Rusty Guill thought he was simply checking out a potential event venue with students who had traveled with him to Easley following a typical Sunday church service. When his Honda Odyssey arrived at Arran Farm around 1 p.m., he instead found a scene that moved him to tears.
Over 150 students, family members and friends had gathered in a surprise celebration for the Clemson University alumnus and longtime employee.
“I asked my boss, Almeda Jacks — who I so appreciate being here — if this was my retirement party,” Guill joked. “She assured me it wasn’t.”
Organized by a large group of students past and present and with the assistance of Guill’s wife, Melanie, the Clemson Family gathered for the better part of two and a half hours to honor a man who has dedicated nearly 30 years of service to his alma mater.
By title, Guill is special assistant to the vice president in the Division of Student Affairs.
By impact, Sunday’s program revealed he is so much more.
“A FAITHFUL SERVANT TO CLEMSON”
Guill was hired by Nick Lomax in September 1989 as the personnel and budget director for Student Affairs, a position he would go on to hold for the next 11 years. But it was in 2000 and his first tenure as special assistant to Jacks where he found his true calling.
As an advocate, as a mentor and as a friend.
“Rusty has been a faithful servant to Clemson and expects nothing in return from the students. It was his mission to give back to his beloved university.”
The words above were written by Melanie — a first-grade teacher at Ravenel Elementary School — and read during Sunday’s ceremony by family friend Jane Herlong, noted author, public speaker and former Miss South Carolina.
Perhaps no one can fully acknowledge a clearer illustration of Guill’s mission than Mason Ailstock, who spoke at length about his relationship and the first time they met.
Ailstock arrived at Clemson from Annapolis, Maryland in 2000 as a transfer student. He didn’t know anyone. He was alone. That is, until he met a stranger in the Carillon Garden during a pizza party designed to help acclimate Clemson’s newest crop of transfers.
“I was sitting by myself on the stairs heading down toward the amphitheater,” Ailstock recalled. “I was reflecting and wondering if this was the best place for me. And I’ll never forget it. I had been seeing the same guy wearing orange all week, and suddenly out of the corner of my eye, he comes over to me and says, ‘My name’s Rusty Guill. I think we’re supposed to be friends.’
“There are few moments in our lives that are truly transformative. The moment I met Rusty was one of those times.”
At Guill’s encouragement, Ailstock ended up joining the Student Affairs Advisory Board, which meets periodically in the Hendrix Student Center. Soon after, he made one of the most important discoveries of his life, a young nursing student from Mauldin named Holly Smith. The two began dating, were married in 2004 and now have two children together.
He also became involved as a resident assistant and director within University Housing and eventually took an interest in graduate student government. He worked in the vice president’s office, and when money was tight, he lived with Guill and was embraced by his family.
“Rusty gave me a family when I needed it,” said Ailstock, who lives in Atlanta but made the trip Sunday. “I’ve waited for today for a long time, because it’s an opportunity to recognize a very special man to me and a special member of our Clemson Family. I’m one of many examples of someone impacted by Rusty’s service, compassion and kindness.”
“THE GUY I CAN NEVER SAY NO TO”
Angelo Mitsopoulos was student body president when he attended Clemson, graduating in the class of 2003. And unlike Ailstock, he can’t recall the first time he met Guill. But as someone who transplanted to the South from the suburbs of Chicago, it didn’t take him long to recognize and appreciate Guill’s personal touch.
“He’s the embodiment of what we call the Clemson Family — this intangible thing those of us who’ve been here can’t always easily define,” he said. “I introduce Rusty to everyone as ‘The guy I can never say no to.’ The reason for that is because he’s never said no to anyone who’s ever needed anything.”
Mitsopoulos now lives in Charlotte and works for Bank of America. In his spare time, he and his wife Heather often return to campus. They joined the Vice President’s Executive Council, a special group of ambassadors which provides counsel and support to Jacks and helps advance the mission of Student Affairs.
Describing Guill as a “first responder” and someone with a genuine and sincere concern for others, Mitsopoulos thanked the students responsible for organizing Sunday’s event because it brought a broad group of people together to celebrate someone who has constantly found unique ways to give to others.
“Every time you move your way around the Clemson Family, you realize there are people who serve as the glue holding everyone together,” he said. “Rusty sits right in the middle of that pack as the team captain.”
“IF THERE’S ANYONE WHO SHOULD WEAR A CLEMSON RING WITH PRIDE, IT’S RUSTY GUILL”
Jordan Byrne and Chase McCathern were fraternity brothers together in Beta Theta Pi. Both students graduated from Clemson in the spring of 2018. But they got to know Guill, who spoke in front of the chapter a couple of years ago.
In the time that followed, he made such an impression on Byrne — one of the key organizers of Sunday’s event — that he wanted to do something special to recognize Guill.
“We started reaching out to students we knew were impacted by Rusty,” McCathern told the crowd. “I remember asking Rusty a few years ago how he had the time to be so intentional with students. He pulled out three sheets of notebook paper, covered from front to back with lists all the way down them. He had students’ names on it, and he went through it every single day.”
In his role, Guill regularly makes time to eat meals with students, take them to church, send text messages, write letters and notes and even play basketball with them in Fike Recreation Center.
“It wasn’t hard to find students interested in helping put this together,” McCathern continued. “But how can you adequately give back to someone who has given you so much?”
McCathern and Byrne put their thinking caps on. Guill had a rare blue gemstone in his original Clemson ring, and it wasn’t like the traditional ones people have grown accustomed to seeing from Tiger alums. He was ashamed of it and never wore it, something that didn’t go unnoticed by the students.
With the approval of Melanie Guill — who ironically had already been saving money for the same reason — McCathern made it a point to reach out to students interested in contributing to buy a new ring for the 1980 Clemson graduate.
On Sunday, he brought Guill in front of the crowd and presented the shiny new ring as a gift from the students whose lives he has impacted.
“We would always ask him why he never wore a Clemson ring,” McCathern explained. “Jordan once told me, ‘If there’s anyone who should be able to wear a Clemson ring with pride, it should be Rusty Guill.’”
Melanie Guill joined McCathern up front and slipped the ring on her husband’s right hand as the crowd roared its approval.
“ONE OF THE THINGS THAT MAKES CLEMSON UNIQUE IS RUSTY GUILL”
While a new class ring was certainly the highlight, it was far from the only gift Guill received at Sunday’s ceremony.
Emma Hume, who also graduated last year and served as chief of staff for Clemson Undergraduate Student Government (CUSG), presented the guest of honor with a thick scrapbook. It was filled with pages of notes, memories and pictures of family and friends. Jacob Siebert — a Clemson junior who joked he met Guill searching for a restroom while attending a York County Clemson Club meeting — led a committee tasked with ordering paint and stencils to provide updated Tiger paws at his residence.
Additionally, two current Clemson students spoke Sunday. Karl Bossard, an electrical engineering major, said Guill welcomed him into his family and showed him what it meant to be a father, husband, son, mentor and advisor.
Bruce Stephenson, a marketing major from Greenville, admitted he was a lesser version of himself when he attended an Orientation session as a freshman when his life changed forever.
“I’ll never forget it, I was in the Hendrix Student Center and Rusty came up behind my back and put his hand on my shoulder,” Stephenson recalled. “He said, ‘Hey I’m Rusty Guill … nice to meet you.’ Out of all the kids he could have reached out to, he chose me. I’m so fortunate for that because without him, I probably wouldn’t still be at Clemson. He poured into me and held me accountable. He is a life-changing man.”
The event closed with remarks from former Clemson University President Jim Barker. He spoke briefly to the crowd and said he spent a good part of his life trying to understand the qualities that make Clemson a unique institution. He narrowed it down to seven things:
-Each individual matters
-Focus on students
-Sense of service
“Today, I will add an eighth quality,” Barker said. “One of the things that makes Clemson unique is Rusty Guill.”
Following a long applause, Guill gathered his thoughts and somehow held his emotions in check, despite the well-organized and humbling surprise that had just taken place. He thanked his boss, Almeda Jacks, for giving him the platform to work with such a great group of students. Most of all — in true Rusty Guill fashion — he thanked the students.
“To the students who put this together, there’s no way to ever thank you enough,” he said. “I’m deeply indebted to this university for the bonds, family, friendships and love. I’ll wear this ring proudly.
“When I look out and see all these faces, I realize how blessed I am. God’s been good to me.”
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