Oct. 30, 2001
Clemson,SC- In 1944, ’45, ’46, Frank Howard took Clemson’s football team to New Orleans, LA to play Tulane in what-was-then the Sugar Bowl. Traveling by train from Clemson, the Tigers — most of whom were small-town boys with little experience in big cities — were afforded an opportunity to see more of the world.
In 1945, Gil Rushton was a freshman on Clemson’s team. Billy Poe was an upperclassman. Upon arriving at the Sugar Bowl, as Rushton remembers it, Clemson’s players were told not to be concerned about lockerroom security.
“They told us not worry about leaving our valuables in the lockerroom during the game because they would have a guard at the door and the windows had bars.”
Poe took the younger Rushton aside and offered him a piece of advice. “Billy told me to take my money and my watch and put it inside my shoe. Then put my sock inside the shoe.” Poe’s advice proved helpful.
After the game, Clemson’s players learned their lockerroom had been raided. Money and valuables were stolen. The only two players to miss getting hit by the thieves were Rushton and Poe.
Rushton of Easley went on to become a successful insurance executive. He was also a longtime ACC football official. “I never forgot what Billy told me. I always tried to do that. As a result, I haven’t lost anything in the process.”
Poe’s ability to manage his valuables was evident early. His proficiency in growing assets has been proven during a 40-plus year career as a stock broker in Greenville. And his giving spirit for Clemson has been apparent since he came to the school as an aspiring football player in the early 1940s.
The latest testimony to that generosity came last week when Billy and Betty Poe contributed $1.5 million to Clemson’s Tiger Pride capital fund-raising campaign. The Tiger Pride campaign is designed to upgrade Clemson’s athletic facilities.
The Poe gift comes in the form of a naming opportunity. The area above The Hill at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium will be named Poe Plaza in honor of Poe’s contribution.
JoVanna King of Clemson’s Development Office said, “Billy seems to symbolize the e’spirit d’corps of Clemson with his sense of duty,, commitment, loyalty and perseverance.
“It is most appropriate for his name to associated with that area of the stadium. Coach Howard said he wanted only those willing to give their all to be able to rub that rock. Billy does that. And he does it in such a quiet and unassuming way.”
Poe recalled his playing days at Clemson when “the facilities were rather meager. We had two showers. Our lockers were just two pegs to hang our clothes. We were lucky to have much equipment to speak of.”
Clemson was able to complete Memorial Stadium during Poe’s time there. The stadium opened for Tiger football games in 1942. Much of the work was done by scholarship athletes.
Poe said improved facilities will help Clemson compete with other schools.
“All of us who have gone before should make things better for future generations,”said Poe. “We all need to step up. We wanted to contribute to Clemson’s tradition in some meaningful way.”
Growing up in Greenville, Poe is a lifelong resident of the city. His grandfather had started Poe Mill after the turn of the century. Poe Mill was the second textile mill in Greenville.
At seven-years-old, Poe started going to the YMCA to play sports. He did not play high school football as a tenth grader. Instead, he was a star with the Y’s Red Midget team. But his athletic ability was surfacing.
He scored four touchdowns in one game for the Midgets and received recognition in the The Greenville News for his play. Jackie Payne, brother of Clemson standout Booty Payne (’37-’39), saw the article and wanted to know why Poe was not playing high school football with the Greenville Red Raiders.
“He asked me, `Was that you?’ I told him it was. He said, `Why don’t you come out and play for us?”
As a senior, Poe joined the Red Raiders. With gifted speed, he made an immediate impact. So much so that Greenville Coach Speedy Spears worked to figure out a way to get one more year of Poe’s services.
“Coach Spears had told me I might get a college scholarship, if I played one more year of high school ball. In 1940, I was supposed to graduate, but I was missing one half unit. Yet, on graduation day, they called my name to graduate.
“I told Mrs. Jones, `I can’t graduate. I lack a half unit.
“She said, `You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to give you that half credit as a present.’
“I said, `Oh no, you can’t do that’ ”
Poe’s lobbying for strict adherence to the letter of the law eventually won out. He was given one more year in high school.
As Poe neared his second go-around with high school graduation, he had gained athletic notoriety. Furman coaches A.P. McLeod and Bob King visited Poe while he was playing tennis at Cleveland Park in an effort to recruit him to Furman.
South Carolina had offered him a scholarship. Georgia Tech wanted him to play.
Recruiting regulations were different, if negligible at all, back then. For instance, it was not an unusual occurrence when Poe decided to visit Atlanta, Georgia Tech and Coach William Alexander’s football program for a week.
Atlanta was not Poe’s cup of tea, however. He got lost trying to find his way from downtown Atlanta back to the campus. He did not know a soul there. Some friends came by to see him in Atlanta on their way back to Greenville. “I told them, `Wait right here. I’m going back with you.’
“I told Coach Alexander that I would be better off at Clemson and I had better get back on up there.”
Clemson had been one of Poe’s first choices. He had seen one of his first football games (Clemson-Furman) from the balcony of the YMCA in Clemson as a youngster.
Greenville and Clemson were good to each other during these times. Many good athletes from Greenville had gone to Clemson, among those were Bill Hunter, Footsie Woods, Marion Butler and Eddis Freeman.
Poe initially had gone to see Howard about a scholarship. Howard considered Poe too small (150 pounds). Poe went back to see him after returning from Georgia Tech.
“He said, `OK, if you come over here and make it, I’ll give you a scholarship.’
It was the crack in the Clemson door Poe wanted. “I felt like I could do it.”
Once there, Poe — like most every other freshman at any university — had his doubts about staying. “We used to sit in front of the Y and watch cars go by.”
For many Clemson students, hithchiking was the preferred (if not only) choice of travel. Poe and fellow Greenvillian Freeman were thumbing partners from Greenville’s west end to Tillman Hall.
There were occasional delays when traveling by thumb.
“We had gotten as far as Easley late one Saturday night. A truck driver asked us where we were going. We told him. He said, `If you will go with me to Anderson to unload this truck, I’ll get you to Clemson after that.’
“Eddis and I took him up on it.”
Enterprising and fiscally shrewd, Poe knew how to make a buck. Or, as was the case in the mid 1940, a few extra cents.
Train rides for Clemson’s football team were long and confining. Thinking ahead, Poe would purchase extra candy bars for the trip. Then, as monotony and hunger took hold of his teammates, Poe would market his snacks to an eager and receptive audience.
Such capital venturing kept Poe supplied with his own treats.
“The only problem was the ants would get to the candy bars and cake in my room. So I bought four bowls to go under each leg of my dresser. I filled the bowls with water, so the ants could not climb up and get my food.”
Two of Poe’s most renowned business investments involved automobiles. “George Fritts never forgave me because I bought a car from him and sold it for $200 more than I paid.”
A t-model figured into the other story. Poe bought the old car for $10, which may have seemed extravagant considering it ran periodically and only after considerable pushing.
Heading for Greenville one day, Poe and his colleagues got its chugging and were encouraged they might actually make it to Greenville. Their hopes were dashed on a hillside near Liberty.
A farmer took pity on their plight and offered to purchase the car as its sat disabled on the side of the road. “I’ll give $12 for that old car,” the farmer offered.
Shrugging his shoulders, Poe accepted the offer and the $2 profit. His friends and teammates remind him of that episode even today.
Poe’s Clemson teammates remember him as small, but speedy.
“I think he was the fastest man on the team,” said Ray Clanton, who was two years behind Poe. “He was accepted as the fastest. “He seemed to perform his best in the big games.”
Poe’s best game came in 1945, when Clemson defeated Tulane in New Orleans, 47-20. Poe scored three touchdowns on long runs.
The Greenville News headline the next day read: Billy Poe and Butch Butler of Greenville Spark Tiger Victory.
Scoop Latimer, the News sports editor, heaped praise on Clemson and Poe: “Clemson’s blood-thirsty Tigers, displaying savage football ferocity, roamed far and wide here this afternoon to crush and devour the Tulane Greenies by the biggest slaughter Coach Howard’s team has ever visited upon a major Southeastern Conference foe.
“Two Greenville boys, Billy Poe and Butch Butler, led the onslaught. “Clemson won by the unbelievable score of 47 to 20 as 18,000 partisan fans saw the Greenies castigated by the largest number of points any team has scored against them in years.”
Poe was recognized as one of the national backs of the week, joining Army’s duo of Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard and Georgia’s Charlie Trippi.
“There were sports writers and fans wanting autographs waiting on Billy after the game,” recalled Rushton.
Poe was nicknamed “Tweet”. He had a well developed upper body with bird-like, slender legs. They may have been skinny legs, but he could make them fly. Against Tulane that day, he made them — and the Tigers — soar.
Aside from his athletic talents, Poe is best remembered as a clean-cut, honest, hard-working individual who always gave his best.
“He was looked up to and admired by those of us who were younger,” said Clanton. “He had a gentle spirit about him. He was a genuine gentleman, if there ever was one.”
Poe did not use profanity, much less smoke or drink, according to Rushton.
“He was so clean cut, he would not even drink a coke during the season. I never heard him say a cuss word. The worst I ever heard from him was `buzzard’.”
Poe has maintained his lifelong health habits. He still works out daily at the Greenville YMCA, which recently honored him as the organization’s longest active member. His workouts include weight-lifting and running.
Poe is also active with First Presbyterian Church in Greenville.
Although officially retired, he still goes into work everyday. His clients still prefer that he handle their stock transactions.
Poe said he advised his clients to invest as he had. Both benefited in the process, as Clemson has now.
“When I look at people we could all aspire to be more like,” said King. “Billy Poe is one such person.”
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