(Below is a feature article that appears in the current edition of Limestone Today magazine. In addition to the print version, the publication is also available online at https://issuu.com/cualum02/docs/limestone_today__fall_2017__e-editi.)
FAREWELL, DR. WALT GRIFFIN
As Limestone President Dr. Walt Griffin gets set to retire, he reflects on the past and looks toward the future:
By Charles Wyatt, Director of Communications
There are all the new buildings, the facility renovations, the balanced budgets, the enrollment growth, and the fund-raising goals met.
However, during a recent conversation in his office inside the Curtis Administration Building, Limestone College President Dr. Walt Griffin was asked about his fondest memories during the past 25 years. And his answers came back to the same thing time and time again.
“I will miss all the interactions I have on a daily basis – the students, faculty, staff, trustees, and alumni,” said Dr. Griffin, who announced in April that he would be retiring at the conclusion of the upcoming fall semester. “I have had the opportunity to meet thousands of interesting people and I will miss those connections.”
Since coming to Limestone in 1992, Dr. Griffin has stood on the commencement stage at Fullerton Auditorium and handed out the degrees and shook the hands of every single graduate. When asked to pick something that will forever define his legacy at Limestone, he points to those students.
“The thing I will remember most is being involved in the successful college education of probably 10,000 people,” Dr. Griffin explained. “More than half of our living alumni have actually graduated since I have been here. We have been turning out between 500 and 700 graduates per year. The lives of those students have been forever changed because of their college education, and that has also had a positive impact on our state, region, and beyond. It is extremely fulfilling to have played a part in their accomplishments.”
RENEWED EFFORT TO PROPEL LIMESTONE FORWARD
At the time of Dr. Griffin’s hiring, many wondered just how many more graduates would be able to walk across that stage. He arrived with a mission to turn the negative tide that had washed across the shores of Limestone.
Over a six-year period that spanned the late 1980s and early ’90s, Limestone’s budget operated at a deficit. In those dismal days, enrollment numbers were dwindling, buildings were deteriorating, and many wondered if the College would survive.
Under Dr. Griffin’s leadership, Limestone found stability and started a path to a major turnaround. The College not only recovered from those difficult times, but also flourished with a new era of growth, strength, and renewal.
“During my first semester in the fall of ’92, we had 274 students,” Dr. Griffin remembers. “Then in the spring, we had 276 – which is probably the only time enrollment went up between the fall and spring. Obviously, my goal was to increase enrollment. The school most certainly would not have survived had it not been for the Block Program. We could not have maintained the school’s extensive physical plant, even with what it was back then, with 300 students on campus. The 600 or 700 additional students in the Block Program at the time basically saved the College. It gave us the opportunity to buy some time and build the Day Program.”
Limestone’s Block Program was established in 1976 to offer evening classes to working adults at several locations across the state and the region. Now known as the Online & Evening, it has flourished during Dr. Griffin’s presidency. The College was one of the first in the nation to do so when it added a virtual campus via the internet in 1996.
Increasing enrollment played a major role in Limestone wiping the red ink off its books.
“When I arrived, there were a lot of folks on and off campus who were very pessimistic. Some did not even think that Limestone would survive. But I was more optimistic than most,” Dr. Griffin said. “Balancing the budget, psychologically, was big for us that first year. They had six successive years where they had not been able to balance the budget. That first year, we had a budget surplus of $2,700. Even if it had been 27 cents, it sent the message that we were turning things around. We have been very blessed that for 25 years we have never had a budget deficit. Not a lot of private colleges can say that.”
Dr. Griffin knew full well that throughout its history, Limestone’s epitaph had been written many times, but that in each instance, the College was able to endure and even prosper. During his early years as President, there was talk that becoming a state-supported school might be the only way that Limestone could keep its doors open.
“There were some, including a few trustees, who thought the answer was to turn Limestone into a state school,” Dr. Griffin said. “The thought was that the state of South Carolina would take over and all the salaries would go up and everything would be fine. But, of course, the last thing the state of South Carolina needed was another school.
“Had that happened, the first thing they probably would have done is close down all the Block sites around the state,” he added. “When approached about the idea, I believe some of the lawmakers, rather than just emphatically saying ‘no,’ said, ‘Come back and see us when the school is a little stronger.’ That probably raised the hopes of some that it actually might happen. Ironically, if the school were a little stronger, it would not need the state’s support.
MORE STUDENTS, IMPROVED FACILITIES, BETTER PROGRAMS
As it turns out, Limestone didn’t need the state’s coffers to turn things around. Dr. Griffin’s plans were taking effect and more students were enrolling. That provided more resources that, coupled with greater fund-raising efforts, started to transform the College.
In the past quarter of a century, no less than 18 new buildings have been constructed or acquired, and practically all the other structures have received extensive renovations.
“With the support of our trustees, alumni, friends, and others, we have taken the school from a perilous situation to one where it is stable and prosperous,” Dr. Griffin noted. “For the past decade or so, Limestone has been one of the top three in enrollment for private colleges across the state.”
The renaissance was not confined to just brick and mortar. Limestone has been able to upgrade its faculty qualifications, going from a little over 50 percent of the faculty having terminal degrees in 1992 to up over 80 percent today. Faculty salaries have also been brought up to competitive levels.
The Athletics Department has grown from eight sports to twenty five. “The quality got better, as did the quantity,” Dr. Griffin said. “Our teams and student-athletes consistently compete for championships, as evidenced by our five national titles in men’s lacrosse.”
Limestone has been successful away from the playing fields as well, with successful fine arts programs like Music and Theatre that continue to win major awards. “In 2000, we were able to bring back the Theatre program that had disappeared,” Dr. Griffin remarked. “In addition, four years ago we added a marching band. All of those things combined to make Limestone a quality destination for students looking to further their education.”
Dr. Griffin said he was particularly gratified by the growth of Limestone’s Social Work program that his late wife, Penni, was so instrumental in building – first as an Assistant Professor and Director of Field Placement in 1995, then as its Director in 1997, and eventually its Assistant Dean-Director beginning in 2002.
“Penni had so much to do with the Social Work program’s initial accreditation by the Council on Social Work Education. It was almost a one-woman crusade,” Dr. Griffin said. It was a struggle to get accreditation, but we worked through that and got the accreditation. Many people do not realize that Limestone has more Social Work majors than many of the colleges of Social Work at major research universities. And just recently, we had one of the first Social Work programs available completely online. That’s Penni’s legacy more than mine, and I am very proud of it.”
RETIREMENT WILL NOT END RELATIONSHIP WITH LIMESTONE
Stepping away as Limestone’s President does not mean that Dr. Griffin will no longer be a part of the College’s family.
Far from it.
“We have a new house in Gaffney that my daughter, Megan, and I are moving into,” he explained. “I want to see as many Limestone plays, musical performances, and athletic contests as I can. I will absolutely be around. My son, Shawn, recently moved closer when he relocated to Charlotte, so I will also have time to spend with him and his family.”
Dr. Griffin and his late wife Penni have four children – Shawn, Megan, Rebecca, and Kathleen – and eight grandchildren.
“I would also like to travel a little bit,” Dr. Griffin said. “I wouldn’t mind visiting England. That would be very enjoyable. Although my academic specialty is in American History, one of my minor fields for my doctorate was British history. I have not had the chance to teach it for many years, but I still have that interest in it. So maybe the opportunity will present itself to finally make that trip.”