By Curt Yeomans
While Clayton State University is expected to confer approximately 500 degrees to graduating students on Saturday, the university will also take time out to recognize two individuals in particular -- a former university president, and a fallen soldier -- with degrees of their own.
During the noon commencement ceremony, -- one of two ceremonies on Saturday -- Clayton State President Tim Hynes will give an honorary doctorate degree to the university's first president, Harry S. Downs. Hynes is also scheduled to confer a posthumous bachelor's degree on former Clayton State history student, Georgia Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class John Beale, who died while fighting in Afghanistan in June 2009, before he could finish his studies.
"We're recognizing two very important individuals, for two very different reasons," Hynes said. "First, we're presenting the degree for Sgt. Beale, in recognition of his work as a student, and out of a desire to recognize all of our students who have fallen while serving their country in the military. And, to Dr. Downs, it is to recognize the impact he has had on this institution."
The commencement ceremony will cap a school year in which Clayton State officials celebrated the 40th anniversary of the school's founding. C.D. Moody, Jr., of C.D. Moody Construction Company, will address graduates at the 9 a.m., ceremony. Georgia Humanities Council President Jamil Zainaldin will address graduates at the noon ceremony.
Sgt. 1st Class Beale's posthumous degree is expected to be given to his widow, Crystal Beale, according to university spokesman John Shiffert. The sergeant was a member of the Georgia National Guard's 48th Brigade, 1st Battalion, 108th Reconnaissance platoon group. The platoon had been deployed to the Middle East in April 2009. He was killed in action two months later, in Kapisa, Afghanistan.
Shiffert said that when Sgt. 1st Class Beale was a student at the university, he was a member of the Clayton State History Society. The university spokesman also said members of that group have purchased a brick in his memory for the Clayton State Alumni Association's Legacy Court, which is located behind the James M. Baker University Center.
Hynes said he approved the posthumous degree to Sgt. 1st Class Beale "upon the recommendation of the faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences," because he had made "substantial progress" toward completing his degree before his death. The sergeant was enrolled at the university when he was called up to active duty last year, Hynes said.
"The faculty felt he had made enough progress toward completing his degree to merit awarding him this posthumous degree," the university president said.
In a written statement, Clayton State Director of International Programs John Parkerson, who was one of Sgt. 1st Class Beale's professors, said people at the university remember the sergeant for his commitment to his education. "John Beale's love for education, and his passion for history, were well known to all, and he cherished the Clayton State connection," Parkerson said.
When Hynes presents Downs with his honorary doctorate, it will mark a moment where the university's past and present come face-to-face. Downs was Clayton State's first, and longest-serving, president. Hynes, who came to the university last year as an interim leader, was appointed earlier this year to become the school's fourth, permanent president.
For a quarter of a century, from February 1969, to January 1994, Downs was Clayton State's leader. He took the reins seven months before classes began at the school, and oversaw its growth from a small junior college, with just over 900 students, to a four-year state college, before he retired.
Before he led Clayton State, Downs had previously been tasked with opening Brunswick Junior College and Macon Junior College for the University System of Georgia, Shiffert said.
According to the university's web site, during Downs' tenure as president, Clayton State gained accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (1971), went from being a two-year junior college, to a four-year college (1985), and saw its name changed from Clayton Junior College, to Clayton State College (1986), established its athletics department (1990), and opened Spivey Hall (1991).
"In a whole array of ways, from the construction of buildings on the campus, to the growth of our academic offerings during that time, the university was built by Dr. Downs and his staff," Hynes said.
Hynes added that Downs was a founding member of both the Clayton State University Foundation, and the Walter and Emilie Spivey Foundation, which raises money to sponsor concerts and programs at Spivey Hall. Hynes also said Downs served a six-month stint as the acting chancellor of the University System of Georgia after he retired from Clayton State.
"We're not just honoring his contributions to this campus, we're also recognizing everything he's done for this community," Hynes said.
Downs and Crystal Beale could not be reached for comment.