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SPSU students do interesting things

At each recruiting open house, I talk with prospective students and their families about the variety of interesting things that SPSU students and graduates accomplish. Their success in engineering, architecture, science, and technology is no surprise, but some of the areas in which our students and graduates excel are unexpected – until you understand the university’s interdisciplinary emphasis on preparing graduates to find practical, creative, and sustainable solutions to the problems that face our world today.

Wes Cantrell became CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Dale Heatherington invented the first commercially successful computer modem. Steve Newey designs race cars. Morty Buckles was one of the first African-American drivers in NASCAR. Vaughn Cato and Bill Lorton won a technical achievement award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for developing the motion-capture software that was used in the film Polar Express. Former SPSU students have signed with major league baseball organizations, including the St. Louis Cardinals, New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds, and Chicago Cubs.

And a former Southern Polytechnic student earned two Grammy awards – and was nominated for several more. Because he is someone who died in the last year, this first post of 2013 seems like an appropriate place to remember him.

Joe Souter studied Electronics and Communications in the late 1950’s, when the name of the school was the Southern Technical Institute. Joe reportedly ran a pirate radio station, playing his own music, and was described as being “one step ahead of the FCC.” He soon shifted his energies from engineering to music (and changed his name to Joe South); in 1958, he performed his top-50 novelty hit, “The Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor” on “American Bandstand.” He played in the studio bands for other legendary musicians including Bob Dylan (the Blonde on Blonde album, 1966) and Aretha Franklin (“Chain of Fools,” 1967 – Joe plays that opening guitar lick on the single.)

Joe had success in recording songs he had written, including winning two Grammy awards for “Games People Play.” However, his greatest exposure probably came from performances of his songs by other artists. Examples include Elvis Presley (“Walk A Mile In My Shoes”), Billy Joe Royal (“Down In the Boondocks”), Deep Purple (“Hush”), and Lynn Anderson ((“I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden”). “Rose Garden” earned Anderson a Grammy award and two Grammy nominations for Joe.

Joe’s fans tell a story about the time Joe and John Lennon crossed paths in a studio. The Beatle’s greeting to Joe was simply: “Love that ‘Rose Garden’!”

I want to believe that story is true.

I might not have known about Joe having been a student at Southern Polytechnic if Professor Emeritus David Summers hadn’t mentioned it to me in 2004. I had always respected Joe South’s work, and I looked for ways to reconnect him with the university. I started by asking an old friend who owns Waterloo Records, an independent record store in Austin, TX, for advice on how to track the musician down. He referred me to Butch Lowery, a long-time friend of Joe’s and an Atlanta record producer whose label had recorded a number of Joe’s songs. Butch gave me some of Joe’s background and tried for months to arrange an introduction, but it never worked out. Joe stayed out of the public eye after his brother and fellow band member committed suicide in 1971; Butch reported that Joe was reclusive, changed his phone number frequently, and spent his time with a small group of close friends.

Ron Koger, SPSU’s vice president for student and enrollment services, had more luck connecting with Joe. In fall 2009, Ron was at Eddie’s Attic for a Marshall Chapman concert. (Those of you who have heard music at Eddie’s know that “concert” doesn’t really describe the experience; most of the seats are within about 15 feet of the small raised area that is “the stage.”)   As Ron reported, “After intermission, she [Marshall] came back to the stage all excited because her idol was there, Joe South. He came to the stage and did "Games People Play." I kept my eye on him, and when he started to leave I went over and introduced myself. Yes, he went to Southern Tech. I gave him my card. He lives in Flowery Branch.”

On September 5, 2012, Joe passed away from a heart attack, also in Flowery Branch. As far as I know, Joe South is the only former SPSU student whose obituary has been published in Rolling Stone.

A Southern Polytechnic education prepares students to do anything they want, whether it is engineering, technology…or music. Our university is immensely richer because of the varied interests and accomplishments of our community: students, alumni, faculty, and staff.

Here’s wishing you all a successful and song-filled 2013.