Tom Barton's legacy rooted in education

business education people

OWEN RILEY JR./Staff

Tom Barton was the longest-serving college president in the country when he retired in 2008 at age 79.


Speaking at Greenville Technical College's 2008 commencement, Dr. Tom Barton told the graduates to chase their dreams and catch them.

"Be relentless," he said. "Don't give up. Don't ever look back."

Barton, the longest-serving college president in the country when he retired in 2008 at age 79, has lived by that advice.

He helped start Greenville Tech in 1962 and steered it through growing pains for 46 years. They set out to meet serious employment needs in the community, he said, and met new needs as they arose.

"Where there are jobs, that's where we're going to be," he said.

Ben Dillard, Greenville Tech's vice president, said Barton has been one of the most significant people in the Upstate in bringing in new industry and a qualified work force.

"He's been a great visionary for this college," Dillard said of his long-time colleague.

But now, Barton decided, it's time for him to step aside.

His early years

Barton was born and raised in a mill village in Lancaster. His mother worked in textiles.

"I learned things there you don't get from books," he said. "I know how those people live and how they struggle. We didn't have any technology ongoing."

His mother, who raised him alone, was one of the major influences in his life, encouraging him during the tough times of the Depression.

A football star in high school, he joined the U.S. Navy in 1946 at the age of 17. He wound up in New London, Conn., working in infrared research with a submarine and a surface vessel.

"We did our work at night," he said. "I saw a lot of technology there."

That, of course, would be a big help later in Greenville.

While home for Christmas, he joined a pickup team of ex-football players who competed with a semi-pro team in Columbia. He was scouted there by Frank Howard, Clemson's legendary football coach.

Not long after that, Barton tried out, and Howard offered him a full football scholarship.

"My mother was elated," Barton said.

And he gained the second great influence in his life -- along with a nickname Howard pinned on him, "Black Cat," for his black hair and quick feet.

He began studying textile management because "all I knew was textiles." The program required a lot of labs, and he was late to football practice several times.

Howard suggested a transfer to education. Barton did that immediately and graduated in 1953.

"I was going into the pros," he said. "I had been drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers."

All that stood between Barton and a chance to play in the National Football League was the college all-star game at Chicago's Soldier Field. But Barton injured his leg during that game, and a doctor told him he'd never play football again.

"That was like dropping a sack of rocks on my head," he said.

In 1987, he was elected to the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame and the Clemson University Athletic Hall of Fame. And before Howard's death, he picked his all-offensive and all-defensive teams, and named Barton to the defensive team.

"I'm proudest of that," he said.

Of the festivities surrounding his retirement, Barton said, "I'd like for both my mother and Coach Frank Howard to see today what has happened."

Bobby Dodd of Georgia Tech, who coached Barton's final football game, wanted to help him find a career. He contacted a number of schools, and Barton wound up with a job teaching and coaching at Brown High in west Atlanta.

A few years later, he returned to South Carolina and worked as a teacher, coach and superintendent in Liberty, Seneca and Aiken. In 1960, he earned a master's degree in education from Peabody College in Nashville, Tenn.

Greenville Tech takes shape

The first step for Greenville Tech was finding a place to build. It turned out to be a "garbage pile," Barton said, and an abandoned one at that.

At the groundbreaking, Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, then South Carolina's governor, recalled in his book, "Making Government Work," that he cautioned, "Don't dig too deep -- we'll get to the garbage."

The Greenville Tech campus started with eight acres, garbage dump included.

In 1962 it had one building, 800 full-time and part-time students, 12 full-time and 20 part-time faculty members and three administrators.

Barton's interest in technical education began when Hollings talked with him about a new vision -- a technical college system in South Carolina. Barton planned to head up Trident Tech, but the man who was to run Greenville Tech pulled out.

It was not easy to will the technical college system into being, Barton said.

"We had to do a heck of a selling job," he said. "We did have a fight. People didn't know one thing about what this place was trying to do."

Barton wasn't altogether sure himself. During construction, he visited seven states to look at their technical education systems.

"California was one we copied heavily and Connecticut," he said. "When I left California, I knew what I was doing."

He heard of a man in Wilson, N.C., who was good at finding equipment and training heavy equipment operators and hired him on the spot.

"In a matter of six to eight weeks, he had equipment crawling all over this place" and already had a class of students, Barton said.

Greenville Tech became the first technical college in the state to open.

"We ushered in a whole new era of higher education and superimposed it on this community," Barton said. "We're not like Furman or Clemson. We run Greenville Tech like a business. We look at students as customers."

Barton "worked around the clock, and it was that kind of tenacity and attention to detail that made the program a success," Hollings said in his book. "And the program made a tangible difference. Using their new skills, workers could double or triple their pay."

Barton said he promised the pioneers who helped him start the college that "Greenville Tech will be a household name."

Over the years, he delivered. People get it now.

"People know about advancing technology. They know about competition. They know employees need training," he said.

Tech grows up

Growth has been a mantra for Greenville Tech, now the third-largest college in the state at the time of Barton's retirement with an annual operating budget of $80 million.

It expands its curriculum to meet the training needs of industries. It expands facilities to meet the needs of its customers -- the students.

Today, the school has four campuses on 600 acres in Greenville County -- Barton Campus on Pleasantburg Drive, named in his honor in 2000; Greer Campus; Brashier Campus in the Golden Strip area; and the Northwest Campus.

It has aviation programs at Donaldson Center, continuing education programs at the Buck Mickel Center and a health-care component on Pleasantburg, McKinney Auto Technology Center and the admissions center at McAlister Square.

Greenville Tech also helped create and provides the site for the University Center of Greenville, a collaboration of seven four-year colleges and Greenville Tech.

Enrollment in 2008 tops 15,000, with an additional 56,324 continuing education registrations.

Over the years, Barton has presided over the opening of three satellite campuses in the most rapidly growing areas of the county. Also, each of the four campuses has or will soon have a charter high school on campus.

"We had a community here that when they really saw what we were doing rallied behind us," said Barton, who earned a doctorate in education administration from Duke University in 1972. "Never did I go to County Council and get turned down for any official request."

He credits county support, some 700 volunteer advisors and the students themselves for making it happen.

Greenville Tech's Quick Jobs program has been a huge success, he said. Targeted for displaced textile workers, it also has helped many residents gain skills.

"It gets them a job and a check in a hurry," Barton said.

In addition, since 1982, he has secured funding for 18 new buildings -- including the first fully funded and equipped by a major manufacturer, Michelin North America. He also launched a distance learning initiative in 1987, which led to the founding of a regional educational television network.

He initiated the formation of the University Center, seven public and private institutions that deliver more than 500 courses and 76 graduate and undergraduate programs.

Other voices

While Barton credits others, he is a leader, said Dean Jones, administrator of Greenville County's Workforce Development office.

"The tenure speaks for itself, to his capabilities in meeting the needs of the community," he said. "He was on the cutting edge."

Playing off the old tag line about E.F. Hutton investment firm, Jones said, "When Dr. Barton speaks, everyone listens."

Greenville Tech and Barton have a great track record in training workers with the skills needed by area companies and by figuring out the finances when money was tight, Jones said.

"Greenville Tech is one of the key economic development partners in the community," he said.

Max Heller, a former mayor of Greenville, called Barton "one of my heroes" at a recent gala honoring Barton. "I've known him ever since he's been here."

William Bradshaw, president of Bradshaw Automotive Group and an area commissioner for Greenville Tech, said Barton "doesn't know the word 'no.' He has a drive and determination second to nobody."

"The enthusiasm and incredible talent of this man rubs off on people."

Lottie Gibson, a Greenville County Councilwoman who formerly worked at Greenville Tech, said Barton saw the Upstate textile industry dying and envisioned training to help displaced workers.

"He led us through segregation and integration and is still a leader in this state and world," she said.

Dillard called Barton a visionary leader, one who looks five, 10 or 20 years down the road while most people are looking at next year. He's also been a mainstay in the college's outreach to the community.

"He stretches us as well as himself," Dillard said. "His true asset is that he is able to continue to stretch us and get us out of our comfort zone. That's when things happen."

Dillard also said that Barton built a strong infrastructure that new leader Miller and others will rely on to expand the college in more directions.

After all, Dillard quotes Barton as saying, "The mortar's not dry between the bricks yet. This is a young institution."

BARTON'S JOURNEY

  • 1929: Born in Lancaster.
  • 1946: Graduated high school and joined the U.S. Navy.
  • 1953: Graduated from Clemson University. Drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers and had a career-ending injury before he joined the team. Began a career in teaching.
  • 1960: Earned a master's degree in education.
  • 1962: Named first president of Greenville Technical Education Center.
  • 1968-'69: Interim executive director of the South Carolina State Committee for Technical Education in Columbia.
  • 1972: Earned a doctorate in education administration.
  • 1996: The Greer and Brashier campuses open.
  • 1999: The Northwest Campus was added to Greenville Tech's portfolio. Helped create the Greenville Tech College charter high school.
  • 2000: The main campus was named for Barton in his honor.
  • 2008: Tom Barton retires.

Jenny Munro