Gaye and Joel Sprague are keeping their late son’s memory alive with an endowment that has begun providing scholarships for Clemson University undergraduates who are majoring in civil engineering and are underrepresented in the field.
The Spragues’ son, Ben, was an 18-year-old freshman at Clemson when he died on Dec. 9, 2007. He grew up in Greenville and played football and soccer at Greenville High School.
Shortly before his death, Ben had expressed an interest in joining the engineering practice his mother founded, Sprague & Sprague Consulting Engineers. The endowment bears Ben’s name– the Benjamin Garrison Sprague Memorial Scholarship Endowment.
Family and friends of the Spragues have generously donated to the endowment.
“We wanted our gift to go to civil engineering, and we wanted it to go to underrepresented groups for a couple reasons,” Gaye said. “One was that Ben’s friends were Black and white and old and young and rich and poor and male and female– everybody. So that represented him. We also felt our profession needs to more represent the population as a whole.”
Jeff Dezen, a longtime family friend, said the endowment was a fitting memorial for Ben.
“His energy and leadership, his humor, intellect and tenderness all presented a magnetism that attracted diverse friendship circles and deeply felt loyalties,” Dezen said. “These qualities reflect the nurturing that both Gaye and Joel provided throughout Ben’s life, and values that they amplify to this day.”
Gaye, a traffic engineer and former Greenville City Council member, is principal of Sprague & Sprague Consulting Engineers. Joel is senior engineer for TRI Environmental, where he, along with their son, Jay, conducts industry-leading research in geotextiles and erosion and sediment control materials.
Gaye and Joel met in Lowry Hall when they were both civil engineering students. Gaye received her Bachelor of Science in 1978 and her Master of Science in 1980, both in civil engineering. Joel received his Bachelor of Science in civil engineering in 1979.
Gaye has been a member of the Clemson family since she was 9 years old and doing cornmeal muffin demonstrations through Clemson agriculture’s 4-H program. She taught three civil engineering courses at Clemson in the early 1990s after one professor died and another left suddenly.
Her rich history of service has led to her most recent honor, Clemson’s Civil Engineering Distinguished Alumni Award.
“I’m very grateful and honored,” she said. “I looked through who received it before. They are interesting people doing interesting things.”
Jesus M. de la Garza, chair of the Glenn Department of Civil Engineering, congratulated Gaye on the award.
“This is the civil engineering department’s highest honor, and Gaye is highly deserving,” de la Garza said. “She has set an excellent example with her support of students, particularly those who are underrepresented, and her record of service to Clemson and the broader Upstate community.”
Shelly Dezen, a longtime friend of the Spragues and Gaye’s former campaign manager, said she wasn’t surprised to hear about the donation or the award.
“She has internalized a fabulous commitment to service,” said Shelly, who is married to Jeff. “She is emotionally and professionally tied to Clemson. Gaye is an extraordinary person who is very intelligent, thoughtful and deliberate. I can’t imagine any organizations or academic institutions that wouldn’t want to put Gaye front and center as exemplifying who they are.”
As a woman in civil engineering, Gaye is helping break the glass ceiling and setting an example for others. She followed in the footsteps of her aunt, Nancy Garrison, who worked on the Manhattan Project and probably would have been an engineer if she had been born in 1953 instead of 1923, Gaye said.
Gaye remembers that when she told her parents in the early 1970s that she wanted to be an engineer, not once did they ask if she was sure it was what she wanted to do.
Gaye said she took her first traffic engineering class at Clemson with Larry Josey. She was also nurtured by professors James Edwin Clark and Donald Stafford. Claire Caskey, who taught technical writing, was also influential, helping prepare her for the reports she would have to write in her consulting work.
Joel came to Clemson from Chelsea, Michigan for its affordability and because he was looking for a good engineering school in a small town. He remembers that he was able to take as many hours as he could fit into his schedule for $640 a semester.
Joel made the most of it, taking 18-21 credits most semesters, and once managing 24 credits. He worked in the photo lab and had jobs through the Cooperative Education program. The most influential professor for him was Jack McCormac.
“He agreed to do remote learning before remote learning was cool,” Joel said. “He shipped me VHS tapes when I was on co-op up in Michigan, and that made it possible to stay on schedule to graduate. He was a roll-up-your sleeves, get-it-done, no-nonsense person.”
Gaye and her family have been deeply embedded in civic life of the Upstate for many years. Her father is the late T. Ed Garrison, a former state senator who owned Denver Downs, a farm about nine miles south of Clemson’s main campus and namesake of Clemson’s T. Ed Garrison Arena. Her late mother, Juanita Garrison, was news editor for The (Seneca) Journal and Tribune and a columnist for The Greenville News and for the Anderson Independent Mail.
Gaye and Joel, who have three grandchildren, now live in Greenville, just down the street from Jay and his family.
Now that Gaye is nearing retirement, her life is coming full circle, back to Clemson. She would like to become a master naturalist through Clemson Extension.
“I really want to concentrate on the environment and keeping South Carolina the wonderful place it is for my grandchildren,” she said.
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