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McKissick carries life lesson into new position at SCC
When Isaac McKissick was in the seventh grade, he stayed in trouble.
This was frustrating to his mother, Rosa, a young single mother who was trying so hard to keep her sons on the right path to earning an education.
Isaac's principal at Sims High School, the Rev. James Sanders, could see beyond these middle school years. He demanded the best from a boy in whom he could see potential.
"He would whip my behind and call my Mama," McKissick said. "My mother is a remarkable lady, who chose to trust my teachers rather than trust me when it came to my behavior."
But Rev. Sanders also told Rose that Isaac would be all right. McKissick was impressed that Sanders had faith in him and he said that is a lesson he has carried with him throughout his career. It's a lesson he has fallen back on often in his career in education and in his new job as director of Spartanburg Community College's Union County campus.
"That encourages me to look to find the best in a student - to try and get the best out of them and recognize if you have a child who is 11, 12, 13 years old, they have lived only a small portion of their life," McKissick said. "It's not fair to condemn them. We have to look at them and recognize that we are going to make an adjustment and a lot of these things they are going to grow out of. We have to make sure we don't take away a child's future because of them making a childish mistake. They have a lot of time to get things right. You have to look at punishment that will enable a child to grow out of something rather then putting them in a situation they can't recover from."
McKissick said he is a firm believer in the importance of early childhood education and that learning the three r's should begin long before kindergarten.
"I was a child that had been well-taught by the time I got to kindergarten," he said. "My aunts and a lot of the neighborhood young ladies saw fit to teach me how to read and count. When I got to kindergarten at Corinth Baptist Church, I was a little bit advanced and into everything. I have always been grateful to Mrs. (O'Neal) Sims for choosing to challenge me rather than label me. Mrs. Sims recognized a young man who was a little bit ahead but needed to be challenged."
Rather than punishing McKissick, Mrs. Sims assigned McKissick a learning partner, Donald Garner. The two worked well together.
"I am also not a fan of people talking about poverty," he said. "One of the things that happens is that if we focus on poverty and kids coming out of poverty, we really feel sorry for them and provide them with convenient excuses versus demanding excellence. Oftentimes we should treat the classroom situation the way we treat the sports situation - provide a little more coaching. In the classroom the tendency is to label versus demand more. On the athletic field the tendency is to demand more."
McKissick skipped third grade and was promoted to fourth grade at McBeth School with Mamie Rochelle as his teacher. This jump ahead would later have a bearing on the road he took becoming a West Point cadet.
McKissick entered Sims High School in seventh grade, the last year of the high school's existence before the older children were integrated into Union High. In the ninth grade, coach, teacher and administrator Paul Glenn became a great influence. Glenn was also an athletic official, and he carried students with him to games so they could see college campuses.
"Every time he went to call a ball game he had a carload of boys," McKissick said. "That got us on college campuses as teenagers. I had been all over North and South Carolina on college campuses because of Coach Glenn. This exposed us to opportunities for education greater than where we were. Basically it created the expectation that we were going to college."
From an academic standpoint, McKissick said he was not the best student, but he did well on standardized tests.
"Standardized tests have a dual edge - oftentimes it is very easy to state African American and Hispanic kids don't do well on standardized tests," he said. "I think it's more than that. It becomes a situation that is biased to address superficial issues of race versus plainly stating that no child with poor reading or poor math skills will do well on standardized tests.  In my case I had exceptional writing and math skills but didn't apply myself as I should have in class, but it came out on standardized tests.
His standardized test scores brought him to the attention of his guidance counselor, Camille Stribling.
"Somewhere along the way she made the decision I was going to West Point," McKissick said.
One requirement for admission to West Point was a congressional nomination. Many local leaders, black and white, worked together to make sure McKissick got this. He remembers his minister, the Rev. Richard Sadler at Corinth Baptist Church taking him to see Dr. Hayne Rivers, the pastor of one of Union's largest white churches. Rivers was the father of one of McKissick's classmates, Bobby Rivers.
“Ministers got together based on faith and made an investment in a boy," McKissick said.
Union Mayor Bill Stribling - Camille's husband - and Rep. Tom Gettys of Rock Hill worked together to help McKissick get the West Point appointment. Gettys was the uncle of one of McKissick's classmates, Thom White, now 16th Circuit Family Court judge. White and McKissick have remained close friends.
McKissick graduated from high school on May 16, 1975. He was 16 years old. On May 28 he received a phone call from West Point. He had been accepted. He had 72 hours to make up his mind.
"I had planned to go play football at Johnson C. Smith and go to med school," McKissick said. "But my mother told me that I had to understand - we didn't have any money and West Point was going to provide a scholarship and monthly stipend. The decision had been made."
That June 7 McKissick turned 17. His great-grandmother Luvenia McKissick, who had helped raise him, died that June 15 at the age of 91. Her funeral was on June 19. On July 7 he reported to West Point.
"It was probably the most traumatic summer of my life," he said.
West Point sent McKissick a list of physical requirements he had to meet including how many miles a day he would have to run. Someone in authority would have to sign the paper saying McKissick was physically fit to take on the strenuous conditioning at the military college.  He showed the list to Coach Glenn. Glenn called Coach Mickey Gist, a P.E. and science teacher, to help. Gist said every morning he was knocking on McKissick's door at 5:30.
"Isaac had always been a good student but he needed some work physical wise," Gist said. "This went on for six or seven months. Now, he is doing the same thing Coach Glenn and I did for him. That's what it is all about. He is doing for others what we did for him. That is my reward.  A lot of people mentored Isaac. We were two of them. I am so happy he got the job at Spartanburg Community College in Union. He understands and knows what kids need."
As he arrived on campus at West Point, McKissick quickly decided the United States Military Academy was not for him. During an early meeting in Eisenhower Auditorium. The Commandant of Cadets told the new freshmen to look to their left and look to their right. He said that in June of 1979 when the class graduated, one of the people they were looking at would not be there. It was incentive not to be the one, but still McKissick wanted to leave.
"I smoked up a phone booth - crying and sweating," he said. "I told Mama I was coming home. She decided it would be in my best interest to stay where I was. She pretty much said I wasn't welcome at home any more. She said, 'I've got a whole lot of things going on here. You stay where you're at.'"
The constant pressure, coupled with very little food, got to McKissick.
"It was a life change more so than anything else," he said. "They called it 'Beast Barracks,' the summer training for new cadets. But by December or January I figured I was going to stay."
It was the first time as a student McKissick had to apply himself academically.
"I quickly learned that when smart meets competition; only those who work hard survive," he said. "It's easy to be a big fish in a small pond. But in a situation in a highly selective college, you have to go to work. The best students from all over the country were there. I think 1,432 of us started out. We graduated a little over 900."
He said the his classmates' parents made a big difference in the life of cadets like him from small towns.
"It became the beginning of lifelong relationships," he said. "My classmates' parents took folks in. You learned to get along together. You learned to work together."
West Point challenged him and instilled the values of Duty, Honor and Country, McKissick said. It broadened his perspective of what he could do.
After graduation, McKissick became an infantry officer and platoon leader in the 101st Airborne.
After six years in the military McKissick went to work at General Dynamics in Detroit on the M-1 Abrams tank.
McKissick felt the need to do something to show young people in his hometown that there were career opportunities for them that they might feel were out of their grasp. Around 15 years ago he began organizing a career fair and having speakers from various careers visit classrooms in Union County Schools. He said the idea for this was born one November when he was invited to be Veterans Day speaker and ran into old acquaintances.
"We wanted to let folks know what they could do," he said. "A lot of times being from a small town, you limit yourself. The intent was to let them know what was possible - creating aspirations through exposure."
Debra Clayton, now an IT support specialist at BMW, has been McKissick's friend since they were 5 years old.  She speaks each year to students at the opportunity fair. She said all through the years, McKissick has been a soft-spoken person pursuing better.
"He is a gentleman whose main goal is to bring young people up - to help them and bring them up and for them to get the best opportunities available to them," she said.
No matter where he was living, McKissick never forgot Union and its people, Clayton said.
"He has been a mentor to my son and so many other young men who graduated from Union High," she said.
Billy Murphy of Union, who now works as a senior manaager with General Electric Global Operations in Cinncinnati, said McKissick has been a big brother to him since they met in 1996 after Murphy graduated from Presbyterian College. Murphy said he came back to Union that summer and was unsure of what his next step should be. Murphy said he had always wanted to go to Duke University and McKissick gave him the incentive to go there and get his Master's in Business Administration.
"The seed was already in my head and he watered it," Murphy said.
Murphy said he had a great childhood with a lot of encouragement from his mother and stepfather, Dianne and George Tyner. McKissick helped him in his career.
"Isaac gave me a lot of encouragement and motivation to navigate corporate America," Murphy said.
Murphy also speaks annually at the Opportunity Fair. He said McKissick has shown him it's not about him.
"It's about the future generation and how you can help them- make the future better for them," he said.
McKissick came home in 2008 and became School Partnerships Director for Spartanburg District 7. He worked with others to establish mentorship programs in Union and in Spartanburg.
"We were awarded a Full Service Community Schools Grant from the U.S. Department of Education to establish an Early Learning Center and I also founded the AmeriCorps Program in District 7, which provided literacy tutors for elementary school students and scholarship awards for the volunteer tutors.
McKissick said his new job at the Union Campus of Spartanburg Community College is the opportunity of a lifetime at a place that gives students life changing opportunities, including Adult Education and Welding, Advanced Manufacturing/Mechatronics certificates and degrees.
"It provides life changing opportunities," he said.

(Posted April 17, 2017)

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