Ray Huff, director of the Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and founder of Huff + Gooden Architects, delivered this keynote address April 6, 2018, in Memorial Auditorium, which adjoins Tillman Hall at Clemson University. Huff has graciously allowed us to share his stirring remarks in written form.
By Ray Huff, FAIA
We are here today to honor and celebrate your achievements. This is a proud day for you, for your family, and for the university. You are being recognized for outstanding accomplishments. For standing above the crowd. For a dedication to purpose…. and today, the university community honors you.
I am humbled on this special day to be asked to provide a congratulatory message. In preparing my comments, I thought long about what I may have wanted to hear today if I were in your place. So, I asked myself what “wisdoms” am I able to convey in the spirit of this august occasion. How might I draw from my own experiences that might convey a sensibility honed over 70 years.
It’s been more than 50 years since I first visited this venerable institution. As I look back over my shoulder, I can trace so much of who I am and what I’ve become to that early experience. So, please indulge me and allow me for a moment to share a story. My story, for I would like to think it has bearing on this very moment.
In this great room, I sat with other first year students – Rats, we were affectionately called – for orientation. This very room. A room figuratively built by Benjamin “Pitchfork” Tillman.” At the time, I did not know his story and his connection to Clemson. Unbelievably, despite growing up in Charleston, I had never heard of Clemson University until Harvey Gantt desegregated the college in 1963. Which, by the way, must have truly upset Mr. Tillman. You might ask, “how could you, in high school preparing for college, not have ever heard of this widely regarded state institution?” Well, you need to understand that at that time, South Carolina consisted of parallel universes. One for white people and one for people of color.
In the greatest of forums, known euphemistically as the Black Barbershop, I once heard a fellow customer excitedly telling us of a classmate of his, who was returning to Charleston after a long and apparently distinguished military career. The customer was very animated. Excited. Incredulous even. So proud. His classmate had journeyed far and wide since high school. Achieving the military rank of full colonel. At the end of his service career, he was returning from whilst he’d come. The customer was beside himself with pride for he had not been especially successful in his own life from what I could ascertain. Though while so very proud of his classmate, he was nonetheless exasperated. Finally, in the middle of his histrionics, he abruptly stopped. And after a long pause… he said with incredulity, “Nobody told me I COULD be a colonel.”
No one, during his childhood, his schooling and later, believed enough in him, to tell him He, TOO, Could Have Been A Colonel. Imagine, if only anyone cared….
“NOBODY TOLD ME I COULD BE A COLONEL”
Like I said, I grew up in a different South Carolina than what you see today. The South Carolina of my youth was a segregated place where some thought then, and even now, that old Pitchfork Ben was a man of decency and courage. I was fortunate however. My mother, an elementary school teacher, came from a family of academics. She completed her Master’s of Education at University of Pennsylvania in the late ’50s as a single parent, and did her post-graduate work at University of Miami. My grandfather was a college professor for 40 years. My grandmother was the first black state social worker in South Carolina. Yes, I came from relative privilege.
But, even so, my personal horizon was supposed to be pre-programmed. I was supposed to go to what we now refer to as a “historic black college or university.” When I told my guidance counselor I wanted to study at Clemson, she told me that I should not apply to Clemson; that I would not succeed there.
Fortunately for me, I was either too innocent or naïve to know I wouldn’t. And why not?
For reasons that are still inexplicable to me, I chose architecture. Although I knew next to nothing about it. At the time, if one wanted to study architecture at Clemson, you had to first take a standardized examination in addition to the SAT. The Architecture Aptitude Examination was mandated for any prospective architecture student. So, my mother and I drove to Clemson and I sat for the exam on a Saturday in the spring of my senior year in high school. The exam was completely baffling to me. Intended to test one’s aptitude for the arts, sciences, language, visualization, and other essential disciplines one supposedly needed to be an architect.
Well, despite all, my background did not prepare me well for this manner of testing. I was not especially successful. But, despite that I was accepted to study architecture and my personal enlightenment began.
On my first day of my freshman class, I exited the food line at Harcombe Dining Hall, and stood there with tray in hand, bewildered. I’d never been around that many white people in my life. Then someone called out and invited me to his table where he was sitting alone. Like all the others he was white. He said, “have a seat.” Then, “you don’t remember me, do you?”. I didn’t. He said, “well, I delivered newspapers to your house for years.” His name is, believe it or not, John Quincy Adams, really! His welcome was re-affirming in ways I cannot properly put in words to this day. I’ll never forget his generosity. His simple act reinforced me and my belief that I too belonged here. After all, he had been my paperboy!
This “high seminary of learning,” Clemson, gave to me the gift of knowing that I could do anything. One of the greatest gifts a university can bestow is an Awareness of a larger world out there and preparation to enter that world. A world of knowledge, curiosity, insight, and lessons, to be garnered…
… it all began with that most elemental of gestures… empathy.
50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Dino Harvey, a fellow student, and I hitchhiked to Atlanta to attend Dr. King’s funeral. We had a dime between us. A truck driver picked us up and dropped us off on the outskirts of Atlanta. After a short while, a muscle car full of young men with cigarette packs tucked in a fold of their tee shirt sleeves offered us a ride. Dino and I looked at each other and said, “Dr. King, we know you’re up there, so please make sure these boys do the right thing.” You have to understand the moment. King was just assassinated. Cities across America were burning. Mistrust was everywhere. Fear and anger filled the air around us. Here we are, two young black students in suits sitting in a car with four young white men, who on the surface couldn’t be more different then us. Yet, as we entered Atlanta, we talked with them about Dr. King. They did not agree much with King’s positions. They weren’t convinced the races could be fully integrated. But still, they were willing to listen to us and then they drove us deep into the black district of Atlanta so we could get to the funeral on time… tolerance.
“NOBODY TOLD ME I COULD BE A COLONEL”
Remember, this was the ’60s, a time of tremendous social upheaval in America. The world seemed upside down – Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement, ’60s Generation – in so many ways that you simply wanted to “drop out”, as the adage proclaimed.
My first job in Florida was with a large architecture firm that designed high rise after high rise without passion, commitment, or integrity. This was untenable to me. However, an extraordinary architect lived and practiced right across the street from where I lived. For months, I approached him about a job but he was not in position to hire. Finally, I went to Don with a proposal: if he’ll allow me, I would work nights for free. I knew this would be a pivotal time for me becoming an architect. After a couple of months, he hired me full time and I attribute much of my professional design sensibilities to that experience… tenacity.
“NOBODY TOLD ME I COULD BE A COLONEL”
Eventually, I returned to Charleston and established a design practice. But, I knew that in returning to my hometown I would not be the same unformed person that left a dozen years ago. Charleston was a place that valued conformity and placidity, and still does. I vowed then that I would return as my Own Man. An Educated Man. A Man of Ideas. Not simply someone beholden to old precepts.
Over time, I built an international architecture practice with offices in Charleston and New York with another Clemson graduate, Mario Gooden. Our primary interest involved exploring architecture and its relationship to culture, memory, and knowledge. We were not in the “business” of architecture, we sought to make architecture an arbiter of the public domain and to reflect the values and ideals of our communities and of our time.
In 1987, President Barker, then dean of College of Architecture, approached me to establish a new Clemson center in Charleston, which became the Clemson Architecture Center (CAC.C). After 30 years, the CAC.C is housed in the new Clemson Design Center in Charleston, a historic mill building accommodating 100 students in five different master’s and undergraduate programs. The CDCC is dedicated to Clemson’s mission of public service, research, and preparing young people like yourselves to be empathic, tolerant, tenacious citizens of the world.
“NOBODY TOLD ME I COULD BE A COLONEL”
In the field of architecture and in many other disciplines, the days of where you simply operate alone in a vacuum are over. Done.
We all now operate globally and simultaneously in a sphere that is not bounded by synthetic borders. We are confronted with so much information and we have had to adapt to operating seamlessly in multiple environments and contexts, simultaneously.
But, don’t let people tell you that things are all going bad. That WE are losing our way. WE are simply re-aligning. Civilizations always have. And will always continue to do so. Don’t despair… do something.
Some of you have all too often heard disparaging comments about being a Millennial. It is said, “you’re obsessed with technology. You’re unmotivated. You don’t want to work hard. You don’t even want to buy a car… You’re not ready for the challenges ahead.”
Let’s put this misrepresentation to rest….
Every preceding generation has thought the current generation unworthy, unfocused. It’s a cycle. Just like everything else. It just moves faster. Don’t be dismayed by the naysayers.
Like generations before who faced untold hardships such as wars, social upheaval, economic collapse, and other devastating events, you too will face seismic challenges. In a time of uncertainty, wayward leadership, and a climate of animosity, the burden is on you to reshape this world into a place of decency, empathy, and tolerance.
Now, I’ve told you a bit about myself, but today is not about me, it’s about you and what you have accomplished. About your commitment.
About your willingness to put aside the mundane to be your best.
Look about this room…. what do you see? A potpourri of tones, genders, and cross sections of the Clemson family, all with purpose and so much yet to discover.
Determine what really matters.
Figure out for yourselves what’s important and build scaffolding to strengthen your beliefs
Look what you have already accomplished. You are being honored for being extraordinary.
You are the future
Open your eyes
Open your hearts
Release your spirit
Listen to yourself
Make your life mean something
Determine what REALLY matters.
Are you going to make a difference? ……I’d say YES.
“NO ONE TOLD ME I COULD BE A COLONEL.”
CONGRATULATIONS TO YOU ALL.
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