Odyssey of Mind’s founder visits tourney

(From left) Ethan Richard, Blake Davidson, More Martin, Quentin Kelly, Douglas Reeves and Clay Mohr of the Clemson Elementary School Odyssey of the Mind team answer questions by judges after their seven-minute skit on Saturday. David Quick/postandcourier.com

This year’s 31st annual South Carolina Odyssey of the Mind Tournament on Saturday was extra special: A legend was in attendance.

Dr. Sam Micklus, the founder of Odyssey of the Mind, paid a visit, walking the halls of St. Andrew’s Middle School, chatting with students, posing for photographs, and dropping dozens of seven-minute stage performances in which kids have to solve a given problem.

Micklus, now 78 and semi-retired from his role, continues to travel the world attending Odyssey of the Mind events, but with hundreds of them being held, especially in the spring, it’s an unusual opportunity to see him at a local event.

“It’s totally rare that he is here,” said Jeanette Casat, a local coordinator for Odyssey. “I’ve participated for 18 years and, while I’ve seen him at the world competition many times, this is the first time I’ve seen him on the local level.”

Casat added that most kids in Odyssey know about Micklus and the story behind the competition, which is designed to foster creative, “out-of-the-box” problem-solving.

The seed for Odyssey started when Micklus, now affectionately known as “Dr. Sam,” was a professor teaching industrial design at Glassboro State College, now Rowan University, in New Jersey in the early 1970s.

After noticing how his students would withdraw when faced with a challenging problem, he realized he needed to lighten them with a fun, hands-on problem. He tasked his class of students to build a “flotation device … using only $5 and anything you can scrounge” that would get them around a lake safe and dry.

“And I told them, ‘If you drown, you fail,’” recalls Micklus chuckling.

The outcome was an array of creative, entertaining solutions.

He continued the tradition until he decided to do one in 1978 for middle and high school students, which he originally called the “Olympics of the Mind” before the International Olympic Committee sued him, thinking it would happen once and be it.

Far from it.

Media coverage — which later included award-winning features on programs anchored by Bill Moyers and Walter Cronkite — quickly made the popularity spread from New Jersey and surrounded to around the globe, even to Russia and China before the easing of the cold war.

China, in fact, has embraced the concept so much that it has opened 40 schools with curriculum designed around the Odyssey model.

When asked how it feels to look back on his creation, he simply said, smiling, “It’s amazing.”

People at St. Andrew’s genuinely expressed their gratitude to Micklus all day.

Mandy Davidson, an Odyssey of the Mind coach for Clemson Elementary School, met Micklus for the first time, shook his hand and told him how much the program has meant in both her and her son’s life.

“I’m so thankful to have had an opportunity to do this a young student myself and to see my son have the experience it, as well. It’s really enriching ... I thank Dr. Sam and all the efforts he’s gone to over the years.”

Saturday’s contest featured 48 teams from 18 different schools in South Carolina. Of those, 19 teams qualified to compete in the World Odyssey of the Mind at Michigan State University in May.