Mechanical engineering alumnus Jerry Dempsey met with powerful leaders and traveled the world during a career that included one top executive post after another.
One trip, though, stands out not for what happened in the boardroom, but for the souvenir he brought home.
Dempsey remembered that he was near a university in Moscow when a young man working a stand asked what his favorite NFL team was.
“I have only one favorite team, and that’s the Clemson Tigers,” Dempsey told him.
So there in the Russian capital– more than 5,000 miles from Clemson– the young man showed Dempsey a stacking doll painted with an orange helmet and matching jersey that said “Dantzler” on the back.
Pulling off the top revealed a smaller doll with a Zachery jersey. It kept going with dolls named Hamilton, Crosby and McKelvey.
Talking with Dempsey is like opening those Russian dolls– the memories and accomplishments of an awe-inspiring life just keep coming, and Clemson is a consistent theme throughout.
Dempsey gave an interview to IDEAS and Clemson World magazines just three weeks before his death on March 12 at 86 years old. The magazines were putting together profiles of his extraordinary life because he kept giving back to his alma mater with his can-do spirit right up to the very end.
Dempsey added to his Clemson story as recently as Feb. 22 when he attended the 3rd annual Harriet and Jerry Dempsey Research Conference.
The event, named for Dempsey and his late wife, drew more than 150 engineers, medical doctors, faculty members and students, who heard talks by some of the nation’s top healthcare researchers.
It was the latest effort to expand the growing collaboration between Clemson University and Prisma Health–Upstate, formerly known as Greenville Health System.
With connections to both institutions, Dempsey played a major role in strengthening the bonds that hold them together. He received his mechanical engineering degree from Clemson in 1954 and is the former chairman of the Greenville Health System Board of Trustees.
An endowment that Dempsey provided to Clemson created professorships for the conference’s organizers, bioengineer Dan Simionescu and industrial engineer Kevin Taaffe, who both conduct research with Prisma Health–Upstate.
Dempsey’s work with Clemson and Prisma Health was one of the more recent ways he gave back to his alma mater. He’s also established scholarships and served on numerous boards and committees, including the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences Advisory Board.
Anand Gramopadhye, the college’s dean, said that Dempsey was a valued alumnus who played a key role in advising the college and achieving its goals.
“We are deeply grateful to Jerry Dempsey for his service and forward-thinking generosity,” Gramopadhye said. “His contributions enable our students and faculty to innovate and make the world a better place. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
His accomplishments since graduating from Clemson are many and could fill volumes of books. He started building his corporate career over 28 years with Borg-Warner Corp., where he advanced from salesman to president and COO.
He later left Borg-Warner and worked in the executive ranks of WMX Technologies (now Waste Management, Inc.). Dempsey went on to serve as CEO for PPG Industries, where he retired in 1997.
None of it was handed to him.
Dempsey grew up in Landrum, the son of hardworking textile workers. The family’s four-room house had no indoor plumbing or heat. The young Dempsey chopped wood for the stove and helped raise the beef, hogs and chickens that went on the table.
He also held several jobs.
Dempsey remembered picking up bundles of newspapers at a train station and pedaling 12 miles twice a day to deliver morning and afternoon papers.
One Christmas Eve, a customer, Simp Edwards, handed him something rolled up in brown paper and said, “Take this and go down to the local bicycle shop and buy a Whizzer motorbike,” Dempsey recalls.
Inside were five $20-bills, probably about two weeks pay for the average textile worker at the time, Dempsey said. He remembered adding $50 and going to get that motorbike.
Dempsey also worked in a grocery store as a stock boy and cashier. And he raised chickens he sold out of the back of his wagon for $1.25 each.
Even as a kid, Dempsey was saving and investing so he could attend Clemson.
“My big investment then was U.S. savings bonds,” Dempsey said. “If I put in $18.75, I got $25 later.”
Dempsey graduated high school as valedictorian and president of the student body.
He picked Clemson as his next step because it was a state university, it offered engineering and he could afford it. Scholarships also helped– something Dempsey wouldn’t forget when he had the means to help others, he says.
While at Clemson, Dempsey served as president of the Senior Council, president of the South Carolina Baptist Student Union and regimental executive officer of the Clemson Cadet Corps.
Dempsey majored in mechanical engineering because he wanted to go into technical sales.
“I felt like I got a very good education at Clemson,” he said. “The professors were always very supportive, very helpful.”
After graduation, Dempsey accepted a job with Owens Corning Fiberglass, a company that was responsible for one of his scholarships. He left six months later to serve as an ordnance officer in the Army.
Dempsey served most of his two years in Europe, giving him a chance to save his per diem. When he was discharged, he bought a new car and married Harriet, the woman who would be his wife for 59 years and the mother to their three daughters, Libby, Becky and Margaret.
Money was short in those early days, but Dempsey knew he was a good salesperson. He was hired as a sales engineer at the York Air Conditioning Division of Borg-Warner, launching his remarkable career.
The keepsakes from that career– and the life that came with it– are displayed throughout his home.
His favorite is a large shadow box that was given to him by his employees when he retired as CEO of PPG Industries. It’s packed with items– a toy motorcycle, a Clemson baseball and a boxing glove, to name a few. All of it served as a reminder of something Dempsey and his employees accomplished during his turn at the helm.
Dempsey also had reminders of the fun he’s had.
A scorecard from his first hole in one hangs on the wall, close to a photo showing the time he played with golf legend Tom Watson. In another room, a horse statue stands on a fireplace mantel in front of a picture of a steamboat, reminding him of the time he won big at the Kentucky Derby.
And then there’s the autographed photo of professional pool player Loree Jon Jones, who helped Dempsey play a joke on a friend who thought he was good with a pool stick.
“Jim, I’ve got this lady who wants to play,” Dempsey remembered saying. “I don’t know whether she’s ever played or not. I’ll tell you what– since she’s a lady, let’s let her go first.
“She ran the table on him. He never got a chance to shoot.”
Life came full circle for Dempsey. After retirement, he returned home to the Upstate and helped his alma mater with some of its most strategically important projects.
The conference that bears Dempsey’s name had record attendance in its third year– double its inaugural showing in 2017.
“We’ll double it again next year,” he said with a smile.
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