From South Carolina Soil to the World Stage

Graduates from Erskine College leave an indelible mark

By Margaret Clay

Nestled into the quaint little town of Due West, S.C., Erskine College has been producing generations of leaders for 175 years. According to Dr. Mark Ross, Erskine’s seminary, which also boasts a Columbia campus, was founded for the purpose of supplying pastors to Associate Reformed Presbyterian churches in the South. As the Columbia campus professor of Systematic Theology, Dr. Ross says that the need for the seminary students to have a prior college education was one reason for Erskine College, but there were students for many other professions in need of college education who were discontent with the deistic theological direction of South Carolina College. In 1839, Erskine was the first four-year denominational college to launch in South Carolina in an era which also saw the rise of several other denominational schools, such as Wofford in 1854. 

Since its founding, Erskine has miraculously survived many various trials and tribulations that by all accounts should have permanently closed the school, such as the Civil War which caused it to close for five years and lose all financial backing. During WWII, Erskine managed to stay open by hosting Army Air Corps cadets, innovatively giving the college a way to make money during a time when most male students were off fighting. Also remarkably, Erskine has kept the same student body size of roughly 550 to 600 students since the 1840s.

Most notable about Erskine, however, is its selection of impressive alumni. The name “Coach Jones” may ring a bell as he was made famous in the hit movie Radio, played by Ed Harris. Harold Jones attended Erskine College in 1963 to study Physical Education and Social Studies, attracted by the high number of successful coaches the school produced at both the high school and collegiate level. The movie narrates the true story of Coach Jones who takes an interest in a mentally challenged, local young man — James “Radio” Robert Kennedy, Jr. — and invites him to engage with his high school sporting teams and in the high school itself. 

“I was coaching JV football in 1964 at T. L. Hanna High School in Anderson,” says Coach Jones. “I saw him standing over on the other side of the fence one day at practice, and he was obviously interested in football. He touched my heart, and it just seemed like the right thing to do to go over and invite him to join us. It took him a while to become comfortable enough to come over though — he would just stand off and watch. I think he had been picked on in his neighborhood a lot growing up, but over time he started to trust us, and the rest is history.”

Coach Jones explains that when they first met, no one could understand a word Radio said, but as the years went by, his speech became clearer after being around the high school students. “My favorite memory with Radio is when he started calling me by name. Sometimes we still don’t understand everything he says to this day, but Radio is patient, and we figure it out.”

One aspect of Radio’s story that Coach Jones wishes had made the cut into the screenplay is Radio’s involvement with the track team. Coach Jones coached varsity track in the spring and would let Radio dress out in a track uniform and even run in the slower heats. “I would always ask when we were visiting if the hosting school would mind if he ran in the slowest heats, and everyone enjoyed it — Radio got such a thrill out of it. He ran the 100 yard dash, the 220 yard dash and the 440 yard dash just like he was part of the team, and he really learned a lot and grew through that experience. Of course, it was totally against the league rules for a non-student to compete, but we figured what the league didn’t know couldn’t hurt them!”

Coach Jones explains that he and Radio were present for much of the filming during the production of the movie and found the entire crew and actors to be genuine and kind. In fact, the night they filmed all of the football game scenes, Radio kept telling Coach Jones he needed to get in the locker room with the team before they ran out. When the filming of the games commenced, Radio again kept insisting that he join the team on the sidelines. Coach Jones laughs that he had to explain to Radio that they weren’t able to do that this night. 

“We wanted the people who came to see the movie to walk away knowing how they should treat people with special needs, like Radio. That was the big thing and the reason we decided to do the movie. We want people to realize that people with special needs are really just like you and me.”

Only a few weeks after Radio released in theatres, Radio’s house caught on fire and burned to the ground. A national radio station came out to the school to cover the story and share how people could help, and very shortly after, Coach Jones had raised enough money to build Radio the house he had dreamt of since 1985, complete with three bedrooms and in a nicer area of town. It was the first time that Radio and Cool Rock, his younger brother who also faces mental challenges, ever had separate bedrooms. “It was a really big moment when we gave Radio the key standing out in front of his house. I will never forget it,” says Coach Jones. 

To this day, Coach Jones and Linda, his wife, take care of Radio and Cool Rock. Both of them are also now diabetic, and Linda fixes all their medication and shots and takes it down to them each week. Their niece now lives with them to help with daily needs, but Coach Jones sees them about every day and looks after their needs on the weekends. “Those two are my sons,” Coach Jones explains. The Joneses have three children — Mary Helen, Brad and Suzanne, all of whom are married with children. Coach Jones now even has two great grandchildren. 

Today Coach Jones and Radio, who turns 68 this year, receive letters and emails from all over the world through their website, 

www.radioandcoachjones.com, and Coach Jones does his best to answer every one of them himself. They also travel a lot together and speak at various events, universities and organizations. Coach Jones was even invited to share his story at the College Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind. 

Coach Jones continues to be a servant to his community and people with specific needs in any way he can, a virtue that he says was always valued at Erskine. “It was a good school, I’ll tell you that,” he says. “I still remember Coach Stillie — he taught a lot of the courses that prepared us to teach and coach, and I’ll never forget him. If I hadn’t been teaching and coaching — a skill I learned through Erskine — I never would have met Radio. One thing led me to the next.”

Brothers David and Paul Agnew are also proud Erskine graduates, both of whom have gone on to have impressive political careers. David currently serves in the White House as the deputy assistant to the President and director of intergovernmental affairs. In this role, David oversees the Obama Administration’s relationship with state, city, county and tribal elected officials across the country. Previously, David was the deputy director of the office, serving as the President’s liaison to America’s mayors and county officials. 

Attracted to the experience rendered by a smaller college, David followed his brother Paul’s footsteps in attending Erskine for undergrad, majoring in English and history. David explains that his education at Erskine amply prepared him for his position now at the White House: “I learned how to express myself more effectively through the written and spoken word. The ability to communicate effectively has been a key skill throughout my career.”

David relates that the thing that most surprised him in moving up to the White House is the level of partisanship in Washington, D.C. “In my role, I work effectively with Republicans and Democrats every single day, and I know for sure that the American people want progress and solutions, not partisan bickering.”

One of his favorite memories since he has been in Washington occurred just earlier this year when the Boston Red Sox visited the White House. An avid Red Sox fan since childhood, David was able to meet Jim Rice and take him to lunch at the White House Mess — a very memorable treat.

He explains that his overall impression of Washington, despite all of the negative press, is an optimistic one. “There are some remarkable public officials out here who work incredibly hard every single day to improve their communities and make America a better country. It’s not always easy or acclaimed work, but I believe public service is an important and honorable calling. I’ve always believed that if you don’t like the direction of your state or this country, the great thing about America is that it’s within your power to change it. And I still believe that. We all have the opportunity and responsibility to get involved and try to make our world a better place.”

David’s older brother, Paul, also used his degree from Erskine to found a career in politics, serving in the South Carolina State House of Representatives from 2005 to 2012. Paul now works as a successful lawyer in Abbeville, S.C. “My Erskine experience prepared me well for a legal career and a meaningful life. I met my wife at Erskine, and made lifelong friends with fellow students and professors who helped me grow as a person and instilled in me a strong desire to serve others. While there, I was challenged to think critically and analytically about my purpose in life, and how I would develop and use my education, skills and abilities to fulfill that purpose. I owe much of my success as a lawyer and former legislator to those formative years at Erskine College.”

Another impressive family team that has attended Erskine is the Framptons. Renowned pianist Mac Frampton studied at Erskine and has gone on to play in front of the likes of Van Cliburn and share the stage with celebrities like Bill Cosby and Glen Campbell. His sister, Anne, and sons Eric and Will followed in his footsteps in choosing Erskine as their college. “Erskine felt like the only school that made sense for me — it just felt like home the first day I got there as a freshman,” says Will.

Will Frampton took his Erskine diploma and has made a successful reporting career with it, from covering California wildfires to the South Carolina National Guard in Afghanistan while also interviewing the likes of Morgan Freeman, Charlize Theron and Peyton Manning. 

“My embed with the South Carolina National Guard in Afghanistan will be hard to ever top, for the rest of my career,” says Will. “I spent 15 days in Kabul with the S.C. Guard in December of 2007 and produced an Emmy award-winning special report as a result. It was an amazing time in my life and career, a time I will never forget.”

Winning the Emmy, he says, by far marks the highlight of his career. At 27 years old, just four years into his reporting career, and working in Columbia’s medium-size market, he still managed to beat out powerhouse WSB-TV in Atlanta for the award. “It was a huge moment,” he smiles. “I hope it wasn’t my first and last!”

He says that the excitement of covering wildfires in California is a solid second-favorite memory thus far. “One night in Santa Barbara in May 2009, I woke up with soot in my eyes, everything on me smelling like smoke, my car the same way. But I shot some of the most fascinating video of my career during that time — I recorded then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger visiting a fire shelter as well as Rob Lowe, and I got to interview them both that day.”

He also scored a one-on-one interview with Morgan Freeman in May 2004 while covering the Indianapolis 500. “At the end,” Will says, “I thanked him for his time, and he responded by saying, ‘Come here, son … ’ then he straightened my tie, while the camera was still rolling. I turned and looked at the lens, and my face was beet-red. He couldn’t have been any more gracious, though, and meant it as a kind gesture.”

Otherwise, just making it to Atlanta as a reporter is a trophy that Will is both proud of and grateful for. “I became the man I am today largely because of my time at Erskine,” says Will. “Erskine prepared me more as a person, than a professional, but I believe that’s the best way a college can prepare its students. You can take all the classes as an undergrad, majoring in broadcasting or communications at any large school, but unless you’re ready to handle the challenges that life will present, those courses won’t really prepare you. Erskine allowed me to create opportunities for myself that ultimately led to my career — I developed confidence and a direction in life, and I started getting visions of what I could be capable of as an adult. From the moment you step foot on campus, everything is geared to making you the best version of yourself that you can be.”

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