McKissick, James Rion

October 13, 1884–September 3, 1944

McKissick led the university through the tumultuous times of the Great Depression and World War II. With help through the New Deal, McKissick presided over the construction of a new library and five dormitories, as well as a general refurbishment of the campus. During World War II, McKissick guided the university into the war effort, establishing civilian pilot and laboratory technician training programs, adjusting the curriculum to include defense-oriented science and engineering courses, and establishing the nation’s first Red Cross nurse’s aide course.

Journalist, educator, university president. McKissick was born in Union on October 13, 1884, the son of Isaac Going McKissick and Sarah Foster. He graduated from South Carolina College in 1905 and attended Harvard Law School before turning to a career in journalism. At the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, McKissick rose from reporter to chief editorial writer. In 1914 he returned to South Carolina, where he was admitted to the bar and practiced law until joining the Greenville News in 1916 as editor. In 1919 McKissick became editor of another leading newspaper, the Greenville Piedmont.

McKissick was elected to the University of South Carolina’s board of trustees in 1924 and then joined the faculty in 1927 as dean of the School of Journalism. He married Caroline Virginia Dick that same year. During his tenure as dean, he earned a master of arts in journalism from the University of Wisconsin. Although he did not have a doctorate, McKissick excelled as a teacher and mentor to his students, who affectionately dubbed him “the Colonel.” In 1936 McKissick became one of the few Carolina alumni to become the university’s president. He was devoted to the university, writing in 1942, “I would rather be president of the University than hold any other position in this state and country. . . . If I could live my life over, I would give much more of it to Carolina.”

McKissick led the university through the tumultuous times of the Great Depression and World War II. With help through the New Deal, McKissick presided over the construction of a new library and five dormitories, as well as a general refurbishment of the campus. During World War II, McKissick guided the university into the war effort, establishing civilian pilot and laboratory technician training programs, adjusting the curriculum to include defense-oriented science and engineering courses, and establishing the nation’s first Red Cross nurse’s aide course.

McKissick’s greatest accomplishments may have come in public relations for the university. He declared that the institution had long been the target of “unjustifiable criticism” and discrimination in state appropriations because of a century-long “whispering campaign” against the university by its enemies. As a result of his successful efforts to dispel the insinuations that Carolina was an immoral and elitist institution, the university made great gains in popularity.

McKissick died suddenly of a heart attack on September 3, 1944. “The Colonel” was such a respected and beloved figure to students and faculty that they petitioned the university’s board of trustees to allow McKissick to be buried on campus, the only person ever to receive such an honor. After the funeral service during which his body lay in state in the new library, students laid McKissick to rest in front of the South Caroliniana Library, which he had helped to establish through the donation of his own personal collection of more than five thousand books, manuscripts, and papers. Several months after his death, the new university library was named for McKissick.

“M’Kissick Rites to Be Tomorrow.” Columbia Record, September 4, 1944, pp. 1, 2.

Lesesne, Henry H. A History of the University of South Carolina, 1940–2000. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title McKissick, James Rion
  • Coverage October 13, 1884–September 3, 1944
  • Author
  • Keywords Journalist, educator, university president, led the university through the tumultuous times of the Great Depression and World War II, establishing the nation’s first Red Cross nurse’s aide course, “The Colonel”, buried on campus,
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date June 25, 2021
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 10, 2017
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