Clemson University Feature Stories

During his time as the executive secretary of IPTAY, George Bennett founded some of Clemson’s most honored traditions, such as the Welcome Back Festival and the $2 bills.

Clemson history in the flesh

Haley Sulka
Creative Services, Class of 2013

The sound of a cannon firing in Death Valley is music to a Tiger fan’s ears. Returning students anticipate the crowds of friends and classmates flooding downtown at the Welcome Back Festival. The $2 bills spent at away games signal pride for Clemson supporters. Most of us might think that whoever started these long-standing traditions is far-removed from Clemson by now.

On the contrary, that person is closer than you think. His name is George Bennett, and he works over in the Jervey Athletic Center.

He will admit that it wasn’t his top priority to make the highest grades on his tests as an undergrad here or to graduate with honors. “I felt like making friends and getting involved, what y’all call networking today, was more important,” Bennett said.

Although he is a Columbia native, home of archrival USC, Bennett’s connection to Clemson started when his family brought him to his first Clemson visit when he was 6. He hasn’t been able to stay away for long ever since.

He didn’t take much time applying to college because he only applied to Clemson. “There was never any doubt in my mind where I was going. I didn’t apply anywhere else. I didn’t even think about going anywhere else,” Bennett said.

His deep involvement during his time at Dreher High School led him to get involved right away at Clemson. He was elected president of the freshman class and was in company B4 — Clemson was an all-male military college at the time. Sophomore year he moved up to company B1 and went out for cheerleading. “That [cheerleading] was the furthest thing from my mind I would ever do,” Bennett commented. By his junior year, he was the first sergeant of company B1.

When he was head cheerleader, Bennett came up with the idea to fire a cannon for touchdowns. In fact, he and his father bought the first cannon.Senior year, he was named the public information officer for the cadet corps and served on Senior Council. He was also made head cheerleader.

“That was probably the best thing that ever happened to me because once you stand up in front of 20,000 fans and lead cheers, you are never intimidated by anything else the rest of your life,” Bennett said.

His time as head cheerleader affects all those who go to Clemson football games today. Bennett came up with the idea to fire a cannon for touchdowns; a tradition that is still in good use currently. In fact, he and his father bought the first cannon.

Not only was he involved in Clemson’s military, student government and cheerleading, Bennett was also the president of the Blue Key Honor Society, a member of Tiger Brotherhood and president of the Central Dance Association.

Because Bennett was involved in many different organizations, school became secondary. He laughed at how this didn’t bother him as long as he would graduate.

Bennett graduated in 1955 and went straight into the U.S. Army, and he was later appointed as the Commander of the Honor Guard at Fort Knox. After two years, he decided to leave Fort Knox and apply to law school. Once he arrived home in Columbia, he decided that school wasn’t for him at that time and started searching for a job.

He landed a job in the Esso training station; he was transferred frequently and climbed positions rather quickly in the company. After being relocated to North Carolina, he met his wife, Nancy. They had two children, Jeffrey and Bonnie, and continued to move around the state for Bennett’s career. After years of working for Esso, he was promoted to the sales supervisor position over the entire west coast of Florida — providing a nice paycheck and a distant move to Tampa.

After seeing a job advertisement for a Clemson alumni field representative position in the alumni magazine, Bennett started to think that it might be time to find a place where his family could settle down. However, there was a significant decrease in pay that he had to consider. Nonetheless, he interviewed for the position and was offered the job. After a long conversation with his wife, they decided returning to Clemson was the right move.

In June of 1967, Bennett became Clemson’s first alumni field representative. Time passed and he was asked to move over to the athletic department and take over as the executive secretary of IPTAY. During his time in this position, he founded some of Clemson’s most honored traditions, such as the Welcome Back Festival and the $2 bills.

In 1979, Bennett took a job at Vanderbilt University as the associate athletic director. Nobody was more surprised than he was when he left Clemson. “It was one of those economic jobs you do in life. You don’t want to do this, but the money is too good to not do it,” Bennett explained.

Before returning to Clemson again in 1993, he served as the athletic director at Furman University and managed a foundation at Nashville’s Baptist Hospital. As difficult as it was to move his family around again, these jobs really opened his eyes to what was out there and how to be successful at fundraising.

“Bobby Robinson, Clemson’s athletic director at the time, called me and said, ‘Are you ready to come back home?’” Bennett said. Without an interview or copious paperwork, Bennett came back as the executive secretary of IPTAY.

In 2004, a fight with cancer sent him to Houston for treatment. He retired after recovering, but stayed in Clemson as an ambassador and historian for the athletic department.

Today, Bennett represents the athletic department at events and gives tours of the athletic facilities. At 79 years old, he does 60 tours a year for about 5,000 people of all ages. “Being here so long and knowing so many people, I have a lot of stories to tell. I have a speech that I start off with named, ‘73 years of Clemson memories, and I’m only 79,’ ” Bennett laughed.

After hearing this speech, it begged the question of what his favorite memory of Clemson is. “That would be impossible; it really would. That would just be completely impossible,” Bennett said.

There are too many memories to choose from. Clemson is a part of Bennett, but Bennett is also a part of Clemson. He has left his mark and continues to do so every day.

He said, “I love what Jim Barker says: We spend four years trying to get out of here and a lifetime trying to get back.” Bennett has found his way back, and with his family nearby and a fun job at his beloved alma mater, he is here to stay.

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