Clemson’s first lady reflects on her daughter and life’s special moments
Of all the jobs that you’ve done, what was the most interesting or the most unusual?
I taught school in inner-city Baltimore in a really, a really difficult area.
How did you and Jim meet?
We actually met at Towson.
Really. Is he a Towson grad?
No, no, he’s got graduate degrees at Johns Hopkins and UNBC. I got my undergraduate and my Master’s degree at Towson. So we met sort of between those times.
When you need to fill up your tank, do you do it by being alone or do you do it by being with others?
Oh gosh. It depends on who the others are. I love it when my family is together, and I mean multi-generations. My parents, my brothers and sister with their kids and our kids. That is the best when we are together. Definitely, you know, on the lake, cooking out … We have family dance parties.
On the topic of Grace, your special needs daughter, who has a special place in my heart as well, what is it that she’s taught you?
So much. As much as I’ve taught her, she’s taught me so much more and so many more important lessons. Gosh. I don’t want to just say one thing cause there’s so many but just that she lives life, lives it really out loud, and she doesn’t live thinking what are people thinking about me and how am I supposed to act in this environment because she’s just really authentically herself. She’s incapable of being any other way, and I’ve learned my grace is sufficient for you from the Bible. That got me through a lot when I thought she wasn’t enough in the earthly way. She wasn’t enough when you judge her against what we think is. But I know that Jesus Christ sees her as more than enough, and that, if he sees that, then I am duty-bound to see it the same way.
When you had Grace, tell me about the period of wrapping your mind around the fact that you have a special child. How did that come to play?
We didn’t know it at birth. No, she was a very typically born, full-term. She just didn’t meet the milestones, and I was very quick to recognize that. She’s my fourth child … It was a long process of advocating for her that something was indeed not kind of happening. But yes, I went through a grieving process. There’s no way around that. You’ve got to go through like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grieving, and even when you get to acceptance, some days you still bounce back.
You bounce back, and that can happen when you just don’t expect it. It can. Like Facebook makes it happen occasionally because parents will post a typical event. For example, right now, if Grace were typical, she’d actually be in 10th grade and would have gone to the Daniel High winter semi-formal. I’m so happy to see those pictures and those beautiful girls. But that will throw me back to gosh, you know, we still carry Clifford around and that’s okay.
Do you have moments of peace?
Oh yeah. More peace than pain. It’s like a train track, parallel with joy in your life. In my life, every day there’s some amount of pain and loss, and they have to go parallel in your life every day.
How do you remind yourself to stay with those two tracks?
Grace. Just grace. Lower case G and uppercase G.
And for parents that are just coming into a realization themselves that their children are special, is there like a gold nugget that you could give them that helped you? Was there something that someone said to you that you replay in your mind?
I would say, it was for me, the Purpose Driven Life, the book by Rick Warren, which was super trendy right around the time Grace was born. That book became a strong — I mean really a cornerstone of my life basically, that God does not make mistakes. And everything he creates has a purpose, and that’s what I would say… God always opens windows when you think that every door has been closed — that you will find peace and purpose within those special kids because it’s a great trust that’s been given to us parents and siblings of exceptional children, and that we can — we owe, we owe that child everything.
Do your other children embrace her the way —
So it’s a gift that’s been given clearly to all of your family?
It is. But, in the beginning when she was a toddler, I really was angry for my other three that they — I use to think that they would be in therapy because it changed our family so much. She needs so much of me that I thought this would really — they would say we were ripped off and mom changed then and dad changed then, but they would say the opposite. We did change but it’s for the better, and every once in a while my kids will say, “Mom, can you imagine if we didn’t have Grace? We would be rotten people.” You know what I mean? We would take everything for granted, and we would assume that we deserved this or deserve that, and we don’t because of Grace.
And Clemson has really embraced the special needs community, and I think one of the comments that people have said more since your husband’s tenure is it’s more of an accepting and generous spirit maybe than before. Do you attribute some of that to your personal experiences?
I would hope that it really is because of Grace and the fact that we’ve wrapped our arms around Clemson Life, which is that learning is for everyone, and I just think inclusivity is just important, and I think Grace taught me that. I probably wouldn’t be as open to all differences had she not been born my child because I see her as a — she is a minority and needs our voice. You know, intellectually challenged people need our voice.
And you talked about advocating for her early on and you knew just intuitively that she wasn’t meeting those milestones. Do you anticipate that advocacy for her entire life and yours?
You’ve really led a tremendously full and fruitful life, but what would your biggest accomplishment be and why?
Really, I don’t mean it to sound silly, but my biggest accomplishment would be that Grace would learn to live as independently and fully and is accepted in our population as much as possible.
What about your role as Clemson’s first lady, and that is a big role in light of your No. 1 status with your football team?
It is easier when you’re No. 1 at anything.
But there’s a spotlight now that probably wouldn’t have been there before. Does that change things, and is that hard?
I think we, Jim and I, both understand that we are kind of in the spotlight. So we’re careful at certain things. We just are ourselves, and I don’t think you can fake being anybody else very long and do a good job at it. We know that we’re responsible. We feel responsible for our students and so, when one is hurt or lost, we grieve for them because we do feel responsibility when our parents of freshmen drop their kids off.
Do you feel the stress of Jim as well?
And you-all also have a reputation of being very entwined. It’s a marriage that’s very in sync. What do you attribute that to?
It sounds so silly, but I would say Grace again because I think 75 percent of parents with children with special needs divorce, and we made a decision long ago that would not be us, that Grace needed us in a much deeper way than any child could because she deserves both of us. And really honestly, Jim and I laugh, she really needs two parents, two moms and two dads, because it’s just a big job, and it’s a big job daily but it’s a long haul. I mean this is not a sprint. This is a big journey with Grace because we don’t really know what our “retirement” looks like. We sort of stopped those bigger dreams because we just kind of have to live in the moment with Grace, and we’re prepared that she may live with us in our home the rest of our lives, and we’re prepared that there will be a period of time where she can go live independently.
Do you have a favorite movie?
I don’t get to go to movies very much, and when I do, they’re often juvenile.
Is there one, though, that sticks out in your mind more than any? Just kind of think of all the movies you have seen…
It’s sort of embarrassing though because —
It’s “Ghost” because Jim and I were dating and like so in love then.
I love “Ghost” too.
That actually was our wedding song. “Unchained Melody.”
If you had to pick one meal, it’s your birthday, whatever.
Oh, yeah, I’d have a filet —medium, Pittsburgh style … and sweet potato fries with a big shaker of salt.
Who do you go to for advice?
I do go to my mom a bit just because she’s been there done that, and my sister is a great resource to me. But I have a group of three girlfriends from Maryland that—
No. They are special sisters. We all have kids with special needs. I hate to kind of feel like that’s the theme. I don’t mean for it to be.
Do you have a celebrity that, if you could spend one day with, you would, and who would that celebrity be and why?
I really watch terrible trashy TV. I’m more a Bravo network person. Just really terrible. But I wouldn’t go to any of them. Oh, gosh, who would I go to? I mean it’s terrible because she’s passed away, but I just loved Princess Diana. Be a Princess Diana and don’t be a Kardashian. Isn’t that something that they’re saying now on Facebook somewhere I think? I thought she was full of elegance, grace and style, and had suffered tremendously and still got up every day and pushed through and had a series of joy.
If you could spend your money on one thing, like some woman buy shoes, purses, jewelry —
All of that. Probably in that order. I know that’s terrible.
I think that’s very normal, actually.
I love a bag, I love shoes, but I love jewelry.
Is there something that you do just for you to kind of stay grounded?
I love walks on campus with my dog, and I sometimes get massages.
What does “pay it forward” mean to you, and is there a way that you’re able to pay it forward?
I feel like paying it forward is doing something and not taking the credit for it. It’s doing it to help whoever that person is but don’t tell people. I think that’s Biblical. We’re really not supposed to go and brag about the charity that we do.
And this is a little plagiarized from the Actors Studio, but I love this question. If you could ask God one question, what would you ask him?
Wow. I think there was a time in my life I would have asked him why kids are born with special needs, but I don’t feel that need anymore because — I feel like I’m sort of misquoting the Bible because I’m not giving you any actual scripture. But when the people said, “Why is this man blind? Did his parents do something wrong?” It’s no. It’s just so that we can show our love. I feel like we, as a population, when we show our love to the special needs population, we’re really glorifying God.
Do you feel pressured day-to-day in having to do Clemson-centric things, just the constancy of meeting a schedule? Is that pressure?
I guess I don’t. Jim is certainly under more pressure than me. I really get the fun life, but I feel that the university is super respectful of my time. Of course, they’re our responsibilities. But I feel that probably mostly because of Grace that I do get freedom, and I’m very comfortable saying, “You know what, four nights out in a row is too much. Grace needs her mom to put her to bed.”
I love it. What would your one wish be if you had one wish?
Gosh. It sounds so crazy, but why can’t we all just get along?
I hear you.
It’s just a wish. Right now as we speak, L.A. schools are closed because of a terrorist threat. I wish for — please, this sounds so ridiculous, but we need more peace. We really need to get along in a way that will allow our children to not live in fear. As we speak right now, one of my daughters and her husband were going to be in Europe for three weeks. They’ve canceled their trip. The other daughter, was planning to study abroad in the spring. That’s really concerning. We’ve got to get some things in check so that we can just have more peace.
What’s your favorite word?
Joy. Hope. I would say hope. When Grace was newly diagnosed, it was really those inspirational — I call them wall sermons — were really popular, and I had hope all over in different types of artwork and different medias. So I guess hope.
And what’s your least favorite word?
I don’t like to say it. It’s “retarded.” It brings me pain to hear the words “mentally retarded.”
What turns you off?
Judgment. Judgment of all. I mean not just special needs. Just differences. Just blanket judgment.
Let’s assume that you were doing it all over again, and your contributions as a wife and a mother were on the side, what profession would you pick?
I would be a talk show host.
Really. You would be amazing.
I would love it. I would love it.