After The Citadel hosted a big conference on the civil rights movement in South Carolina in the spring of 2003, by all accounts an extremely successful event, Marcus Cox made a risky proposition.

Cox, then an assistant professor of history at the military college, approached his supervisors and told them he wanted to start an African-American Studies program. He had only been at the school for two years. He was not yet tenured. He had not proven himself. His colleagues thought he was nuts.

But service, outreach, social engagement and mentoring all are priorities for Cox, at least as important as teaching and research, maybe more so.

He secured $101,000 in grants and gifts, developed a curricula and outreach strategy and invited interesting speakers to campus, such as syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts, Rwandan humanitarian Paul Rusesabagina and the late historian John Hope Franklin.

It was part of an effort to open the Citadel’s campus to the public, especially the black community, he said, to demystify the military college, to show the broader community that paths could be paved through the forests of higher learning, paths meant for them. The effort paid off: hundreds came to hear Pitts, more than 700 attended Rusesabagina’s talk.

The Citadel’s first African-American in the history department, and first professor to teach black history, had made his mark.

Two promotions and one published book later, Cox is associate dean of evening undergraduate studies and the Citadel Graduate College. He is, in effect, spearheading the school’s growth strategy, overseeing four (for now) bachelor degree programs (in business administration, criminal justice, civil and electrical engineering), 11 college partnerships and a significant marketing effort to recruit students not interested in the corps of cadets but eager to advance their education, he said.

Currently, the evening undergraduate studies program has about 140 students. The Citadel has become only the third institution in the state, after the University of South Carolina and Clemson, to offer an engineering B.A.

Cox, 48, is glad to be an administrator, though he continues to teach one course per semester. He earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing and a master’s degree in history from Southern University in his hometown of Baton Rouge, La.; he secured his Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University in Chicago; then added an MBA from The Citadel. No wonder he likes administration, he said.

His specialty is 20th-century black history, and his recent book, “Segregated Soldiers,” traces a little studied aspect of the black experience in the Jim Crow South: the way in which military training at black colleges offered students a path to a productive life and equal rights.

Now he’s working on a second book project about high-ranking women of color in the military, he said. The idea sprung from an encounter with seven powerful women he met while teaching veterans at the Naval Station. It prompted him to wonder about how they managed to overcome obstacles.

“Women have gone through so much, so the book project is going to give them a voice,” Cox said.

Role models

Growing up, Cox was immersed in the ways of southern Louisiana. French was spoken by his relatives. Gumbo was a dinnertime staple. Southern University, a historically black school, was a cultural centerpiece. So was the Catholic Church.

Years later, when Cox was studying in Chicago and homesick, his mother and then-fiancee and now-wife Rebecca would send him cassettes of Zydeco music to appease his angst.

His grandfather, Matthew W. Trahan, was his first important role model. Trahan was a career military man who spent 30 years in the Army as a quartermaster and trainer, retiring as first sergeant. After the Army, he became a high school ROTC instructor.

This exposure to the military instilled in Cox a deep appreciation for the ways in which service could improve the lives of black people.

Trahan also was a fine baker who prepared scrumptious cakes and pies that thrilled his family. And the janitorial business he started provided Cox and his two brothers, Brian and Randy, with their first jobs.

The boys picked up trash, but they were happy. The work distinguished them from their peers.

“I thought it was cool, because I was the only one with a paycheck, who had money,” Cox said. “And it instilled a really strong work ethic in me.”

When he died, Trahan left his grandson something very special: “The ring that I wear everyday on my right hand (that) has an Army insignia was my grandfather’s ring,” Cox wrote in an email. “He wanted me to have it when he died. It is my most prized possession.”

His mother, Brenda, also was a role model. She earned her master’s degree in social work late in life, after her three children (Cox has a younger sister, Shannon) were advancing in secondary school.

A third role model emerged when Cox attended Southern University. The school employed Henry Bellaire in its Registrar’s Office, a man who exuded empathy for others and always seemed to be ready to help frustrated students navigate the new (and complicated) bureaucracy.

Bellaire would approach a lost student, put his arm around his shoulder, listen to what was the matter (lost paperwork, no housing, missing financial aid) and say, “Don’t worry, I’ll help you.”

Five years ago, Bellaire was unloading groceries from the car parked in front of his house. As his daughter emerged to help him, a robber suddenly appeared and shot Bellaire dead, Cox recalled.

He said his exposure to Bellaire changed his outlook.

“It’s not just about you getting a degree,” he said. It’s about deriving lasting value from the experience. It’s about cultivating relationships, maintaining an open mind and keeping company with people smarter than you. It’s about helping others. Learning is important but insufficient, Cox said. One must understand how that learning is accomplished.

Cox can name other role models: his grandmother Annie Mae Trahan who, along with his parents and grandfather, raised him and his siblings; Bernard Powers, a fellow historian who teaches at the College of Charleston and graduated, like Cox, from Northwestern University; Judge Arthur McFarland, who Cox met at St. Patrick Catholic Church and who stands as an example of success, dignity, wisdom and friendship; Keith Waring, another church friend and local business leader; and Thaddeus Bell, a local doctor dedicated to his community and always well-dressed.

Cox is retrospective and self-effacing when he speaks of his friends, family and colleagues. He knows that his success can be attributed in part to their support, and he’s quick to point out that he’s not special, not the owner of an especially precocious or exceptionally creative mind. He is only a hard worker, dedicated to others, determined to forge ahead.

“So many people helped me get to this particular point,” he said. “To be honest with you, I probably shouldn’t be here.”

Good friends

Powers met Cox shortly after the younger historian joined The Citadel in 2001. Because of a joint degree program between the two men’s schools, they have found themselves serving together on various thesis committees. They are also both deeply engaged in activities outside of their respective schools.

When Powers spoke about blacks and the Civil War at an event some years ago at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, Cox came with his two young daughters, Callia and Leigha. It was the sort of discussion Cox thought his daughters should hear, Powers remembered.

“He thought this would be a good experience for them,” Powers said. “He thought it would be an important enough subject.”

It was a telling moment, evidence of Cox’s dedication to his family.

“He has gone to great lengths to make sure his girls have gotten the best education possible,” Powers added.

Callia, now a 13-year-old student at James Island Charter High School, has been hitting golf balls lately, and Cox has encouraged this pursuit. But recently, he called her school coach to explain that time-consuming after-school golf outings probably wouldn’t work as they were sure to interfere with Callia’s homework.

Powers watches his friend and marvels at his drive: the way he’s embraced all these personal, school and community activities.

“He’s motivated by a sense of altruism and deep commitment,” Powers said.

Waring’s view of his friend is similar.

“He’s a great family man. He puts his wife and his daughters in high esteem, and that’s just good to see today. You can tell when kids are happy and loved.”

At The Citadel, Cox strives to find interesting people who can engage not only those on campus but people in the wider community, Waring added.

“When he gets involved in something it’s not in a passive way. He certainly brings passion to it.”

Thanks in large part to Cox’s efforts, The Citadel organizes an outreach luncheon for students of Military Magnet Academy. He is a board member of the Coastal Community Foundation and a benefactor of Charleston Development Academy Public Charter School. He has sat on numerous event panels and offered many talks at local public schools.

His driving philosophy is simple, biblical, magnanimous, he said. It derives from Genesis 12:2. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”

That’s why he likes hanging out with his mentors and close friends; that’s why he prizes his ring; that’s why he remembers so fondly Henry Bellaire, the man who embraced lost students.

“I’m expected to help other people,” Cox said.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.