A Gracious Yield
For the Edwards family, there’s no end in sight for the return on a good investment.
By Sara Sabota
Photos by CCU Photography
Between the iron gates, through the double front door, past the artwork in gilded frames, under the crystal chandelier, Robin Edwards Russell leads me through the home of her mother, Robin Edwards, namesake of the Edwards College. We reach the living room, where Edwards is seated in a Victorian armchair. An oil portrait of Thomas Edwards, Robin’s late husband and co-philanthropist, commands the room from its vantage point above the fireplace mantel.
Few are aware that three living generations of the Edwards family teach, learn, perform, direct, and advise the affairs of CCU’s Thomas W. and Robin W. Edwards College of Humanities and Fine Arts. Despite bearing the name on the wall of their college and workplace, two of the Edwards women go about their daily lives too involved in creating and producing to reflect on the impact of their family’s contribution.
Today, however, the Edwards women are gathered in one place. Robin Edwards, along with Robin Edwards Russell, CCU alumna and associate professor in the Department of Theatre; and Grainger Russell, senior musical theatre major, engage in conversation that becomes a family exercise in recollection and discovery. Each of their individual stories has a distinct arc, yet taken together, they form a cohesive whole. In Spring 2020, as Grainger prepares to cross the stage at commencement and the college looks forward to its 20th anniversary in 2021, the moment is ripe for consideration of the past, present, and future of the Edwards family.
Robin Edwards was involved in CCU from its earliest days, when, as a Conway High School student in the early 1950s, she would clear her desk so that area students could take night college classes from her teacher, doubling as a professor, named Dick Singleton. As the fledgling institution gained its footing, becoming a branch of the University of South Carolina and finally an independent university, Edwards, along with her husband Tom — who had established a legacy of giving to state institutions of higher education — kept a close eye on its progress and cherished its successes.
“My husband, as a young child, was raised in Conway. He had deep roots here and deep feelings for this area,” says Edwards. “We believed, and still believe, that the college was one of the best things — perhaps the best thing — in Horry County.”
When the couple decided to make a joint gift to the University, Robin Edwards considered the long-term needs and opportunities in the area.
“I particularly knew the shortage of fine arts, plays, symphonies, and musical and dance performances. There was nothing like that around here for many years, and I thought, ‘Well, maybe this is a chance to have some of that.’ That’s exactly what we intended, and it’s exactly what has turned out to be. My husband [who passed away in 2001, months before the Edwards College dedication] would be so excited to know how everything has advanced.”
Robin Edwards feels acutely the symbolism inherent in the family’s history.
“It’s like a circle from my high school days of hearing about the college, and then my daughter attending and becoming a professor, and now my granddaughter graduating, and who knows what other — she may have children who could go to the same college. So, I am very emotionally involved with this college. I feel like I helped give it birth.”
Robin Edwards Russell tells a very different story of the institution. Hers is a tale of transformation, from a disengaged teenager to a passionate professor with an endless capacity for intervention and empathy. This beloved educator, performer, and director who has been honored with student-driven teaching awards and, recently, a scholarship dedicated in her name by Josh Norman, a former student who now plays for the Washington Redskins, was once lost in the classroom.
As a floundering student who enrolled at CCU in a third attempt at a college education, Edwards Russell was once publicly admonished when she received special permission to enter an over-enrolled class taught by a former professor in the Department of Philosophy, Claudia McCullough.
“She told me to sit on the floor,” Edwards Russell recalls. “So I sat.” But then a strange thing happened.
“I guess maybe three to four weeks into it, I started listening,” said Edwards Russell. “And I just started digging that subject. I started talking. And the next thing you know, I’m up in a chair, and the next thing you know, I’m in the front row, and the next thing you know, Claudia and I are best friends.”
The class was the first step of an academic journey that impacted the student’s worldview and life’s trajectory.
“[McCullough] took me under her wing, and it was like that lightbulb,” said Edwards Russell. “It was huge — I went from zero to hero, I made all A’s, I became so curious about learning. And I ended up going to graduate school and dedicating my thesis to Claudia.”
Bringing her own narrative full circle, Edwards Russell still sees herself in the eyes of her students and seeks to duplicate McCullough’s influence.
“This is what drives me, because if I can do even just a hair of that for any student who might be floundering, I’ve done my job,” said Edwards Russell. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do: what Claudia did for me.”
Evidence that Edwards Russell is carrying on the tradition of educational inspiration is all around her, including Norman’s philanthropy which, in addition to the scholarship, included $1 million toward the expansion of Brooks Stadium.
“It’s a true testament to what Coastal did,” said Edwards Russell. “Not just me or other faculty members, but of how Coastal truly nurtures our students as well as trying to get them ready for the real world, no matter what they do. We have law students, Broadway actors, mothers — anything. Any of the students who are successful, and to think you had just a little touch in it? That’s something.”
The story of the Edwards College is different still for Grainger Russell, the youngest triplet and one of four Russell children, who made her final CCU performance in Legally Blonde the Musical in February 2020. She grew up visiting campus with both her mother and her father, David Russell, CCU director of video production services, but when the time came to make her own college choice, her name complicated the decision.
“I knew I wanted to do musical theatre, and I knew Coastal had a great program,” said Grainger Russell. “But there was a little period where I thought, ‘Wait a minute. I’m going to be close to home, and mom’s going to be my professor. Am I going to be babied? Am I going to grow?’ And that made me a little afraid. Also, I didn’t want people to think I was in there just because I had connections.”
Russell nearly pulled the rug out from her plans altogether, briefly changing her course to education, but within weeks of the CCU musical theatre deadline, she registered to audition.
“I couldn’t stay away from it; I kept looking through my scripts and videos from high school,” said Russell. “If it’s your passion, you can’t run away from it. It’s always going to pursue you.”
Russell has performed in numerous student productions including A Little Night Music, Big Love, Bullets Over Broadway, and Steel Pier. She aspires for a gig on Broadway or doing sketch comedy, but her experience onstage at CCU has taught her what she really seeks in a career of performance.
“The first time I was on stage and made people laugh, it was like a drug — it was addicting,” Russell said. “I just wanted to do it again. So I think, wherever I end up, I’ll be happy if I’m making people feel something. That’s how I’ll know I’m successful: When I can make somebody laugh, make somebody cry, make somebody relive their childhood, make somebody forget about the world for two hours.”
In the Edwards living room, the genteel décor has faded to a muted backdrop as three generations of women have been listening, interjecting, conferring, and occasionally squabbling for two hours. At some point, each has responded to another’s comments: “I never knew that.”
“Well, you would, if you would listen,” Robin Edwards retorts, as Edwards Russell rolls her eyes.
Resolutely, Grainger Russell directs a final message to her grandmother and grandfather, through his portrait.
“Now that I’m looking at Daddy Tom right there, and you, Mama Tom, I don’t think either of you really expected that gift to Coastal to directly impact me,” said Russell. “And I just want to thank you for that. Just this year, I’ve realized the beauty of this family, and I’m really grateful for that. I think Daddy Tom is looking down, and he’ll see me onstage in my last performance, and he’ll be like, ‘Dammit! I didn’t know that was going to happen. But I’m glad you’re there.’”
She pivots to her mother.
“Now I realize I have some shoes to fill, and I strive to be like you. In my head, I think I could be on Broadway, but what if I come back and take your spot? I could take your spot. Maybe one day I’ll do that.”