiny,” he said.

Middleton worked under Worthy until she retired four years later. In a few short years, he advanced to second in command as coordinator of special programs.

It was 1981, and Claflin’s sixth president, Dr. Herbert V. Manning, also a Claflin graduate, had been at the helm since 1956. When he began his tenure, the school faced a host of critical challenges: near insolvency, aging infrastructure, no accreditation and a diminishing student population. None of this was news to Manning. Like Middleton, he had been an instructor at Claflin. Within months of assuming the presidency, Manning announced the “New Program.”

Throughout the ’60s and ‘70s, Claflin underwent tremendous changes, academically and in infrastructure. Buildings were restored and others replaced by architecturally appealing edifices defining the expanding and advancing campus. Students moved into new halls of residence, and a spacious state-of-the art library and a well-equipped science center supported research and experiments. A fine arts center validated the appreciation for culture Claflin had always proudly embraced. This would be a significant venue for the performing arts, and its stage a platform for prominent political and public figures from all over the world. Most importantly though, Manning has secured accreditation for the school and had grown the student enrollment. However, by 1981, Manning had spent 25 years advancing his alma mater and for his few remaining years, his thoughts and actions would be centered on Claflin’s future.

“President Manning stopped me and said he wanted me to establish the Development Office. He said a lot of people wanted to have the job, but he wanted me to have it because he felt that I could do the job. I said, ‘Dr. Manning, if you feel that I can do it. I will do my very best.’ He said, ‘Well don’t tell anybody what we talked about.’ Well, of course, I told my wife,” Middleton said.

A year later, Middleton found himself again standing in front of Claflin’s president, who had another pronouncement.

“Mr. Middleton, I’m going to make the announcement in the Alumni Bulletin that you are the new director of Development and Alumni Affairs.”

“Well, you know, a lot of people were shocked. They were shocked because I was a young person and I did not have the experience that many of the people who thought they could do the job better than I could. But, you know, God was certainly in the works and God was certainly in everything that we did because from the very moment that I took over that office, we started to experience success.”

Data on alumni giving is skewed mainly because most colleges and universities are reluctant to share the percentage of their alumni giving. The various categories and statuses which define these institutions also hamper comparability of data. Nevertheless, there are some facts that schools can use to compare their alumni giving performance with similar institutions, which can be strategically useful including for fundraising.

When Middleton took over alumni affairs in the early ‘80s, where was Claflin in alumni giving and how over the decades under his guidance and leadership did the school climb to become the highest giving HBCU in the country as chronicled by US News and World Report? This is Middleton’s story.

“Alumni giving at that time was like 9 percent. Alumni had never given more than $15,000 to Claflin in a year. Within a year, the alumni giving had gone to 11 percent and we had alumni giving over $40,000. And in 1983, we launched our first major phone-a-thon, raising $83,000 to put a new roof on Tingley Memorial Hall.”

Middleton’s fundraising efforts were just getting off the ground.

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“We started having Homecoming. People were not even coming back to Homecoming, including me. We started having an Alumni Reception, an Alumni Banquet. So things just started to move up and up. And God just blessed everything we did at Claflin,” he said.

Middleton knew that the loyalty was already there because he loved his alma mater, and so did all the friends he made there. His strategy was to find ways to turn fealty into funding. The answer: alumni chapters.

“We have about 30 alumni chapters across the United States, and those chapters, they raise monies and they send those funds to the university. And because of them helping with the fund raising, that is a strategy that has worked.”

“He (Middleton) was instrumental in bringing in more alumni, making connections with people who probably would not have gotten involved,” said Mattie Mallory, past president of the Claflin University Alumni Association. “I was glad to say I graduated from Claflin University, and I think as more alums got involved, the same thing became true. He played a very important role in that.”

The regional director of the university’s alumni association, Clyde Bess, who also served as chair of the Board of Visitors, recalled that Middleton’s tactic was to be straightforward when it came to fundraising.

“He wasn’t bashful about letting it be known that finance was a part of it. We could have good dialogues, talking about setting up structure with the alumni association, even chartering a new chapter, but everything would kind of end with ‘Claflin needs X and we want folks to support Claflin.’ He was not bashful about letting that be known as we set up new chapters,” Bess said.

“We used to call him the money man,” Gloria Kirkland remembered fondly.

As past president of the Orangeburg Chapter of Claflin’s Alumni Association and a college classmate, Middleton was well-known to her.

“I don’t care who he’s with, where he goes, you didn’t leave him without giving him a dollar for Claflin,” she said.

Kirkland understood how his focus and dedication to his alma mater won him wide-reaching respect and loyalty.

“Not only did Vernon ask for the money -- the people would give him the money. Because they knew he had a love for Claflin, and he also had faith and purpose in what he did. When someone believes in what they do, when they believe in their purpose without a shadow of a doubt, that’s who Vernon was. He lived that. He lived that,” Kirkland said. “And we believed in him and he respected us.”

The enthusiasm and pride alumni chapters took in fundraising for their school would advance and expand through calculated strategies and demonstrated success as more and more dollars flowed in from chapters. Middleton would watch over everyone, consider and set higher goals and additional fundraising events. And when Manning handed the mantle to the incoming seventh president, Dr. Oscar A. Rogers Jr., the expansion era of the “New Program” was replaced by a vision that required ambitious thinking on an even higher plane: Rogers charged Middleton with endowing the school. The goal was to protect Claflin’s future with invested funds and to secure funding for designated academic projects. Rogers went from thousands of dollars to millions. And, Middleton would be charged with the third leg, alongside accreditation and increased enrollment, needed to stabilize the college’s future -- he would be tasked with building the endowment.

Middleton’s ability to cultivate relationships and demonstrate his attribute for cultivating long-term loyalty not only showed results in the growth of alumni giving, it also served to benefit Claflin’s presidents. In 1984, and for the next decade, Middleton worked closely with Rogers, realizing their shared goal to substantially build the college’s endowment.

“Our first capital campaign, we launched back in 1985. The main purpose of that campaign was for the endowment. At that time our endowment was less than $1 million and we were able to get a double match from the Department of Education,” Middleton said.

1985 would be remembered for another first: Middleton was named vice president for Development and Alumni Affairs, becoming the first vice president in Claflin’s history. Rogers had no doubt about his newly appointed vice president’s abilities, saying at the time: “Mr. Middleton possesses solid experience and training in development and higher education administration.” Middleton subsequently demonstrated an expertise that made this description a modest rendering of his capabilities.

If Claflin could raise its endowed fund to $3 million, reduce its debt and see a steady growth in its enrollment, Rogers, with the help of Middleton, would achieve the first phase of his vision for the institution. And, it was an ambitious one, the far-reaching and specific details of which he shared with Middleton, aware that his newly minted vice president would be a vital component to its success in the coming years.

“What we need to understand is that many of the things Dr. Tisdale (who succeeded Rogers as Claflin’s eighth president) was able to implement were actually started and talked about during Dr. Rogers’ era. Dr. Rogers actually developed the first master plan that I am aware of. And I think his greatest accomplishment in terms of fundraising was, when he came here in 1984, our endowment was less than $1 million, and when he retired in 1994, we had increased the endowment to a little over $7 million. So that we had a little over $8 million,” Middleton said.

Middleton knew a fellow fundraiser when he saw one, and he and Rogers, with the Claflin College Choir in tow inspiring congregations, were a formidable duo.

“I can recall today that almost every Sunday, he was in some church somewhere in this conference preaching. He was always somewhere telling the good news about Claflin, preaching and traveling with the choir, and we traveled all over the state making friends for Claflin University. So, his era was one really, I would call it beginning the transformation, the beginning of the transformation at that point,” Middleton said.

In 1994, Rogers handed over to the college’s eighth president and Claflin graduate, Dr. Henry N. Tisdale a portfolio with financial credentials calculated and prepared for the next transformative and visionary leader. Middleton was crucial to Tisdale’s ambitious goals, and the new president and Middleton worked closely and arduously as they set out to achieve the goals that would realize Tisdale’s vision. As a vision needs goals, goals need funding.

“When Tisdale came to Claflin, a major gift was $1,000, but we moved that up from $1,000 to $10,000.”

Eventually a major gift would be $5,000.

“Our job as an HBCU (historically black college or university),” Middleton said, “was to make a good case. If you make a good case, people will give.”

Securing major gifts from individuals was a skill Middleton acquired and honed, advancing on his abilities to secure donations from alumni who believed in Claflin and were supporting their alma mater in growing numbers. This was a good message and selling point when approaching major foundations and nationally known nonprofits. However, Middleton was to learn his approaches needed to be fine-tuned, and fact finding and researching an organization were a crucial part of the preparation

“Early in my career I made some mistakes because I didn’t know much about advancement. What I did was, I did one proposal and I just sent the same proposal out to a number of foundations and corporations. In doing that, that was what we called the shotgun approach. The shotgun approach is not the approach you use with foundations. The approach you use with foundations is you use the rifle approach. That is, you study the guidelines and you prepare your proposal to meet their requirements and objectives.”

There was another lesson Middleton needed to learn about approaching big funding organizations, and to this day he remains grateful to the person who drew his attention to this shortfall and for what he was taught and has continued to practice.

He was applying for a grant for $100,000 from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, which the school did not receive. But a conversation ensued with the program officer that he recalls:

“‘Mr. Middleton, I want you to understand that we only hear from Claflin when you want something. The other schools that were funded are schools that we hear from all the time’ So I learned right then that the same things that apply to alumni apply to foundations. You have to build a relationship with foundations,” Middleton said.

By cultivating the leaders of foundations and other philanthropic organizations, keeping them abreast of Claflin’s achievements, Middleton was able to successfully bring in major funding in greater amounts. Grants would advance all aspects of the institution, including his own area, where he brought in skilled professionals while continually upgrading and incorporating effective fundraising resources. He started out overseeing alumni affairs with a staff of two to presiding over a division with a staff of 23, as vice president for institutional advancement.

“The Kresge Foundation $1 million Capacity Building Grant (Kresge Foundation/United Negro College Fund). The proposal we wrote in 2008, that’s what really, really, really got the ball rolling,” said Dr. Iris Bomar, associate vice president for institutional advancement. “It greatly strengthened the institutional advancement operations of the university.”

Bomar worked alongside Middleton for almost 22 years before she retired and was well-versed in the discipline he expected from his staff.

“’Tight and right’ is what Rev. Middleton used to say. In anything that we did, it had to be done the right way and tight so that if any questions came about as to why we did something in a certain way, we could answer that question. We always had a plan. We would go through that plan to make sure all the ‘i’s’ were dotted ant the ‘t’s’ were crossed. So that whatever program we had would be successful.”

“He (Middleton) developed and augmented and solidified his division,” said Dr. Zia Hasan, vice president for planning assessment and information services. “That is not typical of a small HBCU.”

Hasan, who has known and worked with Middleton for over 30 years, further credits Middleton: “The division has great resources and is greatly respected for what it has been able to do.”

Hasan cited the grants that were awarded, corporate giving, maintaining relationships with individuals who support the institution, bringing in specialists to advance specific areas within the division and the growth of alumni support.

Even while alumni support was steadily increasing, Middleton implemented an ambitious publicity campaign to propel giving to a historic level for Claflin, well surpassing every HBCU in the country. The “First to 50” motto became the clarion call to reach a 50-percent giving rate from alumni. Bomar fondly recalled that pivotal moment in 2013.

“We were in a meeting and he wanted to know the giving percentage so far. It was calculated to be 52 percent. Rev. Middleton got up from his chair. Smiling. And raised his arms in the air. I remember that moment.”

Alumni not only surpassed their 50-percent goal, they also overachieved their $10 million capital campaign goal. The Capital Campaign, launched in 2008, with its inspiring theme, “Imagine the Possibilities,” charged with raising $96.4 million, exceeded its goal, bringing in $108 million,

The chair of the capital campaign and board trustee, James Bennett, pointed out that the campaign was launched during the worldwide financial crisis.

“The board made the deliberate decision to maintain the campaign during the Great Recession.”

The reason, as Bennett explained: “The campaign wasn’t about keeping the lights on, it was about taking Claflin to the next level. How do we prepare Claflin for the future, enhance programs, buildings? How to put funds in place to increase the endowment?”

Bennett credits Middleton with uplifting the donor and the school.

“He developed relationships. Developing and nurturing relationships. Once he developed relationships, it led to fund development.”

‘The Middleton touch’ worked on Bennett as well.

“I gave him a sizable donation upon my death,” he said. “You’ve got to make it about the donor.”

In a close and cooperative relationship with the board, Middleton saw that his purpose was in helping the trustees identify prospects for the university.

“Over the years, they have done a great job of helping us bring in those funds for the university,” Middleton said.

Funds that Middleton understood had to be used wisely.

“We must be good stewards of money. The reason why a lot of institutions or nonprofits don’t raise more money is because they are not good stewards of what people have given them already.,” he said.

He and his division always expressed their gratitude.

“If you do a good job of thanking and acknowledging, people will give more. Recognitions and acknowledgements are the keys.”

There were also the enthusiastic accolades Middleton was known for giving. Candis Bugg, a 1959 graduate, who heads the New York alumni chapter, said Middleton knows how to give compliments.

“He would always say, ‘Candis, you are amazing. You all are amazing.’ He loved what he did,” Bugg said.

Mallory, the alumni association past president, observed that Middleton’s talent was both instinctive and strategic.

“He would say we need you. Motivation was part of it. Preparation was part of it. He always wanted what was best for Claflin University, and he worked tirelessly to make sure that he was able to deliver.”

Hasan, in perceptive analysis, emphasized that Middleton was able to work successfully with successive Claflin presidents.

“He has a track record of success transitioning and growing under very different leaderships.” And for the students benefiting for the university’s financial stability, “he has impacted generations of students who have walked through here, allowing our students to come in and be successful. Advancement has had an important role in supporting our students and our mission.”

“Middleton is a great pillar at Claflin,” Bugg said. “That’s what I would say. I would say a pillar that held Claflin up financially.”

“He’s deeply rooted here,” Hasan said, paying tribute to a Middleton’s legacy. “He’s like that oak tree we’ve got in front of the campus.”

Upon considering the many years of his relationship with Middleton, Hasan shared his feelings.

“I thank him for his close friendship, thank him for his advice and his wisdom over the years. Claflin is a better place because Whittaker Middleton chose to make this his home, literally and figuratively.”

“I must say looking back over my tenure at Claflin,” Middleton said, “you name the strategy and Dr. Rogers and Dr. Tisdale and I, we did it. There is not one thing that you can name that anybody has ever done that we did not do as fundraisers during my tenure at Claflin.”

“His love for Claflin is what motivated him,” Bugg, one of the oldest active alumnae, said, remembering how Middleton stirred them into devotional action.

“When we would sing the alma mater at a fundraiser, you couldn’t find space on the floor.”

Orangeburg author and journalist Vivian Glover serves as Orangeburg County Fine Arts Center director of community arts and development.


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