Martin Lightsey said that Clemson University helped shape him into a well-rounded individual and provided him with an education that opened the door to a successful career.
Lightsey now wants to pay Clemson back for all he has received.
That feeling more than anything, he said, is what has motivated him to donate some of his funds to his alma mater.
“We have benefitted in so many ways from Clemson and had a really good and comfortable life in general, but it takes a decent amount of money for people to enjoy the same experiences we did,” Lightsey said. “I feel extremely fortunate”.
Lightsey and his wife, Linda, have stepped up to make some of those experiences possible for a new generation of students, especially those who want to be engineers and entrepreneurs.
The Staunton, Virginia couple provided the funds to establish the Martin and Linda Lightsey Engineering and Entrepreneurship Endowment. Proceeds from the endowment provide scholarships for engineering majors who are also members of The Design and Entrepreneurship Network, or The DEN. Students in The DEN form interdisciplinary teams to develop business concepts or products.
The Lightseys have also helped fund the Clemson University Makerspace, where students learn to use a wide range of equipment, including 3D printers, fabric printers, and a laser-etching machine. Many students use the equipment to create prototypes of products they would like to develop.
Todd Schweisinger, a faculty advisor for the makerspace, said the Lightsey donation has allowed the space to hire student workers, which allows the facility to stay open longer hours. The Lightseys’ funds have also helped keep the makerspace from charging additional fees that could be a barrier to some students, Schweisinger said.
“They can take their innovations a little bit farther,” he said. “They have ideas, and now they can progress those ideas to tangible products. They can test or market those products. It inspires the entrepreneurial spirit and creates a community of individuals who are interested in developing products.”
Martin, who is originally from Columbia, South Carolina, first became interested in engineering when vocational testing in high school suggested he would be well suited for it.
He chose Clemson for its affordability, and his arrival on campus in the early 1960s gave him a front row seat to some major turning points in Clemson history. Clemson had just a few years earlier become a civilian institution and started accepting women. Martin also remembers when Harvey Gantt walked into Tillman Hall on Jan. 28, 1963 and became Clemson’s first African-American student.
“By the time I finished Clemson, there were probably only 15 or 20 African-American students,” Lightsey said. “It was not an equal playing field for African Americans. That fact has made me more tolerant and supportive of equal opportunities.”
R.C. Edwards was in the beginning of his 21-year term as Clemson president when Martin was a student. Martin said that when he looks back at those years, he has an appreciation for Edwards’ leadership.
“Clemson wouldn’t be where it is today had he made some of those decisions the other way,” Martin said.
Joining Kappa Delta Chi, a predecessor of Sigma Nu, was a seminal experience for Martin.
“We teamed up together and every year could predictably be in first or second place in the Homecoming display and the Tigerama and the grade-point trophy and just about anything in the Interfraternity Council,” he said. “We were loaded with outstanding men, and we had a lot of fun.”
Martin received his Bachelor of Science in industrial engineering in 1964 and went to work for General Electric, which put him in a three-year training program. The Lightseys moved every year, going from Louisville, Kentucky to Lynn, Massachusetts to Salem, Virginia.
“You see such a diversity of products manufactured you can’t possibly go through that without getting a really broad-based manufacturing education,” Martin said. “I wouldn’t have gotten on that training program if I had not done well in engineering at Clemson.”
After the training program, he took a permanent job at GE in Salem, where he developed mentor relationships with two managers. They later left to work for American Safety Razor in Staunton.
“They called me up one day and said, ‘How would you like to come up here and interview for a job?’” Martin recalled.
Martin took them up on the offer and ended up working at American Safety Razor for 15 years. He was managing the industrial and scalpel blade business when he had an idea to increase market share by making custom cutting blades.
Martin remembers talking to the company president about the idea but later learned the company was being groomed for sale, and it would take 3-4 years for the new business venture to turn a profit.
Lightsey left American Safety Razor and started a new company, Specialty Blades, Inc. (later changed to Cadence) using new technology as its foundation
“We integrated computer-numerical-control tool technology with razor blade technology,” he said. “We could make some unique kind of blades that nobody else could.
“By the time I stepped down in 2002, our sales at that point in time were about $9 million a year and we were making $1 million a year. It was a screaming success financially.”
The Lightseys are now retired and living in Staunton, a city nestled in the hills of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. They have two adult daughters and four grandchildren. The Lightseys still stay in touch with some of Martin’s fraternity brothers.
Martin had the chance to meet some of the students who have benefited from the scholarship bearing his family name, an opportunity made possible by John DesJardins, the Robert B. and Susan B. Hambright Leadership Professor.
“The university is still cranking out good people,” Lightsey said. “The couple of people I met who were recipients of that scholarship, if I were still in business, I would be trying to hire them today.”
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