REMARKS ON ACCEPTANCE OF THE DEAN’S AWARD/
DEDICATED TO STELLA TONGOUR/ MARCH 22, 2013
Thank you, Dean Fitzpatrick. I feel more grateful to USC than I feel deserving of this award. It has taken what my former boss, Senator Alan Simpson, calls “creeping maturity” to understand that USC, and specifically the College of Arts and Sciences, was really a crucible for my life, and changed it in such a positive way. But I didn’t fully realize that when I was younger. In retrospect, USC provided an excellent balance of solid academics, along with practical experience in government and politics which greatly influenced my future career. Importantly, it was fun, and it was where I made many life-long friends.
I remember coming here nearly 40 years ago, and thinking how intimidatingly huge Columbia was. I was scared to drive in all this traffic. But my anxieties didn’t last long. I met students and professors from all around the country and the world, who provided a broader exposure to life. I had great professors like Blease Graham, John Stucker, and Don Fowler, whom I am pleased is here tonight. They combined the best of academia and a keen real world understanding. They encouraged my involvement in campaigns and political organizations. I was able to work at the SC State House for the legendary Speaker Solomon Blatt. There, I observed/learned much about the legislative process. (I also learned what Old Crow and branch water was). I learned about leadership in my college fraternity and in the IFC. I also learned that you could have a good time and also do well academically. So for these and many other reasons, I am grateful to USC.
I am also grateful and humbled when I look around this room and see such wonderful friends, teachers (like Margie Claytor and Lu Richardson), mentors from every stage of my life. There are friends here from Barnwell, from my college days, from law school, from Washington, including Congressman Joe Wilson and his wife Roxanne, friends from Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, and of course my family—my wonderful wife, Lalie, Furman grad (graduating a bit later than I), our kids, Jack, Alec, and Stella, Lalie’s mom, Louise, her dad, Ron, and his spouse, Barbara.
Please don’t think my life at USC was totally idyllic. I experienced something here that could easily have been the inspiration for a sit com. A little background: My mother, Stella, regularly introduced herself as “Michael’s mom”. I always appreciated her love, but she was almost too attentive. She was living in war torn Europe when she finished the French equivalent of high school, but, unfortunately, had no opportunity to further her education. My parents immigrated to the US in 1950. My mother’s dream was to teach. Of course, she couldn’t without a college degree. When USC’s Salkehatchie Regional campus, near Barnwell, opened its doors in the mid 60’s, she (accompanied by her friend Mary Griner, who is here tonight) began the journey for her dream. She took one course per semester until she finished whatever Salkehatchie could offer. Then, you guessed it, she spent nearly three years commuting to Columbia to finish her degree. And that is precisely when things got complicated for me! Her timing was painful because those were also three of the four years which I spent as an undergraduate at Carolina. It’s very hard to be a big man on campus when your mother seems to show up everywhere. Imagine the embarrassment of your professor announcing to a huge class that “Michael Tongour’s mother is at the door and apparently needs his assistance with her car”. Or coming to your fraternity house and finding your mother taking a break there between her classes, and showing your fraternity brothers your childhood pictures. Or one awful day, going to the first day of a class, and realizing that your mom would be your classmate. On my entry, she immediately leaped out of her desk to give me a hug. I decided to drop that class.
As I said, although I liked my time here, I was too young to truly appreciate it. But my mother was about the same age as I am now when she finished here, and she was wise enough to know just what a great opportunity she had. Because of her past, she also understood deprivation, which I never experienced. I don’t think a student ever loved Carolina more than she did. Unfortunately, mom died last year. I really miss her.
What I have in my hand is her scrapbook. The title is “My College Memories”. There are pictures of her in front of campus buildings, pictures of her friends, pictures she took of her favorite professors, her Phi Beta Kappa certificate, her President’s Honor Roll certificates, and finally photos in her graduation cap and gown. My mom was a life- long student. She went on to get a Master’s degree in education, and achieved her goal of being a teacher. She tutored students all the way until the last years of her life.
As a 19 or 20 year old, I guess I could be forgiven for feeling uncomfortable with my mother being such a presence in my college life. But as I prepared for tonight, I thought “what I wouldn’t give to spend one day with her on campus.”
Most of our guests tonight knew my mother. You know she would have loved being here. And likely, she is!
So I am pleased to accept this award, but dedicate it to the loving memory of Stella Tongour, USC, Bachelor of Arts, magna cum laude 1977.