Grace Beahm/The Post and Courier
Clay Middleton, a 2003 Citadel graduate, is Lowcountry coordinator for U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn.
It has been said that we create our own luck.
But surely circumstances, talent and the guidance we receive from others play a part. Good choices, after all, depend a lot on good opportunities.
Clay Nimoy Middleton knows a good opportunity when he sees it. And his focused determination has helped him avoid the debris along the path to success.
At 29, Middleton already has led a military career, worked as a staff assistant for retired U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings and former S.C. Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum.
Already he has run for the S.C. House of Representatives in District 111. Since 2003, he has served, with one break, as Lowcoun- try coordinator for U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn.
Middleton was dealt a hand of cards, traded a few, arranged others and defined for himself a life of public service.
Born in Charleston, Middleton grew up in Bayside Manor on the upper part of the peninsula, raised in a single-parent home. Though he has maintained a good relationship with his father, Henry Clay Middleton, the people most influential during his early years were aunts, grandparents and neighbors, he said.
His mother, Donna Simmons, who worked three jobs in those days, decided early that Clay should benefit from the supervision provided by a Catholic school. Middleton was enrolled at Sacred Heart, then the Cathedral School, then Charleston Catholic School on Upper King Street, where he attended fifth through eighth grades.
Ivan Fields, a teacher at the Cathedral School, transferred to Charleston Catholic the same time Middleton did and became the young boy's math and social studies instructor.
On Monday, Middleton spoke to an assembly of students at Charleston Catholic. He inspired many to ask questions.
"He's a natural-born leader," Fields said. The 10-year-old was a "busybody," always wanting to help.
Soon it became apparent that the natural-born leader was a really a little politician. He took charge of student council, Fields said. He petitioned school administrators to change the dress code: long pants and ties on hot August and September days were a little excessive, he argued -- successfully.
He thought the school band might benefit from a little public exposure, so he arranged to get the group a place on a Christmas Parade float.
An ardent if small-statured player on the basketball team, Middleton was the one to lead the before-game prayer. "He couldn't shoot very well, but he certainly could play defense," said Fields, who counts coaching among his school duties.
Fields said he had thought Middleton would grow up to be a preacher. Today, he would not be surprised if the natural-born leader became Charleston's mayor one day.
Middleton was determined to attend Burke High School, he said. He was very busy there. He became regimental commander of the Burke and Garrett High School JROTC. He joined the Junior Varsity football team and ran track and cross country. He became student body president in his senior year. And he served as state master knight for the Masonic Order Youth Group-Knights of Pythagoras, which he had joined at age 8, and which provided leadership training and public speaking opportunities.
Was this foresight? Were these opportunities seized with his future in mind?
In his senior year, someone told him he should attend The Citadel. He never intended to join the military (though his father, an aunt, uncles and cousins had military experience). Then again, The Citadel could be a means to an end.
"I knew I wanted to be involved in public service, and The Citadel was a way for me to achieve my goals," he said.
He signed up with the Army on Jan. 6, 2000, committing to four years of active duty followed by two years in the inactive Reserve. But that soon changed.
As a sophomore, studying political science, he heard about a two-year National Guard scholarship. He got it. It would mean basic training at Fort Jackson, officer training to follow and a commission as a signal officer after he graduated, with honors, in 2003, becoming a second lieutenant.
In 2004, he was deployed to the Middle East and spent a full year in Taji, Iraq, 20 miles north of Baghdad, in charge of communications. On occasion, Middleton rode with fellow soldiers in an unarmored white Ford F-250 from Taji to Baghdad, driving between the Humvees for cover.
It was early in the war, and Middleton was tasked with helping to set up the infrastructure and commercialize the operation. He had about $200 million to work with, and requisitioned around $50,000 a month to pay for fiber-optic networks, engineering projects and more. Good relationships made it easy to get the necessary signatures, he said.
Mortar rounds were constant, and going to the front gate each morning to bring in Iraqi workers always rattled the nerves, Middleton said.
In 2006, Middleton spent a month along the Arizona-Mexico border, part of Operation Jump Start. He was the executive officer under the company commander, overseeing 24-hour ops teams, monitoring activity at checkpoints and offering miscellaneous support.
Soldiers would look through binoculars all day long, then pull out body heat-sensing devices at night. The problem wasn't a lack of agents, Middleton said. The problem was that the desire for employment among Mexicans crossing the border was stronger than the desire to remain within the parameters of U.S. law.
"Build a 20-foot fence and someone will use a 25-foot ladder," he said.
Today, he is a captain and company commander of Bravo 198 Signal Company, based in Hodges. His contract requires him to spend one weekend each month and two weeks in the summer in Hodges.
"But that's a lie," he said. "As company commander, it's nonstop."
Retired Col. Debra McNamee, president of the S.C. National Guard Association, said she met Middleton (who sits on the association's executive council) when they were both signal officers. He was a young lieutenant, she was a battalion commander.
"I can't say enough good things about Clay," McNamee said. "I've watched him progress from a young lieutenant platoon leader to a brigadier general's aide to an able company commander of over 100 soldiers."
As a member of the lobbying group's executive council, Middleton's knowledge of the political landscape is invaluable, she said.
"He has a deep sense of honor and a love of his state."
'A tremendous future'
Before he launched his military career, he was an intern for Clyburn in 2001, then joined the congressman's staff as Lowcountry coordinator in 2003. After his tour in Iraq, Middleton worked as a field coordinator for the S.C. Democratic Party before returning to Clyburn's staff.
"It's no secret that he's my greatest political role model and mentor," Middleton said of his boss.
Clyburn, at 70 years and six months, maintains a busy schedule, and his energy never seems to wane, Middleton said. "If he can do it at his age, I shouldn't complain at 29."
Clyburn returns the admiration. The two men consult freely, and the congressman offers guidance and encouragement.
"I think he has a tremendous future," he said of his young staffer.
When, in 2008, Middleton ran for the S.C. House in District 111, then narrowly lost in a runoff to Rep. Wendell Gilliard, the mentor tried to reassure the protege.
"I told him when he lost to use it as a learning experience," Clyburn said. And the congressman recounted how he had lost his first election (and two others). "I think I told him three-strikes-and-you're-out is a baseball rule that never should be applied to life."
Geona Shaw Johnson, director of Housing and Community Development for the city of Charleston, has worked closely with Middleton.
"Clay has served on a couple of our boards and commissions," she said. Currently, he's chairman of the Greater Charleston Empowerment Corp., an organization supported by Johnson's agency.
Housing and Community Development is concerned with neighborhood revitalization, and Middleton acts as a sort of middle man, representing the interests of constituents and connecting them to the agency.
When needs arise, "he is immediately on the phone ... to me and others to find out what help is available," she said.
Middleton said he's dedicated to the idea of public service. "I will run for office again, without a doubt," he said. But he will wait for an opportune moment. "Politics is all about timing."
It's also like a game of chess, he said.
"If you're worried about the next move, you're in trouble. You've got to be thinking two or three moves ahead."
What drives him? A certain selfless ambition, to be sure, he said. He wants to help people. But that's not all.
"It's about wanting to make my family and community proud," he said. "I didn't want to embarrass my mama, I didn't want to embarrass my church."
Because it's not really only about the good choices made by Clay Nimoy Middleton, the 29-year-old assistant to Rep. James Clyburn, the military man, the community leader, the politician.
"I'm not here by accident," he said. "So many people stepped in and guided me."