Clemson lost one of its most famous ambassadors last week. I lost a very good friend.
Our paths had crossed on occasion. I know he was in the crowd when the men’s soccer team beat UCLA in Los Angeles in 1984 on their way to the national championship, but we never really met until December 1989.
The men’s basketball team was in San Diego for a holiday tournament that month. Pamela Bussey Murray was president of the Southern California Clemson Club at the time. Holiday obligations kept her busy that week, so I went in her place. That was when I first met the president of the Northern California Clemson Club, Frank Kellers III.
With a firm handshake, a never-ending smile on his face, you knew Frank was in charge. He arranged a nice pre-tournament dinner with the team, coaches and as many Clemson fans in the area that showed up. I remember sitting with Jim Phillips and, not having been ‘home’ in 12 years, catching up on what was happening back in Clemson.
During his welcoming speech, Frank commented on his wardrobe: A bright orange blazer. He said it was probably the only one of its kind outside of airport security that existed on the west coast at that time. That thought remained in the back of my mind until I returned to Anderson in June 1990 for my 20th reunion at T.L. Hanna. I just had to make a side trip to Mr. Knickerbockers and purchase a bright orange blazer for myself.
On my return to L.A. (Saugus, CA) from that trip I had a phone message from Frank. Apparently he had gotten a letter from Pamela that she could no longer handle running the Southern California Clemson Club. As I was the only Clemson ‘fan’ from the southern area that he knew, would I be interested in assuming the title. My answer was faster than a Jimmy Key fastball. Uh, yes.
So began a two-decade plus friendship between us and our combined loyalty to Clemson. Frank ran the Northern Club and I ran the Southern Club and, whenever a Clemson athletic team played in Las Vegas, we ran that together. Frank would get the word out via his club newsletter (and the California Hotline) and I through mine, to all the Clemson alumni and fans living in our respective areas, that the Tigers were coming west. We’d gather donations so that we could host a team dinner for the athletes, coaches and traveling staff while on their trip, such as the previously mentioned basketball dinner.
In December 1990, the Clemson wrestling team came to Las Vegas for a tournament that featured 48 schools and 548 wrestlers. Frank and I, along with several other Clemson fans ‘packed’ the Union Plaza hotel downtown to cheer on our Tigers. We provided a nice dinner for the team (after their weigh-in of course and this was back when it wasn’t against compliance rules).
We did it again in 1991, when the baseball team played a tournament at UNLV, co-hosting a dinner for 70 people at the Mirage. Turned out that one of the umpires for that series was a pit boss at the Union Plaza we had made friends with on the previous wrestling trip. We dropped in there the night before, where Frank had handed out several of his never-ending supply of Tiger Paw stamped two-dollar bills to members of the staff. Seeing the umpire before the next day’s game, he said he heard we were back in town… where’s his? Frank handed him a two-dollar bill, I handed him some Tiger Paws and he stuffed them in his pocket. After the game, which we won, Frank mentioned to him that it might have been a little embarrassing if those had fallen out while arguing a call with the UNLV coach.
When Clemson teams, such as tennis, soccer, track played in the Bay area, Frank’s house was the gathering place. He and his wife Shelia were the most gracious hosts. Clemson athletes from the past three decades will tell you, west coast trips are among the most memorable because of the hospitality and support they got. I had one wrestler tell me following a 1992 Thanksgiving weekend tournament at Fresno State, “We had more Clemson fans here than we do back in Jervey (Gym).”
Over the next couple of years, Frank and I would make the trek back to Clemson for homecoming weekend. By this time, the Clemson Alumni Association (which charters the Clemson Clubs) had named us as District Directors for our respective areas. One Friday night after a meeting, Frank and I, in our bright orange blazers made our way down to Bowman Field where students were frantically working on the colorful floats. As we approached, we could hear the loud whispers: ‘The judges, the judges. .. which we weren’t. But Frank, being a retired engineer, couldn’t resist having fun with the thought that we might actually be the judges. He’d ask a student, “Okay, this float has a 25-foot height limit. Is that to the top of the pole, or did you include the two-to-three inches of tissue paper sticking out?”
After I moved back to Anderson in May 1993 and went to work for the Orange & White, I would see Frank a several times a year when he would come back for homecoming in the fall, ANC meetings in the winter and reunion week in June. In 1998, for my service as president of the Clemson Club and work on the O&W, Frank nominated me to become a Clemson Honorary Alumnus. Now when someone receives that honor (my highest to be truthful) it is generally given as a surprise. No, not with Frank, he couldn’t keep a secret. He told me about it in February that I was going to be recognized in June during reunion week. So I had four months to think about it.
So, on that particular Saturday morning in June, he and I went to the Clemson House barbershop, where I got a very, very short haircut as Frank snapped pictures (a reversal of my being on the other side of the camera). When ANC president Jim Creel gave me my plaque at the reunion luncheon, I told the gathering of Clemson graduates from the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, that I greatly admired them. That when they went to Clemson, it wasn’t just a place to get an education, Clemson in their time was a way of life – mandatory military service, uniforms, marching and rat haircuts. So, in their honor, that morning I had just gotten a rat haircut. This was greeted by applause and cheers… until Frank (a member of the Class of 1957) stood up and said in a loud voice, “Boy! That haircut isn’t short enough to be a rat haircut! Assume the position!” Frank walked up on stage with a large wooden paddle, I bent over and he paddled me.
After the laughter died down a little, including my own, I looked out over the crowd and said, “Okay, today I got a very, very short, although not short enough to-be-a-rat haircut, AND I just got paddled by an upperclassman. Now I feel worthy of accepting this honor.”
But I got him back. In 2006, I nominated Frank for the Alumni National Council’s Distinguished Service Award. I’ve met a lot of DSA recipients over the years, but none of them meant as much as watching Frank when he received his. Standing with Frank’s large group photo of family and friends afterwards is one picture I didn’t take I will always treasure.
Clemson lost a great ambassador last week. I lost a great friend.
A Clemson gentleman needs no introduction. That was Frank.