Robert Tinsley was admittedly nervous. After all, there he was riding in one of two 15-passenger vans amid a group of strangers he’d only “met” through a group chat.
“I thought to myself, ‘What have I done?’” said Tinsley, a junior marketing major at Clemson University. “But it turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever done, for sure.”
Tinsley didn’t spend his summer break soaking up the sun on the South Carolina coast. He wasn’t in Clemson attending classes, either. He was running across the country on a 4,000-mile trek from San Francisco to Boston to help raise money and awareness for young adults impacted by cancer.
Tinsley hadn’t even celebrated his first birthday when his life would be forever changed.
His father, Bob — a Clemson graduate from the class of 1980 — passed away.
“It was a really quick turn,” he reflected. “He didn’t get diagnosed until about a week before he died. He wasn’t even screened for lung cancer, which is what he had. On top of that, he was a non-smoker. That made it all the more devastating.”
Tinsley comes from what can only be defined as a Clemson family. His parents first met in Tigertown. Bob graduated in 1980 and Lucy the next year. His maternal grandfather, B.J. Todd, was a member of the Clemson class of 1944. His paternal grandfather, Robert Tinsley, was class of ’54. Several cousins attended Clemson, while he is one of three Tinsley siblings currently enrolled — along with an older brother, Matthew, and twin sister, Annie.
Todd was a longtime professor of industrial management at Clemson. Because of his job, Tinsley’s mother Lucy grew up in the shadows of the university and attended nearby D.W. Daniel High School. In 2009, Todd died from cancer. Lucy Tinsley had lost her husband and father to the disease just a few years apart.
“She’s been through a lot,” Tinsley said of his mother. “I wanted to dedicate a lot of what I did this summer not only to my father and grandfather, but also to her. She’s the strongest person I’ve ever met. We were a lot to handle because we were all very close in age. I don’t know how she did it.”
After graduating from Eastside High School in Greenville County — where he was a cross country and track runner for the Eagles — Robert worked as a counselor at Camp Ozark in central Arkansas. There, he met Jenny Taylor, a Texas A&M student who ultimately convinced him to give 4K for Cancer a try.
The annual 4K for Cancer event is put on by the Ulman Foundation, which aims to change lives by creating a community of support for young adults, and their loved ones, affected by cancer. Tinsley was sold. He signed up to run in the event that was scheduled to last from June 16 through August 3.
“What I really like about the Ulman Foundation is a lot of the support goes toward patient services,” he explained. “So much is focused on research, which of course is a great thing. But I was glad to see that type of support from a foundation toward improving the services for those going through cancer treatments.”
A self-described “miler” at Eastside, Tinsley was placed on a team along with 27 other participants responsible for running anywhere from six to 20 miles each day. The team would split into two groups, with one van catching up to take the lead on the next leg of the journey. A third van carried the participants’ luggage and personal belongings. Team leaders solicited food and lodging donations in advance and found many churches, community centers and grocery stores willing to lend a helping hand.
Tinsley marveled at the scenery as his team progressed from Lake Tahoe at the border of California and Nevada, to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. He was astonished by the beautiful landscape of Montana and detail of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. He counts Chicago and the Great Lakes among his favorites. The trek finished with a route from Niagara Falls through all of New England before finishing at Boston Common, a well-known central public park in the capital city of Massachusetts.
As he ran, friends and family members chipped in donations to support Tinsley’s adventure. All told, he raised more than $3,800 on a journey that spanned 49 days. Lucy was able to keep up with her son’s route each day via a mobile tracking app. She also sent a few care packages along the way.
“I am enormously proud of Robert, as I know his dad and grandfather would be, for accomplishing such a worthy endeavor,” she said. “I found hearing about his experiences incredibly moving and nothing short of awe-inspiring.”
Tinsley is involved in several facets of campus life at Clemson. He was a club sports manager for Campus Recreation as a sophomore, where he was charged with setting up for team practices and filing injury reports. He followed his brother’s footsteps as a member of the famed Chocolate Milk Club, whose appeal he said is to “hang out and have fun drinking chocolate milk.” Matthew Tinsley started the club and Robert, now its president, has watched it grow to more than 300 members.
“Even lactose-intolerant students want to join,” he joked. “We promise them almond milk, so it’s really cool. That’s what I love about Clemson, it just puts you in a great mood. I’ve met some really good friends and maintained other relationships from high school because it’s not too far from home. Clemson has been a big part of my life and always will be.”
And so will his summer excursion with 4K for Cancer, which turned complete strangers into friends who came together for a common purpose. Cancer connected each of the 28 participants on a team with an uncommon spirit, and it had a profound impact on Robert Tinsley and his mother, Lucy.
“Twenty-eight college students forging their way across the U.S. raising money and awareness for the Ulman Foundation and the fight against cancer…” she said. “I believe Robert will count this experience among the best of his life.”
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