Dr. Phinnize Fisher keynotes SMC’s 2013 Convocation

SMC marked the official start of the 2013-2014 academic year with its annual convocation ceremony held on Wednesday, September 4th.  Dr. Phinnize J. “Penny” Fisher, current chair of the SMC Board of Trustees, served as the keynote speaker.

Dr. Colleen Perry Keith, the 7th President of Spartanburg Methodist College, commenced the event and shared that on September 4, 1911 the Rev. Dr. David English Camak opened Textile Industrial Institute  and welcomed the college’s first student…a 33 year-old married man who lived around the corner from the college’s first location at the corner or Farley and Brawley Streets near downtown Spartanburg.

“In spite of everyone telling President Camak to close down the college and quit, he persevered and 102 years later we are opening our doors to 525 new SMC freshman and 818 students overall,” shared Dr. Keith. “The little school that began as a ‘cumbersome old wooden tenement, surrounded by others about as attractive…with no inside plumbing’ has blossomed into a full-fledged respected college that sits on a 110-acre campus with 20 buildings, a fully accredited and rigorous academic program, 15 winning varsity athletic teams, a well-credentialed faculty and staff and this year boasts of 453 LIFE Scholars in its student body … that’s nearly 56% of the student body! We have gone from a school that educates students for the textile industry to a College that educates students for a knowledge economy…and we do it well!,” Dr. Keith exclaimed.

The annual convocation keynote address, referred to by Dr. Keith as an ‘inspirational pep talk” that gets the campus ready to move into a successful academic year, was delivered by Dr. Penny Fisher and carried forth the message of perseverance.  Before Dr. Keith welcomed Dr. Fisher to the podium she shared that “Dr. Fisher is one of her personal heroes.” She elaborated that “although Dr. Fisher had achieved professional recognition on the local, state and national levels, she did so after overcoming some incredible personal adversity; explaining that when she was a very tender 12-year old, her mother died of stomach cancer. A year later, her father died of a sudden cerebral hemorrhage. Many children would have fallen apart in such circumstances, and I suspect that Dr. Fisher had her moments of doubt. But her parents had instilled in her a faith and a work ethic that meant she was well positioned for success. She also had a community who cared for her. And education has factored prominently throughout her life – that’s a thread that I want you to appreciate,” stressed Dr. Keith.

Dr. Fisher, a native of Virginia, opened her remarks by stating this was the most emotional speech she had ever delivered and shared it was her very first time talking to college freshman.  She proceeded to give a quick overview  of her life…stressing the importance of students finding themselves.  After her parents’ passing, Dr. Fisher’s older sister took her in and a high school teacher drove her to school. She did well in high school, and was known as a “good kid” and a “teacher’s pet and even  graduated from high school as the salutatorian (yet to this day, she thinks she could have been the valedictorian) of her class.

As Dr. Keith had shared, the odds were stacked against her, especially going to college. Yet there was something inside of her, instilled early on by her parents that guided her to take charge of her life.    For instance, two weeks prior to graduation, a school advisor/mentor pulled her aside and encouraged her to “get married…don’t even think about college…you need security.”  Rather than heed those words, Dr. Fisher used them to galvanize her future, and recalling a Dr. Seuss quote “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…” she took control of herself and persevered.

Dr. Fisher made sure she was on a path for college and acknowledged the important role one particular Western Civilization professor’s teachings had had upon not only her the education but her life.  The end result?  She received a bachelor’s degree in post-secondary education and graduated early from St. Paul’s College in Virginia.  And in 1969 she earned her “own security” as an employed teacher in New Jersey earning a $5000 yearly salary.

Dr. Fisher, rather than just making a living, made a difference.  She went on to earn a master’s degree and doctorate from Rutgers University and completed post-graduate studies at UCLA and the University of Utah.  Over the years she served as a teacher, reading supervisor, principal, assistant superintendent, deputy superintendent of operations, chief of staff and most recently served for eight years as the superintendent of South Carolina’s largest school district, the Greenville County School District with more than 70,000 students and a $440 million budget, before retiring in May of 2012 after a 43-year career in education.

Recognized by her colleagues across the state and nation, Dr. Fisher was honored as the 2011 Superintendent of the Year by the South Carolina Athletic Administrators Association;  the 2009 Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club Public Servant of the Year; as Outstanding School Superintendent by the Career and Technology Education Administrators Division of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators; and was selected as a finalist for the 2011 National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators.

However, Dr. Fisher’s most treasured recognition came after she announced her retirement, when Greenville’s School Board announced the construction of The Dr. Phinnize J. Fisher Middle School.   Located on the Millennium Campus near the CU-ICAR (Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research) campus, the 179,000 sq. ft. three-story $42.3 million facility will serve 1000 students and feature indoor and outdoor learning spaces that demonstrate specific applications of math, science and engineering.

Dr. Fisher currently serves as the Chair of the Board of Trustees at Spartanburg Methodist College and has served on the boards of the United Way of Greenville, the Alliance for Quality Education, and the Board of Commissioners for Greenville Technical College. She is also a member of various civic organizations and the Silver Hill United Methodist Church.  She is also the wife of former Spartanburg Public Safety Director Tony Fisher, who retired on August 2nd.

One of Dr. Fisher’s favorite quotes, which she very lovingly shared with Dr. Keith three years ago when she was diagnosed with breast cancer is: “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” Dr. Penny Fisher dances beautifully in the rain and continues to teach others to do the same.

Her message was well received by the college’s nearly 40% minority representation. Freshman Korri Dawkins, son of Terry J. and Keisha Dawkins-Hardy (a cancer survivor) of Spartanburg, enjoyed Dr. Fisher’s speech; in particular, he especially liked hearing from a successful minority professional as he himself begins his studies hoping to eventually pursue a career as an art education instructor or graphic designer.

After Dr. Fisher’s keynote address, Dean of Students, Ron Laffitte, oversaw the installation of sophomore David Preston Morton as President of the Student Government Association at SMC.  Preston is the son of David and Phyllis Morton and is a 2006 graduate of Loris High School in Loris, SC.  The ceremony also featured a special performance by SMC’s choir group, the Troubadours, led by Director of Music Dr. Lanny Lanford. Serving as Faculty Marshals for the event were Dr. Katherine Cann, Chairperson of the Division of Social Sciences and Professor of History and Dr. Mark Gibbs, Chairperson of the Division of Humanities and Professor of Religion and Philosophy.