Susan Pope has dedicated her life to helping students at Clemson lead happy, healthy and active lives
By Hannah Sykes
As the director of fitness services and programs at Fike Recreation Center, a Clemson Staff senator and a mom, Susan Pope is a busy woman. But the one thing she always has time for is students.
Whether she’s power-walking around the indoor track and simultaneously holding a business meeting or designing running trails at High Pointe, where Bridge students live, Pope has dedicated her life to helping Clemson students lead happy, healthy and active lives.
Helping students has been her mission since she was a student herself. While attending Clemson, she worked in the student union as an information attendant and at Fike as a lifeguard and a swim and lifeguard instructor.
With her newly minted 1979 bachelor’s degree in recreation and parks administration, Pope was hired as director of student activities at Anderson College. After a semester of working with college students, she recognized the need for additional specialized education in student affairs and returned to Clemson to earn a Master of Education degree in 1982.
Pope then became the first female recreation director for the city of Pickens. The job was physically demanding, and between mowing playing fields and designing team uniforms, Pope needed help, so she offered internships to students at Anderson College and brought them onboard to get the job done.
A few years later, when Pope was offered a position as director of the Foothills Area Family YMCA, a former professor’s words about careers in recreation took on added importance: “You will work when people work, and you will work when people play.”
But Pope has always felt it was worth the sacrifice. “You earn every penny in a job like that. But it’s so rewarding and fulfilling when you know you’re doing what you’re meant to do in life.”
This time, Pope went back to her alma mater for help, bringing Clemson students from all majors and backgrounds, including nursing, health science, engineering, and parks, recreation and tourism management. After the first year, she was promoted to CEO.
Dressed in a blue gingham shirt tucked into a pair of jeans, her glasses resting on top of her head, Pope doesn’t fit the typical stereotype of a CEO. Tanned from a lifetime of summers as a lifeguard at the Y Beach and several camps throughout the state, she radiates warmth and energy.
The student staff at Fike affectionately think of her as a nurturer, and mothers of new freshmen at Clemson often call her with questions about issues like weight gain or loss and eating habits. Pope’s eyes get misty when she talks about her student staff members, many of whom are graduating this year.
“You never know what seeds you’re planting,” she says, wiping away a few tears. “I love working with young people.”
When Pope took over as the Fike Recreation Center facilities director eight years ago, the fitness center offered only a few aerobic classes each week. Now Fike boasts more than 35 weekly classes with 25 female certified student fitness instructors and a wealth of healthy programs — for everyone — such as Body Fit, a low-impact strength training class for senior adult women that meets twice a week at 8 a.m., and Pranayama, an ancient Hindu breathing technique that focuses on controlling and harnessing the power of one’s breath regulation.
Pope grew up in a Clemson family and enjoyed the family membership benefits at Fike. Her father was the state Extension veterinarian and her mother worked in what was then known as publications and graphics.
“As a kid, I remember thinking how fun it would be to work here,” Pope said. “It really feels like home to me.”
And she embraces this feeling to create and implement fitness programs for the entire Clemson community. Students in campus housing can thank Pope for the gyms in Byrnes Hall, Clemson House and Lightsey Bridge. The Tiger Fish Swim School offers swimming lessons for children, teens and adults using American Red Cross standards. Gymsitter Child Care provides activities in Fike for children while their parents attend home football games.
Weekly weigh-ins are available for a 12-week period during spring semester to kick off the new year, and her latest project, the Upstate Adventure Boot Camp, is a fitness program designed for women of all ages and shapes to jump-start their summer workout routines.
But her biggest goal?
“To have every student come to Fike at least once during their time at Clemson,” Pope said. “Recreation teaches life skills that stay with a person forever.”