Entrepreneur Joe Erwin credits Eastside High School with giving him early lessons in successful leadership.
As Eastside’s student body president in the mid-1970s, Erwin learned how to think boldly, craft a strong vision and motivate people.
"I learned that you can get the best out of others by respecting them, encouraging them and pushing them," Erwin said. "I learned a lot of those skills then. It all started for me at Eastside. The environment was so encouraging."
Those experiences would come in handy as Erwin went on to attend Clemson University and eventually own Erwin Penland Advertising, with 400 employees in Greenville and New York.
Erwin was one of five Greenville County Schools graduates inducted into the district’s Hall of Fame before a crowd of more than 200 on Thursday night at the TD Convention Center.
The program, now in its second year, honors men and women who have graduated from Greenville County schools and have gone on to make important contributions in education, science, athletics, public service and other fields.
Other graduates honored were:
• Former Carolina Panther Travelle Wharton.
• Retired Vice Admiral John Michael McConnell.
• Former Lt. Gov. Nick Theodore.
Also recognized posthumously was Lorraine Paris, who served for 47 years as the band director at Newberry High School.
Travelle Wharton, who retired as a Carolina Panther in 2014, wanted to be a pro football player at least since he was 8 years old.
That ambition got a big boost during Wharton’s three years on Hillcrest High School’s varsity team.
Travelle Wharton’s dreams of becoming a pro football player got a big boost from the supportive coaches at Hillcrest High School.
(Photo: PAUL HYDE/STAFF)
Coaches and teachers helped the 6-foot-4 football player develop the skills and confidence he needed to succeed.
"You’d tell them your dreams and they’d believe in you and encourage you and tell you how to get there," Wharton said Thursday night at the Hall of Fame ceremony.
"Our coaches pushed us, both in the classroom and on the field," he said.
Wharton was born in Greenville and grew up in Fountain Inn.
At Hillcrest, Wharton also played basketball.
"I was just OK at basketball," he said with a laugh.
As a freshman at the University of South Carolina, Wharton was named starting left tackle for the Gamecocks.That same year he was selected for the SEC All-Freshman team and named a Freshman All-American.
At USC, Wharton earned the Steve Sisk Award as the most outstanding blocker.
In 2004, Wharton was a third-round pick by the Panthers. He played with the NFL for 10 years, nine of those years with the Panthers and one year with the Cincinnati Bengals.
In 2016, Wharton was named a USC Southeastern Conference Legend.
Of being inducted into the Greenvile County Schools Hall of Fame, Wharton said, "It’s a great honor. I’m just speechless."
‘A GREAT CAREER’
Greenville native John Michael McConnell remembers his teachers at Wade Hampton High as inspirational figures.
"They were leaders, they were teachers, they were gifted," McConnell said.
(Photo: Courtesy of Greenville County Schools)
McConnell was in the second graduating class at Wade Hampton in 1962. He attended North Greenville Junior College and later graduated from Furman University.
Then he enlisted in the Navy.
“I decided I was going to sign up and win the Cold War, and we did," he said with a smile.
His 50-year military career focused on international and foreign intelligence. During Operation Desert Storm, McConnell served as intelligence officer for Gen. Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.
From 1992 to 1996, McConnell was the director of the National Security Agency under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Since 2014, McConnell has served on the board of directors of a number of start-up companies dealing with cyber security.
Asked about his own personal heroes, McConnell said, "Colin Powell was the most impressive on the military side and President H.W. Bush on the political side.
"Colin Powell was amazing: incredibly smart and fast, with the ability to take information and make a decision," McConnell added. "He was a gifted leader. George H.W. Bush was a statesman who had a worldview that fit my understanding of what the United States should be in the world in regards to leadership — promoting democracy and human rights.”
He paused and added, "It’s been a great career."
Nick Theodore got his first taste of leadership as president of the senior class at Greenville High School, from which he graduated in 1945.
“That’s the first time I had the opportunity to exercise a little leadership, in high school, and I guess I got the bug at that point," Theodore said Thursday.
After graduating from Furman University with a business degree, Theodore would go on to have a distinguished career as a South Carolina statesman, serving in the House and Senate for 24 years.
“Most of the volunteers in my political campaigns were my old cohorts out of Greenville High School," he said.
In the General Assembly, Theodore was chairman of the House Education Committee, authoring the Education Finance Act, South Carolina’s first long-range commitment to elementary and secondary education.
He led other education initiatives as well, including as author of the legislation that created the Basic Skills Assessment Testing Program and restructured the Higher Education Commission.
Later, Theodore would serve as South Carolina’s lieutenant governor from 1987 to 1995.
Asked about being honored by Greenville County Schools, Theodore quipped, "I probably don’t deserve it but nevertheless I’m going to accept!”
LEADER OF THE BAND
Also honored Thursday night was Lorraine Paris, a 1944 graduate of Parker High School who is credited with inspiring generations of students as band director for 47 years of Newberry High School.
Among her many honors, Paris was inducted into the South Carolina Music Educators Association Hall of Fame and was a recipient of the state’s highest civilian award, the Order of the Palmetto.
‘LONG LIVE THE CHERRY TREE’
Earlier in the evening, Erwin, the advertising and marketing entrepreneur, had joked with a reporter that Greenville County Schools had made a mistake in adding him to the Hall of Fame.
"They miscounted the ballots," he said with a laugh. "I know some of the teachers who put up with me at Eastside High School back in the day are saying, ‘What? Joey in the Hall of Fame?’"
Joe Erwin (Photo: Courtesy of Greenville County Schools)
On a more serious note, Erwin said, "It’s a great honor to be in the company of these others who are being honored tonight. It’s humbling."
Erwin had high praise for the teachers he knew at Eastside.
"I had some of the best teachers I could even imagine," he said, sporting a necktie of blue-and-gold, Eastside’s colors.
Asked about a favorite memory, Erwin, a former Eastside and Clemson cheerleader, recalled an incident that occurred in 1975 between Eastside and its rival, Wade Hampton High.
Before the night of a game between the two schools, Wade Hampton supporters cut down a cherry tree at Eastside, Erwin said.
"That got us so fired up," Erwin said, with a laugh. "The rallying cry the next night in the stadium was ‘Long Live the Cherry Tree!’ And we beat Wade Hampton, 20 to 7."
Paul Hyde covers education and everything else under the South Carolina sun. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.