For nearly 50 years, father-son faculty members blaze trails at Clemson University
Jack and David Stevenson have made an impact in the Clemson community in very different capacities for almost five decades.
Father-son pair Jack and David Stevenson took very different career paths. Jack (the father) spent time as a chaplain for the Navy before travelling south to organize outdoor wilderness camp programs. David pursued classical guitar at the University of South Carolina and has a thriving career as a musician and teacher.
Both, however, found their way to Clemson University.
Though their tenures did not overlap, the Stevensons have been a fixture in Tiger Town for almost 50 years. Jack began work as the camp director for the Atlanta Presbytery in Georgia, a year-round camp, conference, and retreat center. “Summer camps were the big thing, but we had a lot of other groups that came in,” he said. His experience with the camp led him to pursue a Ph.D. at Indiana University. He originally wanted to work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, so he applied for a position there in 1968. “The Department Chair, Doug Sessoms, said, ‘Jack, I don’t have any hard money, it’s all grant money, and I can’t guarantee that if you came here, that you’d have a job, so I wish you well.’” Then Sessoms sat down and sent all Jack’s application papers to Clemson’s brand new parks, recreations, and tourism management department.
Jack was the fifth faculty member hired in the new department. Beyond the nuts and bolts of the curriculum, he enjoyed fostering students’ ambitions during their time at Clemson. “I loved helping students emerge and get enthusiastic about something that they didn’t know about before,” he said. “To learn on their own, I had everybody write in a journal. I asked them to tie in the readings I assigned with their lives. People emerged, and I got the biggest kick out of it.”
This passion for helping students extended to his tenure as head of the Calhoun Honors College, which he held from 1981 until his retirement in 1992. Jack helped secure funding from deans throughout the University to help fund the program, which was in its early stages when he began.
Jack’s son, David, grew up in Clemson. “I was running around here as a little kid,” he said. He remembers tagging along with his father when Jack took his classes on camping trips. “I would go because I wanted to hang out with cool college kids, and I remember being on a camping trip when everyone was saying, ‘Yeah, next year, this will all be under water.’ We were camping where Lake Jocassee is now.”
“We’ve hiked many miles on the Appalachian Trail,” his father adds. The outdoors were not merely an area of study for Jack, but a way of bonding for father and son.
Despite his enthusiasm for the outdoors, David took a different path, and discovered a deep love for music. “There was always music in our home – mostly classical,” he said. “But no one else in our family is a musician. It was something I took to.”
He attributes his brother with providing him with that first spark of inspiration. “We were both home, the two of us, and we went into the living room, where he played this Led Zeppelin record on Dad’s stereo. The minute that needle hit the record, I said, ‘That is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard. I want to be a guitar player.’”
David’s early experiences and associations as a teenager in Clemson also heavily influenced his love of guitar. The Barnett family owned Barnett Music Center in downtown Clemson in the 1970s. Bobby Barnett was a faculty member at the Poole Agricultural Center, and David took his first guitar lessons from Bonnie Barnett in 1972. Their twin sons were talented guitarists themselves who once performed as the opening act for an Allman Brothers concert. “I had some of my first rock-and-roll lessons from those guys,” he said. Steve Goggins, an architecture student and talented guitarist, mentored David and was key in turning his interest from electric- and rock-based guitar to acoustic. His friend Robert Johnson, who lived in student housing (which was near the current location of the Brooks Center) with his wife Ann in the mid-1970s, introduced him to experimental music. In addition to being an engineering graduate student, he was a Vietnam War veteran who served in the Air Force. David would often visit the couple to listen to and talk about music. “I find it so interesting that I was visiting them and playing and learning literally where the Brooks Center parking lots are now,” he said.
While he played guitar in rock bands around town, David wanted to grow as a musician. He would eventually enroll at the University of South Carolina as a classical guitar major. “Frankly, I didn’t have much talent,” he said. “But I had a lot of determination, so I was willing to work hard. And the classical discipline was really good for me, because I could follow instructions. I wanted what those people knew, and I wanted to do what they could do. I didn’t necessarily love classical guitar at the time that I showed up, but by the time I left, it had taken over my life.”
Jack paid his son’s tuition to go to college, but had a little fun when he wrote the check, referencing the Clemson-Carolina rivalry in a subtle way. “Clemson was in a long period of dominance back then in football, and the only way he could write my tuition check was that he would put the football score in the memo line of the check.”
“For five years,” Jack chimed in. “And they cashed them anyway!”
After graduation, David ended up in Asheville, North Carolina, where he has lived for 26 years. In addition to being a freelance musician, he has taught at the University of North Carolina at Asheville for 28 years, as well as Gardner-Webb University, Brevard College, and, of course, Clemson. “Eventually, when the Brooks Center opened, word came: ‘We’re hiring teachers.’ So I applied and was hired in 1994,” he recalled.
As the first faculty guitar instructor at Clemson, David commuted four total hours to Clemson to teach two hours of lessons to four students. Now he teaches three days a week and has over 100 students each semester, including one-on-one private lessons and larger classroom sessions.
* * *
In addition to being a performer and teacher, David is also an entrepreneur: “Part of my patchwork quilt of a living,” he says. With a friend, he began making and selling guitar accessories. He patented the A-Frame in 1991, a device that takes the place of the footstool used by classical guitarists during concerts. The small, compact invention props the guitar up to playing height on the thigh, rather than forcing the musician to put his or her leg in an uncomfortable position for the entirety of a performance.
David earned his second patent in 2015 with the X-Strap, an extra strap (hence the name) that secures the guitar more tightly to a musician’s body. He was inspired to create it after seeing an ensemble that stood during an entire performance at the Brooks Center. “They were the happiest, most expressive group,” he said. “It was infectious! I loved it! I immediately thought, ‘We’ve got to get guitarists out of the chair.”
There was one problem: David felt the standard guitar strap allowed the guitar too much movement, and classical guitarists need the guitar to be secure. This new, second strap would keep the guitar in place and allow the user to move. “I think it invites the audience in,” he said. “Often when you go to a classical guitar concert, here’s this person sitting very rigidly in a chair way over there, they’re playing a soft instrument and they barely move and they’re looking down all the time. It doesn’t invite the listener in. If you can engage your body a little, it somehow invites them in.”
His A-Frame and X-Strap were conceptual solutions to problems he faced as a musician. But for his inventions to be of use to others, he had to do more than conceptualize: he had to find a way to build and distribute them efficiently and economically. With his company, SageWorks, he would develop such a system. Now, he makes both the A-Frame and X-Strap himself, by hand, in a workshop beside his house. “I source all the parts,” he said. “I fabricate everything and put them together when the orders come in.” The A-Frame went through several iterations before it was finalized for the market. Aaron Shearer, a friend and world-class guitar pedagogue who taught at some of the most prestigious music institutions in the country, endorsed it, and David estimates that he has sold close to 20,000 units over 25 years.
* * *
The Stevenson family has always believed in Clemson, David said, even when he was on the road for lessons in Tiger Town longer than he was in the classroom. The fact that Jack established an endowment in 1989 that was, around 1994, re-designated for use by the guitar program shows how dedicated they are to the community and the performing arts. The endowment, which has grown substantially over the years, is now used to purchase sheet music and instruments, and to take care of other costs related to guitar. There are 18 guitars for use by students at Clemson, and classes are designed to help students of all levels and interests – even total beginners. David is often able to invite guest artists to perform and speak to students: Gaelle Solal, classical guitarist from Belgium; Bluegrass master musician Josh Goforth; the rock band Buster; and master fingers style guitarists Alex de Grassi from California and Al Pettaway from Asheville, to name a few.
He points to his experiences in Clemson as a teenager to explain his long-lasting connection to his hometown. “Those early influences have literally kept me right here in almost the exact same spot sharing the guitar with so many Clemson students over the last 22 years,” he said.
For many years after retiring from Clemson, Jack kept an office in Clemson as a pastoral Counselor at Fort Hill Presbyterian Church. When in town, David has the privilege, as his father says, of staying with him.
Nearly 50 years later, for at least a few days each week, the Jack and David can be found under one roof near the University and city they love.
For more information about David, his music, and his patents, visit http://riverpointdesign.com/davidsguitar/Home.
Thomas Hudgins is director of marketing and communications for the Brooks Center for the Performing Arts in Clemson.