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John G. Clinkscales: The Mathematician-Politician

Written By: information_management - May• 12•09

Say,did you hear the one about the math professor who ran for governor?  

Clinkscales001 That sounds like a joke, but in the case of Dr. John G. Clinkscales, it’s a true story.  In 1914, running on a platform of
compulsory public education, Clinkscales won some 40,000 votes and placed fourth in the race.
  That may not sound
like much of an achievement, but every one of the three men who finished ahead of him at some point served as the Palmetto state’s governor.
 

Born in Abbeville County in 1855, John George Clinkscales came to Wofford as a student in 1872.  He graduated in 1876, and
in 1889, returned to take a master of arts degree.
  He continued his education with further study at Cornell and Johns Hopkins.  Before he came to Wofford in 1899, he taught at Clemson for five years, at Columbia College for four, and at Williamston Female College for one.  The latter two colleges were both
Methodist-related, and the latter has since become Lander University.
  Before he began his college teaching career,
he taught in the public schools of Spartanburg County, and for four years, he was the superintendent of education in Anderson County.
  In 1912, Erskine College awarded him an
honorary doctor of laws degree.
 

He became a popular professor of mathematics and astronomy in 1899, probably taking many of the classes previously taught by President James H. Carlisle.  However, one of the reasons he was brought to Wofford was his speaking ability.  Dr. Carlisle did not want to undertake the public relations aspects of the presidency, so over the course of his administration, several faculty members undertook these duties.  Clinkscales became a popular figure on the lecture circuit, speaking in churches and civic groups around the state.  On top of his teaching responsibilities, he was for a quarter century one of Wofford’s “field representatives” – traveling the state as an ambassador of the college – a task he continued even when Henry Nelson Snyder became president and took to the circuit himself. No doubt this involved a mixture of student recruitment, alumni relations, fund-raising, and otherwise showing Wofford’s colors throughout the state.  It also probably put him in touch with Wofford alumni, Methodists, and other citizens around the state and helped him immensely in his subsequent campaign for governor. 

Clinkscales was also something of a writer.  From one of his personal experiences came his first book, How Zach Came to College, published in 1904.  The book tells the story an uneducated young man who came from a Western North Carolina valley to attend Wofford in the 1870s.  In fact, the story is somewhat fictionalized as there were actually two brothers, Zachary T. Whiteside and his brother, Andrew S. “Zeb” Whiteside, who were both part of the Class of 1877.  Zach and Zeb did not have much money, and as such they lived in spare rooms in Main Building, cooking their meals.  Soon other students joined them, and from that the college’s first dining hall emerged.  Dr. Clinkscales would have been a student at the same time as these two, and I would not be surprised if their story made its way into his speeches, and eventually into a book. 

Clinkscales002 As a lifelong advocate for public education, Clinkscales entered the 1914 race for governor not because he thought he could win, but because he thought somebody should speak for education.  In those days, all of the candidates for statewide office traveled the state together for a stump meeting in each county, and each had an opportunity to speak. Clinkscales was tired of the level of anti-progressive demagoguery that he had been hearing for years in state politics, and told friends that if someone wouldn’t run on behalf of compulsory education, then he would.  He kept his word.  His platform was fairly advanced for the day, and the two leading progressive candidates had much better political organizations.  In defeat, his campaign had more influence than many other losing efforts in that at its next session, the legislature approved and the governor signed a bill enacting compulsory school attendance. 

Clinkscales continued to be an active speaker, Methodist layman, and advocate of education in the state.  He gave up his field work in the late 1920s, and declining health forced him to stop teaching in the late 1930s.  He continued to live in his campus home – now called the Kilgo-Clinkscales House – until his death on January 1, 1942.  

Photos: Clinkscales’ portrait, presently on display in the Daniel Building, a photo of Clinkscales taken by Herbert Hucks ’34 at Commencement in the late 1930s.

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