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Tom Mack: Wordsmith's passion becomes lifelong career

Since 1990, Dr. Tom Mack has written his column, “Arts and Humanities,” every week without fail for the Aiken Standard.

Over 30 years, that’s a lot of columns, and a lot of words, but words always have come easily for Mack. He has turned words into a long and successful career, not only as a columnist but also as an English professor at USC Aiken for nearly 40 years and an author or editor of what soon will be eight books.

“I’ve always been devoted to the arts and humanities. My minor was art history, and my major was English. I had very supportive parents,” said Mack, who grew up with two brothers just outside Philadelphia. “My mother, Val, was very much of a reader. She would haul us to the county library once a week in the summer, so we always had books in the house.

“I remember how resentful I was as a child that there was a limit to the number of books that you could check out at any given time. I always wanted to check out more than the librarian would allow.”

Mack started the column at the request of Dr. Robert Alexander, a retired USCA chancellor.

“He wanted to let people know that the university was an asset to the community, and he wanted to make that more self-evident,” Mack said.

The best of Tom Mack

The late Scott Hunter was the newspaper’s editor in 1990.

“I asked Scott what he wanted me to write about, and he said anything you want,” Mack said. “I was always given free rein.”

In his column, Mack has covered the local visual arts scene, previewed concerts and written about books, especially books with Aiken connections. Over the years, he expanded the column’s coverage area to include Augusta and Columbia.

“If you think Aiken, Augusta, Columbia, especially from fall to spring, there’s actually a lot going on,” Mack said.

For his coverage of the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Mack received the Media Award from the Greater Augusta Arts Council.

Even during the pandemic when theaters, galleries and art and music venues went dark, Mack found plenty to write about.

“I did a whole series based on books that had some reference to Aiken because the performing arts had shut down,” he said.

In addition to providing information about the arts and humanities, his column, Mack said, is an extension of his mission as an educator.

“It is a way to extend the learning experience beyond the classroom,” he said. “I try to get people interested in reading the book that I’m describing or going to see the art show. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into people in the community who have said I’m so glad you wrote about a show or a concert they went to. So it’s changing people’s lives and opening doors. We never stop learning.”

His column has opened doors for Mack, too.

“I’ve met so many interesting people: artists, musicians, curators, authors, many of whom have become friends of mine over time,” he said.

39 years at USCA

When Mack arrived in Aiken in 1976 fresh with his Ph.D. in English from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, USCA was transitioning from a two-year to a four-year, degree-granting school. The then new campus just west of downtown consisted of only two buildings with a third under construction.

Mack, whose specialty is 19th-century American literature, had job offers in Oregon and Hawaii but wanted to stay on the East Coast and chose Aiken.

“I wasn’t really quite sure I was going to stay, but I did, and I’m happy I did because it was a wonderful place to build a career,” he said. “One could do so much. It was a new institution, and you could help shape it. I feel that I did that in so many different ways but particularly with the English department.”

For 25 of his 39 years at USCA, Mack chaired the English department and helped carve out lasting programs that benefit both students and the community.

Mack created the Writing Center, whose mission is to help students become independent writers, according to its website, and shaped “a good BA in English,” he said. He created the gateway course and the senior seminar for English majors.

“English majors were getting me at the beginning, and they’d get me at the end. I was always looking for improvement,” Mack said.

Mack also helped start a one-of-a-kind scholarly journal for English undergraduate students.

“The Oswald Review,” named for long-time Aiken residents and USCA supporters Jim and Mary Oswald, is an intercollegiate, refereed undergraduate journal in undergraduate research in English language and literature, which “is still going strong,” Mack said.

“It is the only undergraduate research journal in English – the only one,” he said. “It is international. We have college students from around the world who submit essays.”

Mack also helped secure an endowment from the Oswalds to support the English department’s annual visiting writers series, which was renamed in their honor as the James and Mary Oswald Distinguished Writers Series in 1995.

Author Pam Durban, an Aiken native, will be the featured writer for the series’ fall date on Oct. 26.

During his long career at USCA, Mack received most of the campus’ major awards. He held the G.L. Toole Chair in English from 2009 to 2015. He received the USCA Community Service Award in 1993, 1999, 2005, 2009 and 2014 and the USCA University Service Award in 1989. He was named the Outstanding Student Organization Advisor in 1988 and received the Amoco Foundation Outstanding Teaching Award for the University of South Carolina System Four-Year Campuses in 1980.

In 1980, he was named the USCA Outstanding Teacher of the Year.

Of all his honors, the Carolina Trustee Professorship award he received in 2008 has the most meaning, Mack said.

The award is presented to faculty members who hold the rank of professor with tenure and “who are committed to teaching excellence in any phase of the university’s educational mission,” according to the USC website. Two awards are given annually to professors on the Columbia campus and one to a professor at another USC institution.

“It’s a system-wide award for teaching, service and scholarship. It isn’t earmarked just for one,” Mack said. “It’s very competitive.”

Mack said his career at USCA “grew with the institution.”

“I felt I could make a difference, and I was appreciated,” he said.

45 years an educator

From a young age, Mack knew he wanted to be an educator.

“I was attracted to education because I loved school,” he said. “I really do love school. I was always bookish. I like to read, so I always thought about being a teacher; but I didn’t want to be just a teacher – I wanted to be a professor. I didn’t even know what a professor was when I was in junior high except for the fact that it sounded very prestigious.”

Until his senior year in high school, Mack planned to major in History, but his senior English teacher, Emily Petrilla, changed his mind.

“She invested so much into her work and extended the learning experience beyond the classroom,” Mack said.

Petrilla took Mack and his classmates to see a production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” which they were reading in class, in Princeton, New Jersey, and to see Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, where Mack received his undergraduate degree in English.

“She was just so great,” Mack said. “She didn’t have to do those kinds of things.”

As an educator, Mack followed Petrilla’s example, extending lessons in American literature beyond the classroom by taking his students to an Augusta Opera production of “Washington Square,” based on the novel by Henry James, or to Thomas Cooper Library at USC to see a first edition of “Leaves of Grass,” by Walt Whitman.

“I took the whole class to the opera. Students talked about that for years,” Mack said. “It was another way of looking at the novel transformed into another art form. Those things always used to impress me when I was a student.”

Mack said organization and enthusiasm made him a successful professor.

“I always thought of myself as sort of an introverted person, but teaching really forces you to come out of your shell and perform,” he said. “I think every successful teacher has a sort of teaching personality, a persona, that may or may not be the private you; but it’s what the students will recognize, and it’s what’s going to sell the subject: having enthusiasm for the subject, organizing a good lecture and loving the subject matter. I think I’ve always had a knack to take what may appear to other people to be a kind of complex issue or situation and to make it more understandable and interesting.”

Mack’s students agreed.

“Now, when I do a specialized lecture at the county library or the county museum, I have former students show up because they say, oh, Dr. Mack, I really miss your lectures, your presentations. You always made things so interesting,” he said.

Mack, who taught high school for three years and was a teaching assistant while completing his doctorate, said he can’t estimate the number of students he’s taught.

“That’s 45 years, so imagine,” he said.

But he keeps in touch with many former USCA students through social media.

“I never tried to be friends with my students; but there are a couple of hundred of my former students who are my Facebook friends now, and I like keeping track of them,” Mack said. “I send them happy birthday greetings, and they do the same for me. I also get comments on some of my posts, and I’ll comment on theirs. It’s nice to think that they think highly of me because I always had high standards.”

Six years retired but still working

Since retiring in 2015, Mack has devoted much of his time to another aspect of his career that involves words: writing.

He is working on a new book, “100 Things To Do In Augusta Before You Die,” part of a national series published by Reedy Press in St. Louis, Missouri. Over the summer, he will edit a collection of short stories by writers from Texas.

He also will contribute essays to another new book, “The Discerning Eye: Authors Respond to Art,” to be published by the Morris Museum of Art.

“I gave them the title,” Mack said. “The book will focus on pieces in their permanent collection, but they’ve asked local authors to select paintings and pieces of sculpture and to write a poem or a short story inspired by the painting or, in my case, an essay.”

Mack’s other written works include “Circling the Savannah: Cultural Landmarks of the Central Savannah River Area” and “Hidden History of Aiken County,” both from The History Press.

“Writing is a natural extension of my career,” Mack said. “Over time, I’ve become something of a cultural historian.”

For his dedication to the arts in the state, Mack received the Governor’s Award in the Humanities from the South Carolina Humanities Council in 2014 and now is the chairman of that board.

Mack also is an officer, former chairman and lifetime member of the Board of Governors of the South Carolina Academy of Authors, which manages the state’s literary hall of fame.

“Both of those boards are made up of community leaders from across the state. I have made so many friends and know so many people, particularly in academia but others as well: civic leaders from around the state because of my involvement,” Mack said. “I enjoy the boards because it’s nice to spend time with like-minded people, and so I feel as if I still have significant outlets even though it’s been six years since I retired.”

Mack also makes presentations at community events. He will discuss “Movers and Shakers of Aiken County,” focusing on John Gary Evans, a South Carolina governor in the late 19th century; James Urquhart Jackson, the founder of North Augusta; and former U.S. Sen. and South Carolina governor James Strom Thurmond, at 3 p.m. today at the Aiken County Historical Museum. His presentation is part of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the founding of Aiken County.

When not writing or editing, Mack enjoys travel and is looking forward to resuming his annual spring trips to a different city in Europe when pandemic restrictions are lifted.

When Mack was growing up, his father, Stan, and mother would take the family on long road trips to museums and historical sites.

“The first time I ever came to South Carolina was with my parents on one of those trips,” Mack said. “We would always do educational things. That really stuck with me because that’s the kind of trip I like to do, too.”

Mack said retirement has given him more time to do the things he loves.

“Since retirement, I’ve enjoyed being able to do – I would argue – the things I’ve enjoyed most,” he said. “I’ve continued to write. I continue to do an occasional presentation. I’ve always loved history. I’ve always loved literature. I’ve always loved the arts and humanities – the name of my column. I want to keep on learning.”

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