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Growing up in Cowpens, Henry Giles Jr. never envisioned himself as an educator.
After nearly half a century at Spartanburg Community College, Giles said this week he really can’t see himself doing anything else.
Giles, 73, has served for the past six years as the college’s president but he can trace his ties to the institution back to 1969, the summer Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first stepped foot on the moon.
Next month — though he’s not sure exactly when — Giles will mark 50 years with the college.
“If you’d asked me when I was in college if I’d wind up where I did, I’d certainly have told you no,” Giles said Wednesday. “But you have a way of getting into things you just don’t plan.”
He’s seen the college grow from a school with less than three dozen employees and a couple of hundred students to one that now employs more than 400 full- and part-time faculty and staff to nearly 6,000 students today.
It’s also grown from a handful of buildings to five separate campuses in Spartanburg, Cherokee and Union counties, boasts more than 70 programs of study and has become a key part of the training plans for major Upstate employers like BMW and Michelin.
Bill Sarratt, a member of the Spartanburg County Commission for Technical and Community Education, said Giles has been an integral part of the college for decades.
“He just has a tremendous love and dedication to the facility, to the people,” Sarratt said. “He knows it all from top to bottom. He worked in finance for years and years, and he’s just been critical to what it’s become.”
Teaching led to more
After graduating from Wofford College with a degree in mathematics, Giles said he was hired on at what was then Spartanburg Technical Education Center to teach math to students not much younger than himself. He didn’t think he’d last.
“I was draftable and thought I’d end up in the Army,” Giles said.
That draft notice never came, however, and Giles ended up teaching math for the next two years before taking over as the college’s grant programs coordinator.
It was a different era, with computer programming taught on keypunch cards, Giles said, and a time of rapid expansion for the newly minted technical school. It later added its first health science programs in radiological technology and Licensed Practical Nursing, among others.
Giles’ work included the Model Cities grant program, a portion of former U.S. President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society effort.
“Part of the aim was to develop a city workforce, like firemen and policemen, and to bring minorities into the workforce there,” Giles said.
Spartanburg County Councilman David Britt said he first worked with Giles in 1977, as the newly hired Britt was tasked with creating a program to train skilled maintenance associates at Flowers Baking Company. He turned to Giles and SCC for help.
“I was brand new and he was still fairly fresh in his job, too,” Britt said. “But I learned right then the value of turning to SCC and Henry when I had a problem that needed to be solved and I feel like I can still do that today 42 years later. You only get to Henry’s place by being good at what you do.”
The college continued its building and expansion efforts over the years and integrated new technology into its programs, Giles said, a process which only accelerated after the arrival of BMW to the Upstate in the 1990s.
He said there had been some resistance in the South to the idea of hybrid public-private apprenticeship programs, like those practiced by firms including BMW in Europe, but said trips abroad to see the results changed his mind.
“We saw how those programs were really crucial in how Europe was rebuilt following World War II,” Giles said.
Today the college, along with other partners like Greenville Technical College, are integral partners with firms like BMW and Michelin in developing their Scholars programs, which combine classroom work with hands-on training. In BMW’s case, Scholar’s program graduates go on to monitor, service and set up the intricate robots which form the basis for much of the company’s manufacturing process.
What’s in a name
Giles admits he wasn’t excited when the college made the call to rebrand as Spartanburg Community College in 2006.
“I honestly didn’t believe that the name change would make a difference and I didn’t think it would really change the environment of the college,” Giles said. “I have to say that I was wrong, and it’s one of the best things the college ever did.”
He said the rebranding has been a key step in helping students and parents understand the entirety of what the college offers. It’s still focused on its mission to produce industry ready graduates, Giles said, but it can also serve as a foundational step for students hoping to move on to higher education at one of South Carolina’s four-year colleges and universities.
“It made parents feel like, ‘I’m not putting my child in a dead end career,’ that they can still go there and have upward mobility and get their advanced degree or to move up in an organization through management,” Giles said. “It’s been a big part of opening up enrollment here at SCC.”
But for Giles, the enrollment growth meant a bigger platform to make a difference and is a key part of the reason he’s carried on long past the point he was eligible for retirement.
“It’s one thing to see a kid succeed, that’s nice,” Giles said. “But to see a kid who is floundering, to have an opportunity to help them, that’s what gets you excited about coming to work. I think we look for people who are driven by a desire to help others become successful.”
He said he may move a little slower today, but said he has no plans to retire in the immediate future. Sarratt said Giles continues to be a major asset to both the college and the community.
“Obviously I’m 73, so life does end and all good things come to an end,” Giles laughed. “And it’s closer than when I got here 50 years ago. If I ever felt like I was not having a positive impact, I think I’d want to leave, and I’ve told my board that. Right now, I feel good and the people I work with make it easy to come in every day, and there’s still work to do.”