By Curt Yeomans
Morrow Mayor Jim Millirons met Clayton State University President Thomas K. Harden nine years ago, when the city leader spoke at the university leader's inauguration ceremony.
On Thursday, Millirons hosted a farewell ceremony, giving well-wishers a chance to say good-bye to Harden, and his wife, Cathy, as they prepare to move to Green Bay, Wisc.
Thomas Harden is scheduled to take over as the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay's chancellor on June 1.
During the ceremony, university and local elected officials praised him for the growth that took place at Clayton State under his watch. Among the changes at the university during Thomas Harden's tenure were the construction of the school's first on-campus residence hall, the establishment of graduate-level degrees, and a nearly 2,000-student increase in enrollment.
Millirons said his departure from the university will be a "great loss" to the community.
"Dr. Harden, you've given us nine great years," Millirons said. "I can't believe they've gone by, but it's been to our benefit."
On Saturday, Harden will preside over his final Clayton State commencement ceremonies as the university's president. During the ceremony, 628 students are scheduled to graduate from the university. Among the graduates will be 32 students who will receive master's degrees in the areas of business administration, and liberal studies.
Harden, the university's third president in its 40-year existence, said the numbers represent a dramatic change from the Clayton State commencement ceremonies he presided over when he arrived at the university in 2000. Nine years ago, there were "far fewer" students graduating from the university, and the majority of them were receiving associate's degrees, he said.
Harden said Clayton State now has more than 1,000 students who graduate from the university each year.
Local officials said Harden made his contributions to Clayton State, and the county as a whole, by fighting for the university when it needed someone to be an advocate for its interests at the state level.
State Sen. Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale) recalled a phone call she received last year from Harden when it appeared the state might cut funding for a new science building for Clayton State. Seay got Harden to testify before a sub-committee of the Senate's Ways and Means committee that afternoon, where he argued to have the funding restored.
"The next day, the funding was restored," Seay said.
State Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Ellenwood) said Harden is a "great man" who has "brought great things to Clayton County" during his time at Clayton State. "We are just praying that God will send you on a mission to return someday," Glanton said to Harden during the ceremony.
On Thursday, Harden was given the key to the City of Morrow, replicas of the World War I draft cards for his maternal and paternal grandfathers from the National Archives, a collection of photographs of the university and a replica of Frederic Remington's "Bronco Buster" statue.
Harden said he and his wife have mixed emotions about leaving the university because, while the job in Wisconsin is a new opportunity for them, they will have to leave behind the friends they have accumulated during his tenure at Clayton State. Harden said the people he worked with over the past nine years have been just as important to the university as he was, because the school could not have grown without their help.
"It is a bit emotional for us," Harden said. "Nine years doesn't sound like a long time to a lot of people, but it's plenty of time to make a lot of friends ... Clayton State will always be in my heart. I feel very strongly about the university. It's very important to this whole region and this state."
Cathy Harden said she and her husband did not know anyone in the community when they arrived in 2000, so they began building an extended family within the Clayton State community. Over time, that family grew to include members of the county's broader community, she said.
"I don't know how you can express to people how much they mean to you," Cathy Harden said. "It's just amazing how people have been so welcoming to us over the years ... We'll miss everyone for sure."
University of West Georgia Provost and Vice-President of Academic Affairs Thomas Hynes will become Clayton State's interim president on June 1. He will serve in that role until the University System of Georgia's Board of Regents selects Harden's permanent successor.