Hero – a person who, in the opinion of others, has special achievements, abilities or personal qualities and is regarded as a role model. In the very sense of the word, Mary Satcher “Sissy” Bynum ’84 and her late husband, Henry “Clarke” Bynum, Jr. ‘84, are heroes. Through the life experiences that Sissy and Clarke shared together – and separately – they have had, and continue to have, a profound impact upon others.
A typical American family, the Bynums lived their faith through giving back to their church and community. On December 29, 2000, their lives took a dramatic turn, and they were no longer “typical.”
Clarke was a passenger on British Airways Flight 2069 on a mission trip to Africa when a mentally ill passenger stormed the cockpit and attempted to hijack the 400-seat aircraft. According to records, a violent struggle ensued between the hijacker and First Officer Phil Watson that caused the aircraft to stall and plunge downwards. The struggle to regain control of the aircraft was joined by Captain William Hagan, who had been on a rest break. Hearing the commotion, Clarke and fellow passenger, Gifford Murrell Shaw, of Sumter, joined in to help subdue the hijacker so the crew could stabilize the aircraft. Because of the heroic acts of Clarke, Gifford and the flight crew, the plane landed safely in Nairobi. Nine months later on September 11, 2011, similar attacks were made across the country where thousands of people were killed.
“Clarke would not consider himself a hero,” says Sissy, “but every national news outlet wanted an interview.” Proud of her husband’s actions, Sissy fondly recalls the news media often opening a segment on the incident describing her husband as “the Clemson basketball player who helped thwart tragedy.”
The Bynums’ lives were turned upside down again in 2003 when Clarke was diagnosed with cancer. Now it was Sissy’s turn to be heroic. She cared for Clarke during his illness, which often reminded her of her grandmother – a nurse whom she had deeply admired. On Labor Day in 2007, Clarke passed away.
“Our family was so touched when President Barker came to the visitation,” says Sissy. “Clemson has been part of our family for many years and will be forever.” And President Barker’s presence was evidence that Clarke was also an important part of the Clemson family.
Though she always loved business, caring for Clarke had inspired her to do something meaningful at this stage of her life. So, at age 54, she was accepted into the Certified Nurse Assistant program at Midlands Technical College, where she later earned her CNA certification and eventually a phlebotomy certification. She now works on an “as needed” basis at Lexington Medical Center in the cardiovascular and surgical intensive care units.
Sissy, a native of Lexington, met Clarke during freshman orientation, and they started dating their freshman year. At 6’7”, Clarke was recruited to play basketball for Clemson.
“We adored our years at Clemson,” says Sissy, “and we took full advantage of our academic studies as well as those things that make Clemson special, like walks from the President’s house through the gardens, working on homecoming floats for our respective fraternities and sororities, tailgating at games, athletic events and involvement in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.”
Sissy and Clarke were married a month after graduation in 1984 and settled in Clarke’s hometown of Sumter, where he worked in the family insurance business. Sissy used her degree in business administration management to work in an accounting firm. When their first child, Satcher, was born, she became a full-time mom. A few years and two children later, she helped found a pottery business with several friends. The business grew quickly, and after their fourth child was born, she retired once again to stay at home with their children. Three of their children, Satcher (‘09), Henry (‘11) and Ann (‘12) graduated from Clemson. Their fourth child, Wright, graduated from Virginia Tech (’18).
Sissy acknowledges that her children are aware of the advantages life has afforded them while also realizing that not everyone has the same fortunes in life. Their daughter Ann’s profession as a teacher in the inner-city schools of St. Louis exposed Sissy to disadvantaged children who might never have the opportunity to go to college. This gave her a new perspective and purpose.
“Our family has been so blessed by Clemson,” says Sissy. “I met my wonderful husband there, and three of our four children are Clemson grads as well as my brothers, sisters-in-law and a niece.”
Sissy knows many worthy students will not have the opportunity to acquire a college education. She realizes that being a first-generation college graduate was a major factor of success in her life. Sissy also realizes how fortunate she and other family members are to have the Clemson education and experience.
“It wasn’t until after my husband’s death that my brother, also a Clemson graduate, talked about his estate planning, and I began thinking about my own estate plans,” she says. “I talked to my children about the opportunity to give to Clemson, and we all enthusiastically agreed that our family wanted to establish an endowment to benefit the FIRST Program. Clemson was also the place that deepened my faith in God, and I want to leave a legacy that underscores my faith and the appreciation for all that Clemson has given me. Clarke would want our family to do this.” Clarke had made his mark on the University, and now Sissy and their children and grandchildren are honoring his legacy.
This living legacy is now being realized through the Mary Satcher “Sissy” Bynum ’84 endowment, to be known as All Things Are Possible First-Generation Scholarship Endowment, that will provide scholarships for first-generation students.
Today, Sissy says her “borders” have expanded from motherhood to “grandmotherhood” and is blessed to be “Sissy” to two granddaughters and two grandsons. Her daughter, Ann, and her husband are anticipating the arrival of an adopted child who will become part of this legacy of love.
The definition of “hero” is often subjective. But to their children and grandchildren, the passengers on Flight 2069, patients at Lexington Medical Center and the first-generation students who will have the opportunity to attend college, there is no question. Sissy and Clarke – although they never considered themselves to be – are heroes.