In Remembrance of Dr. Harry S. Downs
Founding President of Clayton State University
October 5, 1925 – January 3, 2017
Dr. Harry S. Downs, the founding president of Clayton Junior College, now Clayton State University, passed away on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017 at the age of 91. His loyalty, service and friendship to the institution and the University System of Georgia represented the best of us in higher education.
It can be said that Clayton State University would not be the institution it is today without Downs who played an integral role at its inception.
Through his leadership, he guided Clayton State with vision and energy during its phenomenal growth and development from 1969 through 1993, from a small junior college to a thriving four-year university.
A lifelong passion for education
Downs’ lifelong accomplishments are indicative of his longtime commitment to education. The Georgia native was born in Conyers and graduated from Conyers High School.
He attended North Georgia College, later earning his Bachelor of Science in Education and a Master of Education from the University of Georgia.
Downs, who had a lifelong interest in aviation, also served as a U.S. naval aviator from 1944 to 1947, and was recognized as an outstanding cadet officer at North Georgia College.
He attended Michigan State University earning his Doctorate of Education. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate from Clayton State University in 2010.
Downs began his career in education as a teacher and counselor at Crawford County High School back in Georgia. He later served as a visiting professor at Michigan State University and visiting instructor at The University of Georgia. Afterward, he worked as a consultant to colleges and schools in the southeastern states for the California Test Bureau.
Soon after, he came to the University System of Georgia where he served with distinction as Assistant Vice Chancellor. During his time with the University System he also served as Acting Chancellor.
It was during this time he became a key figure in the research, development and expansion of two-year community junior colleges within the University System and eventually became the founding president of Clayton State.
The Harry S. Downs Era at Clayton State
In 1965, Gov. Carl Sanders tasked the Board of Regents, Georgia’s governing body over all public higher education institutions in the state, to make education accessible to most residents.
Three junior colleges were chartered, including the then Clayton State Junior College to serve the south metropolitan Atlanta area.
Four years later in September of 1969, Clayton State opened its doors and welcomed 942 students with Downs at the helm.
Within the Junior College’s first decade, Downs led major gains to establish Clayton State as a formidable institution for higher learning. The school earned its accreditation under the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 1971.
By 1981, the Junior College added the Classroom Building, Library Building and a multi-purpose gymnasium complete with a dance studio inside the Physical Education Building. In that same year, the school established the Division of Technology to offer applied associate degrees and certificates.
Downs’s efforts to transform the institution were rewarded when the Board of Regents authorized the school to be renamed Clayton State College and convert from a two-year to a four-year institution in 1986.
The campus continued to grow as baccalaureate offerings were expanded beyond nursing and business, while the College opened an off-campus facility, Lucy Huie Hall, in Jonesboro to offer an associate degree for aviation maintenance technology.
By 1990, Downs established Clayton State’s Continuing Education Center, which now bears his name and has grown to offer adult learners courses ranging from business essentials and healthcare to film and digital media.
Federal and private grants helped establish a comprehensive general education curriculum and a baccalaureate degree program in teacher education.
Outside of academics, Downs took initiative to bring intercollegiate athletics to the campus. Spurred by a group of students, Downs fully endorsed the idea of a well-established athletics program and set in motion Clayton State’s entry into intercollegiate competition with the men’s basketball program in 1990.
Downs’s stewardship in establishing Spivey Hall
Emilie Parmalee Spivey and Walter Boone Spivey, two prominent, community-minded citizens of Atlanta’s Southern Crescent, approached Downs in the early 1990s with the idea of building a small, elegant concert hall.
The couple wanted to create something significant for the region. Emilie was drawn to Clayton Junior College’s Lyceum cultural programs, its beautiful wooded grounds, and the noble stewardship of Downs.
Spivey Hall opened its doors January 23, 1991 with a concert by violinist Itzhak Perlman.
Today, Spivey is an acoustically superior performing arts venue that has presented the best in jazz and classical music to metro Atlanta. And its celebrated concert series receives regular national and international attention as one of America’s finest.
Downs left an indelible mark on Clayton State University and the Clayton County area.
For his accomplishments, Downs was recognized by the University, the State of Georgia and the Atlanta community for his commitment to education and service.
In 1997, the then Clayton College and State University honored Downs by unveiling the renamed Harry S. Downs Center for Continuing Education. During the dedication, Downs received State Resolution 297 of the Georgia House of Representatives, recognizing him for his distinguished record of public service in creating cultural and educational opportunities for Georgians.
Just last year, Downs was inducted into the Clayton State University Athletic Hall of Fame for his leadership efforts in developing the sports program. He also was a nominee for the University System of Georgia Foundation Hall of Fame.
Downs was active as a community servant and touched many lives outside of the University.
Among the many boards and committees on which he served, he was chairman and long-time trustee of The Walter and Emilie Spivey Foundation, chairman of the Scholarship Board of the Ty Cobb Educational Foundation and chairman of the Board of Directors of the Georgia Fund for Education.
Downs’s accolades and awards are many and include the Citizen of the Year in the Field of Education from the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce, the Liberty Bell Award from the Clayton County Bar Association, and the Citizen of the Year award from the Clayton News Daily and Clayton Community Foundation.
Downs will be remembered for his perseverance and tenacity in laying the groundwork for Clayton State University, a place that empowers students to succeed academically and become leaders in their community.