Savannah State University has produced some seriously impressive alumni over the years. Not only have these alumni gone on to distinguished careers around they world, they have remained involved with the university and left lasting legacies that will impact future generations.
If you’ve ever perused the ethnic hair care section of any store, chances are you’ve seen a product created by Savannah State alumnus Cyrus Jackson.
Jackson, a 1977 graduate of Savannah State, is known within the ethnic hair manufacturing industry for revolutionizing care for natural ethnic hair. Though the entrepreneur sold his extremely successful company, Professional Products Unlimited, Inc., last year, the products created under his direction still dominate the market.
A native of Savannah, Jackson was the first Savannah State student to receive a bachelor of business administration degree in marketing. After earning his degree, he relocated to Atlanta and entered corporate America, accepting a position at Whitehall Laboratories, a major consumer products organization. Jackson rose through the ranks at Whitehall Laboratories, becoming the highest-ranking African American in the company.
During Jackson’s tenure at Whitehall Laboratories, the company launched Advil, the No. 1 selling ibuprofen pain reliever, in 1983. Jackson’s relentless field sales and sales management leadership contributed to the brand’s unprecedented sales volume and top market positioning.
In 1986, Jackson started his own sales and marketing company, B & J Sales, and in 1992, he launched Professional Products Unlimited, Inc., and began manufacturing his own line of hair care products.
“I always had the desire to own my own brand. It was one of my motivations for going to college and studying marketing,” says Jackson, who founded the company with his wife, Brenda.
Under Jackson’s leadership, Professional Products Unlimited manufactured and sold as many as 150 items, including the Jamaican Mango & Lime™ line of products, the No. 1 selling brand in the U.S. and abroad (including the Caribbean, Africa and London). The popular product was created specifically for grooming locs and twists, a hair trend that has emerged as a mainstay in ethnic hair styling.
Within the industry, Jackson is known for advancing natural hair care from trial-and-error maintenance into commercially viable hair care products. His innovation has led to numerous competitive brand entries, which now occupy desirable retail space and positioning within drug, food and mass merchandising retail outlets. In 2014, Jackson sold the highly profitable company to Universal Beauty Products in Chicago, Ill. Today, Jackson still owns a plant, located outside of Atlanta, which manufactures products for other companies.
Jackson credits his experience as a marketing student at Savannah State with much of his success. He was able to leverage the ‘elements of marketing’ he learned at SSU to create brand campaigns to drive sales of the natural ethnic hair care brands he developed.
Jackson and his wife, Brenda, are the parents of three daughters and reside in Atlanta. To give back to his alma mater, Jackson and his family established the Fred and Mattie Jackson Foundation fund in 2014. The fund pays tribute to his father, a laborer, and mother, a homemaker, who sent their children to SSU with limited resources.
“Savannah State is really dear to my family,” says Jackson, one of 13 family members (including six siblings and one daughter) to graduate from the university.
The scholarship is geared toward first-generation college students who are interested in pursuing a career in education. Jackson envisions that the scholarship and his continued involvement with Savannah State will inspire students in two areas that are paramount in his life: education and entrepreneurship.
“I want more young people to see the value of a good education and to explore entrepreneurship,” says Jackson. “The college experience is important because it gives one discipline and training, and the foresight to transform one’s thoughts into creative, tangible solutions to bring to the marketplace to address needs that exist within our global communities. I’m really looking forward to coming down to Savannah State, meeting incoming students and doing anything I can to help.”
Clemontine Washington, ED.D., and Harold Washington
Four years ago, Clemontine Washington, Ed.D., approached her husband and son with a proposition that had been on her mind for some time. Washington, currently serving in her second term as mayor of Midway, Ga., wanted to establish an endowment at her alma mater, Savannah State University.
The Washington family had always contributed to SSU’s various fundraising campaigns over the years, but Mayor Washington wanted to do something more — she wanted to leave a legacy for future generations.
“I believe in carry-over value. I got a lot of carry-over value at Savannah State,” says Mayor Washington, who has served in various alumni leadership roles at the university since graduating in 1966 with an undergraduate degree in health, physical education and recreation.
Mayor Washington’s husband, the late Richard Washington, and their son, Harold, both Savannah State graduates themselves, took just a few minutes to think about her proposal before agreeing to begin saving money for what is now the Washington Family Educational Endowment.
“One of the scriptures that we read is Proverbs 13:22 — that a good man leaves his inheritance to his children’s children,” says Harold, who received a bachelor of business administration degree in management from SSU in 1998. “My father lived his life for his grandchildren, and so now I’m living mine for my [future] grandchildren to try to be able to change a whole generation.”
Formally established in 2015, the scholarship will be awarded to rising junior and senior athletes majoring in an education-related discipline. The family chose to honor athletes pursuing careers in education because of their own backgrounds. Harold Washington, who ran track at SSU, currently serves as an assistant principal at Columbia High School in Decatur, Ga. Richard Washington, a 1956 graduate of Savannah State with an undergraduate degree in social studies, was a former state championship basketball and football player who spent much of his career as a health and physical education teacher in the Chatham and Appling county school systems. He passed away in July 2015 at the age of 81. Mayor Washington, a former basketball player and track and field star, retired after a long career as a school administrator.
Harold hopes that the first recipient of the Washington Family Educational Endowment fund will be named in Fall 2016. Meantime, the family has several ideas to raise additional money for the endowment, including fundraisers and a scholarship gala.
“It feels really good to be in a position to be able to give back and help some kids along the way,” Harold says. “When you get to the point that you’re able to help someone, how dare you not reach back and help someone, because someone helped you.”
During her long career as a professor and reading coordinator at Savannah State University, Rosalind Kent always put students first. When she passed away in 2014 at the age of 61, Kent left a lasting legacy that would impact her beloved students for years to come by donating a portion of her estate to the university to establish what is now the Rosalind M. Kent Memorial Endowed Scholarship.
Colleague and close friend Mary Ann Goldwire, SSU’s interim director for the Center of Academic Success, fondly recalls Kent’s unwavering devotion to her students.
“She mentored students and was engaged with student organizations and became a part of many different things on campus,” says Goldwire, who along with Kent helped start the university’s academic advising and mentoring program. “We did not have to communicate or say anything, but when we looked at each other, we knew that we were thinking about the same kind of things: what would be best for the students and how we can better serve Savannah State.”
Kent earned a bachelor of science degree in elementary education from Savannah State in 1979 and went on to receive a master’s degree from Georgia Southern University. She began her career as a teacher at Springfield Elementary and Effingham County Middle schools before embarking on a 21-year career at Savannah State.
Kent first served in the university’s Learning Support Division as reading coordinator, and in 1995, she became an assistant professor of reading, a position she held until her retirement in 2011.
But Kent’s devotion to Savannah State extended beyond the classroom. She was a life member of the SSU National Alumni Association (SSUNAA), serving two terms as the organization’s national recording secretary and two years as chaplain. She also served a three-year stint as recording secretary of the Savannah Chapter of the SSUNAA.
In addition to her service at Savannah State, Kent retired from the 117th Unit of the Air National Guard, served as a motivational speaker and was a licensed minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, serving as pastor of St. James AME in Savannah.
The Rosalind M. Kent Memorial Endowed Scholarship was established October 2014, just one month after her death. The scholarship will be awarded to a student enrolled in Savannah State’s Learning Support program to honor Kent’s love of learning and mentorship.
“She had a deep love for her family and for Savannah State,” Goldwire says. “She would be really proud and she’s probably looking down smiling that someone would benefit with what she left behind for the school to use for scholarship purposes.”
Jacquelyn W. Stephens, Ph.D.
When it comes to Savannah State University football fans, there may be no one more dedicated than Jacquelyn W. Stephens. In 1960, she married the late Jolly Stephens, an all-college offensive guard on the Savannah State football squad. She and her husband cheered on the team at every single home game except for the years she spent out of Savannah working on her advanced degrees. In the ultimate act of devotion to her beloved Tigers, Stephens established the Jolly L. Stephens Football Scholarship Endowment in 2013.
“I wanted to [establish the scholarship] to honor [Jolly] as an all-conference player with Savannah State and to help others with their scholarship needs and to improve the football program,” Stephens says.
Jacquelyn’s affiliation with Savannah State began when she enrolled as a student in 1956. Jacquelyn met Jolly during Savannah State’s freshman orientation week, and the couple dated for four years before getting married two months after earning their degrees in elementary education and physical education, respectively.
Jacquelyn went on to earn a master’s degree in reading education from Illinois State University and a Ph.D. in reading education from the University of Oklahoma. She returned to Savannah State in 1969, serving as acting head of the Elementary Education Department before the department and all of its professors were transferred to Armstrong State College (now Armstrong State University). Jacquelyn enjoyed a long career at Armstrong, retiring in 1990 as a professor of education and gaining emerita status.
Jacquelyn’s involvement with Savannah State has continued over the years. In 2014 she received the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) Distinguished Alumni Award during the MEAC Basketball Tournament in Norfolk, Va.
Jolly’s professional career revolved around athletics. He worked as a physical education teacher with the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System for 30 years and served as a coach for the recreation department in his spare time. His little league football team won the city championship game for 10 consecutive years. Jolly also had a 40-year career as referee for a variety of sports including football, basketball and volleyball. In 2007, he was inducted into the Greater Savannah Athletic Hall of Fame.
Despite busy schedules, the Stephens always made time for Tiger football, supporting the team through both winning seasons and losing seasons. Jolly explained the rules of the game to Jacquelyn, who became a die-hard fan in her own right.
After 47 years of marriage, Jolly passed away in 2007. Jacquelyn knew that she wanted to eventually do something special to honor her late husband and the Tiger squad that was so near and dear to the couple.
The scholarship is awarded to a member of the football team with a qualifying grade point average who best exemplifies the qualities of leadership, sportsmanship and community service.
Jacquelyn thinks that Jolly would be pleased with the scholarship she’s set up in his honor.
“He’s smiling down from heaven,” she says. “We both loved football so much and we both loved Savannah State.”
With nothing more than $20 and a note written by his father, Jimmie Douglas headed to Savannah in hopes of enrolling in Georgia State College (now Savannah State University). The year was 1944 and Douglas, the son of farmers, had just graduated from high school in Wayne County, Ga.
Douglas was given a private interview with President Benjamin F. Hubert, who read the note and asked the young man why he wanted to attend college.
“I told him that I had a pretty hard life on the farm and I want to improve myself if I can,” Douglas reminisces.
But Douglas’ $20 would only cover one quarter’s tuition, which was $15 at the time. The $5 left over wouldn’t go very far. Hubert came up with a plan for Douglas to earn money by feeding livestock and cutting grass on campus for 10 cents an hour.
Later Douglas was awarded $800 in grant money, which he supplemented with a job on the weekends earning $1 a night. That grant money, plus the money he earned during his weekend job, enabled Douglas to work toward his degree in agriculture. He graduated in 1948 and has always been appreciative of the opportunity he was given.
“I said then if I ever get any money, I’m going to give Savannah State a donation,” Douglas says.
He made good on that promise. In 2013, Douglas and his wife, Ellen, established the Jimmie C. Douglas Scholarship Endowment. The scholarship is awarded to students who demonstrate strong financial need and best exemplify the qualities of leadership, sportsmanship and community service. Preference is given to residents of Jenkins County and Millen, Ga., where Douglas and his wife reside.
“I’ve been blessed, and I’m still going to give some more,” adds Douglas, who celebrated his 65th college reunion in 2013.
After graduating from college, Douglas became an agricultural teacher in Toombs County. While there he met Ellen Hopson, an event he calls “the best thing that ever happened to me,” and the two married in 1950. Douglas spent two years in the U.S. Army, then began working as an extension agent in Washington County. He later assumed the same position in Jenkins County, assisting citizens with crop production, vegetables, lawn care and other horticulture issues. Douglas retired in 1984. Throughout his career, Douglas farmed on the side and continues to work as a farmer today.
Douglas has been a fixture in the Millen community over the years. He served for 12 years on the Jenkins County Board of Commissioners, including five years as chairman, and also was a member of the Swainsboro Technical College Board.
He enjoys visiting the Savannah State campus every year for homecoming and especially enjoyed catching up with old friends at the Class of 1948 reunion.
“Some of [my classmates] I hadn’t seen since 1948. One of them was my old roommate,” says Douglas. “The campus has changed for the better. It’s a beautiful campus. We’re proud of Savannah State.”
This story first appeared in Impressions, Fall 2015.