In 1965, Coker needed a new biology teacher, who would also be responsible for developing an outdoor laboratory at Kalmia Gardens. The timing worked out perfectly for George Sawyer, who had just earned his master’s degree at UNC Chapel Hill. He accepted the job, and was up for the challenge .
“Admittedly, it was not my intention to remain at Coker College for my whole career,” George says, “and certainly not in a sleepy little southern city like Hartsville.” But as many of us know, Hartsville has been known to surprise people.
At about the same time that he was finding his way to Coker, a shy, first-generation college student named Gayle was recruited to the college by a Coker alumna from her hometown. She worked in the alumni office, enjoyed Coker’s familial “no appointments necessary” attitude, and learned from Drs. Davidson and Grannis (the very professors whose names are now proudly displayed on campus buildings) that education and hard work are the keys to success.“My class at Coker bonded so strongly”
Gayle embraced their message, believing wholeheartedly that women could do and be anything they chose. “We graduated ready and eager to start our professions and/or go to graduate school,” she remembers. “My class at Coker bonded so strongly…that we have remained lifelong friends. At our reunions, we have one of the largest class attendances.”
And of course, it was at Coker College that she first met George. He proposed in the Science Building, sitting on a laboratory table; they were married in 1969. The couple has seen the college and the city work through decades’ worth of major changes: integration, the inclusion of male residential students, transitions of several college presidents, the advent of the Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics; the infamous fire at Davidson Hall, and Hurricane Hugo. Through it all, the Sawyers made the campus a second home. Their children participated in sports activities, took piano lessons with Betty Newell, and worked summer jobs on staff at Kalmia Gardens, and took summer coursework at Coker. The Patrick Sawyer Memorial Bike Trail runs through campus to the other end of town, with the bike trail designation at Kalmia Gardens.
Over the years, Gayle parlayed her teaching experience into a career recruiting teachers for the Darlington County School District. She eventually became executive director at The Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention & Advancement for the State of South Carolina, as well as a faculty member at Winthrop University. George retired from Coker’s faculty and Kalmia Gardens in December 2006, after 41 years of service to our community.
The Sawyers are eager to return to campus for this year’s Homecoming celebration from February 10–12. They are excited to see the growth happening, both on campus and throughout the city.“We believe in Coker’s future.”
“The development of downtown Hartsville, in which Coker has a part, is incredible,” they say, noting that they feel a strong sense of pride in the Coker community. In fact, they remain involved to this day. Gayle serves on the Alumni Association and the college’s Board of Trustees, and during their visits back to campus, George can still be found at Kalmia with a pair of clippers in hand. The Sawyers are also members of the Coker Society, a group of the college’s most generous philanthropists, dedicated to supporting transformational growth for the benefit of our students.
But why all of this devotion to the mission of Coker College, so many years after graduation and retirement?
“We believe in the great need in our state for academic innovation, opportunities for adult students in our community, and Coker’s flexibility to adapt quickly to the needs of [our grandchildren’s] generation,” they say. “We believe in Coker’s future.”