By Sam Blackman
Although Clemson and S.C. State have met in football only three times before this season, the two schools’ first relationship occurred in the early 1900’s as both schools were in their infancy.
At that time, Clemson was led by Walter Merritt Riggs. Riggs came to Clemson in 1896 as an assistant in the mechanical and electrical engineering department. In 1901, he was appointed professor of electrical engineering and head of Clemson’s engineering department. Riggs organized the Glee Club, coached the school’s first football team in 1896 and was later responsible for the school’s hiring of football coaching legend, John Heisman. In later years, he became interim president of Clemson in 1909 and became the school’s fifth president in 1911. In all, Riggs had a 28-year association with the school.
In Washington D.C. on Tuesday, January 22, 1924, Riggs died unexpectedly. He was in the nation’s capital to attend a meeting of the executive committee of the American Association of Land Grant colleges. Riggs kept a demanding schedule and was known as a tireless worker.
At his hotel room in Washington, he had a coughing spell that is believed to have resulted in an internal rupture. At the time, the attack was not believed to be serious and a doctor was called to his side. A few hours later he died.
He had been suffering from high blood pressure and friends and colleagues warned that he should rest more and not work so hard. He was only 50 years old when he died and was just two days shy of his 51st birthday. Some historians believe that he worked himself to an early death.
Riggs was from Orangeburg, S.C. and graduated from Auburn. He also did his graduate work there as well. He had a keen interest in S.C. State and ironically the school was in his hometown.
According to an editorial in The State newspaper after his death, he did so much for so many, “His sympathies were not bounded by Clemson’s horizon. Guarding its every interest, Clemson’s staunch and unyielding advocate when a Clemson issue as in college sports was at stake, he respected the missions of the other state colleges perceiving that there is more than enough for all of them to do and holding himself in readiness to cooperate with them.”
The article went on to say that, “South Carolina State has lost in him a friend that it will sorely miss when advice and supervision in installing electrical and other additional equipment are needed.”
Riggs was good friends with S.C. State president, Dr. Robert Shaw Wilkinson, a Charleston native and professor of physics at the college. Wilkinson’s 21-year administration witnessed an increase in faculty and student enrollment, an established income from both federal and state sources, an expansion in the building program, a cooperative working relationship with Clemson College and Claflin University.
Riggs had a great interest in the education of African-Americans and helped Wilkinson and S.C. State. Riggs would also present S.C. State’s budget and needs to the state legislature and would try to get more funds for the school.
During the development of S.C. State, Riggs helped design the infrastructure of the Orangeburg, S.C. school in his spare time and free of charge. This included electrical plans as well as utilities such as water, heat, and sewage as the school developed. He was also an advisor and friend to the school. Riggs also helped S.C. State develop an extension service that mirrored Clemson’s department to help African-American farmers and their families.
The President, the faculty, and student body of S.C. State passed a resolution after the death of President Riggs. It read in part, “We the president, faculty and student body of S.C. State having heard with profound regret the unexpected death of President Walter M. Riggs of Clemson College, our sister institution, desire to add our tribute of honor to his memory; to express our admiration for his ability, his high character, his efficient and invaluable service to all the people and place on record this testimony of our deep sorrow at the loss of our ardent friend, trusted adviser and faithful counselor.
“This institution, its supporters and patrons, feel a special loss in the death of President Riggs because of his keen and sympathetic interest in our work consistently demonstrated though many years and on all occasions. We have sustained an irreparable loss in the sudden taking away of an honest and effective friend, who held their sincere regard and confidence.”
There is no doubt that Clemson and the state of South Carolina suffered as a result of the death of Walter Merritt Riggs. He was loved by many and was a friend to all people.