Claflin University First Lady Alice Carson Tisdale helped lay the framework for the creation of one of the Southeast’s premier liberal arts colleges. It is a job she will miss.
As she and her husband, Claflin President Dr. Henry N. Tisdale, near retirement, she is proud to have been a part of the team that served as advocates for the institution’s continued growth and development.
The Tisdales are retiring at the end of the 2018-19 academic year, but Mrs. Tisdale said the couple always knew they were coming to Claflin.
They had already carved out successful careers in Delaware, but eventually decided to step out on their faith in God and come to Orangeburg. Their goal was to advance then-Claflin College into a mecca for global-thinking visionary leaders to be nurtured and prepared for success.
With the two having found their success in life by working as a team, Mrs. Tisdale said the decision to come back to her husband’s alma mater was one that they, of course, made together.
"We put our house up for sale, moved into a little townhouse. We hadn't even been to an interview. But something told us, 'Just wait. It's going to happen.' And our kids literally asked us if we were crazy,” Mrs. Tisdale said, smiling.
“And then one day we got a phone call to come down for an interview. And that's how we got to Claflin. We stepped out on faith and we literally put ourselves on hold for a couple of months because, for some reason, we knew we were coming to Claflin,” she said.
Dr. Tisdale, who is in his 25th year of service, was formally inaugurated as the university’s eighth president on Oct. 14, 1995, under the theme “The Claflin Imperative: Building on Excellence.” Mrs. Tisdale said the couple still joke, however, about which one really got the job as president.
“It’s funny because we interviewed before the board, I sat in there, too. And he gave this wonderful presentation and then they asked me to tell them a little bit about myself and if I had any remarks I’d like to make. I thought, ‘Oh, God, I’m going to blow it for the man.’
“But then the interesting thing was I just started talking. I didn’t talk long, but I guess I said enough because when I finished, they all applauded. So to this day we joke about who really got the job. I say it’s me, and he said it’s him,” she said.
‘We set expectations’
She said she and her husband’s shared vision for the institution is one of the things of which she is most proud.
“We started talking before we got to Claflin. We knew that we could not successfully uplift Claflin and take it to the next level without the both of us. He was so into the academic part of Claflin and raising the standards and so forth, and I was too. That's how the honors college came about, but there were also other areas that I was interested in,” Mrs. Tisdale said.
She serves as director of the university’s honors college. The university trustee board named the college in her honor in 1996.
“I thought that was quite an honor,” she said, noting that the establishment of the honors college is one of many “points of pride” developed on campus, particularly as it pertains to student recruitment.
“When I got here, we had 84 students in the honors program. It was called an honors program back then. We now have over 250 students. We raised the standards for admission into the honors college as well as across the board. We looked at recruitment strategies,” Mrs. Tisdale said.
She added, “Then we began to build on the program. For instance, we began to partner with Ivy League schools to get our students accepted into internship programs. We gave them coaching on how to apply for and gain admission into National Merit Scholarships.
“We had two Fulbright Scholars. We had a Truman Scholar a couple of years ago. We have a Luard Scholar who’s going to be studying at Oxford University," she said.
The first lady said there were targeted goals that she and her husband put in place to elevate the university’s status.
“We set expectations. For instance, you could not graduate and still can’t graduate from the honors college if you haven’t done research and presented a thesis. If you’re in the honors college, you also have to take seven hours of honors leadership development courses over the course of 3-1/2 years.
“We started from nothing. Every year we built on the program. ... Look at us now. Our kids are doing just phenomenal things. We have a 96 percent graduation rate of honors college students who graduate within four years. They leave Claflin and go to work, and quite a few of them are in graduate and professional schools,” Mrs. Tisdale said.
She said preparing students for global success has been a fruitful journey.
“We wanted to prepare students for global experiences. The world needs visionaries. That’s what it’s all about. Why can’t they be the next Steve Jobs? The honors college has a theme every year and the theme this year is “Act on Purpose."
“I teach University 101. We start that first day with, ‘OK, where do you want to be four years from now?’ You've got to be ready for it and prepare for it. During the freshman year, we also have what we call Emerging Leaders Weekend,” Mrs. Tisdale said.
Of the weekend, she said, “That’s all about developing leaders. We can’t tell you how to lead, but we can help you discover your leadership style and how you can use it effectively and fairly.”
Mrs. Tisdale has enjoyed interacting with students, particularly during homecoming time.
Becoming emotional, she said, “Do you know what it does to students when you call their name and you haven’t seen them for years? You call their name and they say, 'Mrs. Tisdale, you remember me?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh Lord, yeah, I do remember you.’
“I can’t tell you the number of students that I’ve coached. Kids get sick and they live so far away, and you put them in your guest room and help them get well. Those are the things that we do. I think everybody knows how much we care about what we did and what we do. I’m really going to miss it,” Mrs. Tisdale said.
Middle school roots
Tisdale, a native of Montgomery, Ala., lived in Delaware for decades before moving to Orangeburg. It was in Delaware where she began working with middle school students.
She taught in the Smyrna School District of Smyrna, Delaware, for 21 years and received numerous awards. She has written and published the following: “An Agenda for Success: Restructuring Middle Level Education in the State of Delaware” and “APEX: Reaching the Top! An Alternative Program for Middle Level Education.”
“I started off teaching middle school. If you can do middle school, you can do anything in the world. I had interned for a year with the Delaware Department of Education and helped develop the guidelines for middle-level education in the state. I brought that whole philosophy here when I developed the honors college,” she said.
The Alice Carson Tisdale Honors College will be celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, but it is not the only thing of which Mrs. Tisdale is proud.
She said the First Lady’s Hats and Gloves Scholarship Tea is another initiative in which she takes pride. The 13th annual event was held on March 18 and featured the presentation of Visionary Leadership Awards, along with the presentation of $2,000 scholarships and a laptop to three students.
“I jumped on board maybe after the second year that the Hats and Gloves Tea was started. The folks who had already started it and I talked and I said, ‘Oh my goodness, what a great opportunity to call it the First Lady’s Hats and Gloves Tea and look at is a scholarship.’ It’s also just a great way for the ladies in the community to all get together,” Mrs. Tisdale said.
It was during this year’s scholarship tea event that Tisdale shared her breast cancer diagnosis.
“I wrestled with that for a long time because I’ve known that I’ve had breast cancer for a good three to four months. I decided that I wanted to just inform people about my condition. I just decided that I’ve got to live, and a part of living is being truthful and honest about yourself,” she said.
She added, “If by confessing what I have can in any way empower other people to make healthy decisions about their own health, why not put it out there? I think that with this new stage of my life, I’m just meant to work with women and children.
“And that would be looking at issues that deal with women’s issues. I want to continue to work with issues that deal with women and children. That’s just me, that’s a part of my footprint.”
Mrs. Tisdale said other initiatives she is particularly proud of include the annual Presidential Scholarship Gala, which recognizes and supports the university’s Presidential Scholars. A parting ceremony, which features freshmen walking through an Arch of Confidence as they embark upon their college journey, is another.
“I love it. Parents are standing at the end and have to give their kid a hug and then separate. The reason that we developed the whole thing is based on my middle school philosophy. You have to give students and their parents the opportunity to part,” she said, noting that while she jokes with parents not to come back, she enjoys great relationships with them.
“We also do our Senior Soiree at the end of the year for our seniors. That’s a big semiformal kind of thing that we have for them. There are things going on all the time. I’m going to miss it.”
‘I found my niche’
Dr. Vermelle J. Johnson, a retired educator whose career included positions such as vice president of academic affairs at Claflin, wrote a book titled “Torchbearers," which includes history on the university’s first ladies and references the “Three C’s” of culture, commitment and color.
Mrs. Tisdale said she did her own history of the first ladies and is impressed with how the university has honored them.
“If you walk the hall on that second floor where the president’s office is, you’ll see eight portraits that were commissioned by the president’s office. And they are of the eight first ladies. I don’t know any schools that have paid tribute to their first ladies like what Claflin did. They’re all there in a row, all eight of them,” Tisdale said.
She said she didn’t really have a specific “role” as first lady when she arrived on campus 25 years ago.
“I didn’t have anything defined in terms of what you’re supposed to do. There’s no true definition of a first lady. There was none then and there is none now. At most universities, first ladies do different things based on what they want to do and what they’re skilled to do. I found my niche and my forte fortunately because I was in education,” she said.
Mrs. Tisdale took notes on how to make the campus a better place, particularly aesthetically.
“I just kind of wandered around for a while and said, ‘Let me look over here and let me look over there.’ I know it was like, ‘Oh God, here she comes,’ but I was just so persistent. I was saying, ‘Let’s clean this up, let’s build this, let’s bring color on the campus, let’s just make it a great place.’”
She said she knew exactly what Johnson meant by color.
“I wanted color all over the campus even with the flowers. Even if you go into the newer residence halls and the chapel and everywhere like that, you see a lot of color even on the floors. Rather than everything just drab beige, bring color because with color comes life,” Tisdale said.
“Commitment is another one of Dr. Johnson’s C’s. I have a strong commitment and I always will even though Claflin is not my alma mater. Culture dealt with not just the culture of the campus, but the climate and how we could make Claflin a place where our students would be proud and comfortable. It matters,” she said.
She said she and her husband spent so much time on their commitment to improving the university that it was a decade before they actually had a time to notice the fruits of their labor.
“We were working so hard that we didn’t realize that we had turned the corner until 10 years later. Somebody came up to us and said, ‘Boy, your campus is just so nice.’ And that’s when we stopped and looked at each other and said, ‘You know what? We just need to stop and see what we’ve done so far.’ I tell any school that has a new president coming in that you've got to give them time. You can’t do anything in two or three years,” Tisdale said.
In a decade, Claflin had:
- Increased its endowment from $7 million to $13 million
- Celebrated the completion of a five-year $20 million Capital Campaign that reached over $30 million in February 2002 (In 2016, the Capital Campaign celebrated raising more than $105 million.)
- Completed extensive renovation of the entire campus, including historical restoration of the university’s buildings on the National Register.
- Improved its retention rate, increasing the number of freshmen enrolled who continued to graduate by 30 percentage points
The university has also achieved national accreditation for business administration, teacher education and music programs and created a new student and faculty dining center and a new music building.
Mrs. Tisdale said she will miss the students the most as she prepares for retirement.
“I’m going to miss talking with students about life, getting them to understand and come into their own awareness while helping them to grow and to understand that it’s not always about them.
“I’m also going to miss the people on campus. I’ve made some great friends in 25 years on campus. I’ve made some great statewide connections. I’m going to follow up on those too. And I’m going to miss the Orangeburg community. The one thing I can honestly say is that Orangeburg has let me be me,” Mrs. Tisdale said.
She added, “No matter where I go, I’ll stop and talk to people, they’ll stop and talk to me. And it’s natural. Orangeburg has just let me be me, and that made me happy. I didn’t feel like a stranger who came to town. I never tried to be anything but just who I am. I learned all of my manners and grace from my mother and then I passed it down to my daughter. And now she’s got a little girl.”
The Tisdales are the parents of two grown children, Danica and Brandon, and are the grandparents of two. Mrs. Tisdale’s mother, Virginia, is 90.
What does she plan to do in retirement? Whatever it will be, she said she and Dr. Tisdale will do it as a team.
“People ask, ‘What’s your next step?’ I want to sit back for a while, rethink and regroup. I want to get to know my husband all over again. We worked very well together as a team, and we’ll decide what our next adventure is going to be as a team,” she said.