June 27, 2003
By Louis Garmendia
Edgefield, SC native Strom Thurmond died Thursday night at age 100. Though he is well known as a former governor, senator and presidential candidate, Thurmond got his start at Clemson College from 1919-23. And not only did he graduate in 1923 with a degree in horticulture, but he also was a part of the school’s championship cross country and track teams in the early ’20s.
Accounts of Thurmond at Clemson say that he was a member of the teams for two years, 1921-22 and 1922-23. He was part of an historic event on November 24, 1921. Clemson’s cross country team traveled to Athens for the first ever intercollegiate track meet on Sanford field and its first matchup with Georgia. The meet was held at halftime of the Clemson-Georgia football game. The Clemson track team, which had been practicing on a five mile course, showed up surprised to find out it would be competing on a three-mile course.
The home Bulldogs triumphed that day by scoring 24 points to Clemson’s 31. Meets in those days were scored by giving one point for a first place finish, two points for a second place finish, etc. and the team with the lowest score was declared the victor. Thurmond finished 10th at the meet, but both he and the team fared better than their football counterparts. Georgia outscored Clemson 28-0. Unfortunately for the Tigers that day, the winner of a football game has always been determined by the highest score.
The 1921-22 team still had a successful season, winning the school’s second straight state championship. Thurmond and his teammates set the pace with their training efforts. In its Jan. 16, 1922 edition, The Tiger, Clemson’s student newspaper, recants “prospects for a spring track team seems good.” The newspaper’s optimism was based on a record effort by the team, including Thurmond, which ran 20 miles to Anderson in two hours and 32 minutes.
But both Thurmond and the track program would have their best year ever during the 1922-23 year. They avenged their defeat to the Bulldogs a year earlier by a 20-35 score and senior Thurmond finished sixth in the run, which the Tigers knew would be a three-mile effort. The team won its third straight state title, earning Clemson permanent possession of the trophy cup. The team then traveled to Birmingham, AL in December of 1922 for the Birmingham Road Race, the South’s biggest race.
Clemson participated in what The Tiger called “the most hotly contested road race ever held in the South.” The team finished fourth overall but second in the conference, which went by the initials SIAA.
Thurmond’s efforts did not go unnoticed by his peers. As with varsity athletics, he excelled in other extracurricular activities. He participated in his company’s baseball, basketball and football teams, which are best described as the intramural sports teams of early Clemson. He was also president of the Calhoun Literary Society and his accomplishments were noted in his senior profile in the 1923 TAPS, Clemson’s yearbook:
“There have been few boys at Clemson who have succeeded in making everything a success to the extent that Strom has… Strom’s athletic ability found expression on the cinder path. Although having to work hard, he proved to be a good point winner and a fair representative of the purple and gold.” (Note: Purple and gold were the colors of Clemson at the time)
Thurmond’s athletic prowess at Clemson laid the foundation for a long and healthy life. Thurmond was well-known for his fitness and did not smoke or drink alcohol while serving as senator at the nation’s capital. He did pushups daily well into his 90s and for his 65th birthday party he entertained media and assembled guests by performing 100 pushups. He also fathered four children after age 66, and his social reputation was documented by TAPS in 1923:
“Nor did anyone think this handsome young man was to become a ladies’ man of the ‘first water’, and was to create so many extra heart beats among the fairer sex.”
A small tribute to Thurmond was assembled outside the IPTAY office on Friday at the brick recognizing him as one of IPTAY’s charter members (click for a larger version)
Thurmond’s contributions to Clemson Athletics did not end with his graduation. He was one of the charter members of IPTAY, the University’s athletic fundraising organization. Thurmond helped start what is known as the father of athletic fundraising. He and his fellow members helped raise over $1,600 in 1934-35, its first year. Today IPTAY raises more than $10 million annually.
For his accomplishments in Clemson athletics, Thurmond was inducted into the Clemson Athletic Hall of Fame in 1983. Although his political career will be his most remembered legacy, Thurmond left his mark on Clemson University and the Athletic Department.
Special thanks to Alan Burns for help with this story
March 23, 2019