Tim Keown

Tim Keown is among the most decorated agricultural education teachers in South Carolina. 

McCORMICK — Tim Keown went to Clemson.

But he tells everyone he got his education in Marion County.

Creek Bridge High School in the rural county of a little more than 30,000 is where he cut his teeth as a teacher, a career that has now brought him to John de la Howe to serve as director of its agricultural education center.

“You think this is the middle of nowhere?” he quipped while sitting in a conference room at de la Howe.

Keown grew up poor, on a small farm in rural Anderson County. His parents were strict and wouldn’t allow him to watch TV. Once they relented and bought him a videogame console, but took it away when he became too fond of it — something he’s grateful for now.

“They made my imagination go wild,” he said.

He was the first in his family to go to college. At Clemson University, he fell in love with teaching. It was an opportunity to reach children who, like himself, learned by doing.

He spent a year in Marion, returned to Clemson to pursue a master’s degree, then taught at Crescent High School in Iva, his hometown.

“And this is when I’d say my career really blossomed,” he said.

Perry Loftis said Keown’s reputation at the school preceded him.

“It seemed like everybody at the school wanted to be in his class,” said Keown’s former student. “Everybody knew TK.”

Keown remained popular among his students despite pushing them, Loftis said. He recalled having Keown for homeroom, where he would try to finish homework due later that day.

“You can’t do that. That ain’t going to cut it at Clemson,” the former student recalled Keown telling him, even though Loftis was a Georgia fan. “He pushed us to get the best out of us. He could almost see what we were worth and wanted to push us there cause we weren’t really doing it ourselves.”

In the classroom, Keown would turn building rafters into a geometry lesson or teach English through resume and press release writing. Loftis recalled how Keown would bombard him and his FFA teammates with historical facts about the cities they would visit during competitions.

“Ag ed was a way we could sneak in other areas of education and the kid was alright with it,” he said.

After eight years at Crescent, Keown joined Clemson’s staff to teach other agricultural teachers.

“One of the funnest jobs a person on planet earth could have,” he said. He traveled across the state, meeting people and soaking up its history.

Sharon Wall, who has known Keown for years, began trying to recruit him last year after she became the agency’s interim president. Keown already had his dream job, and he was concerned about de la Howe’s reputation, which had suffered from years of mismanagement.

His opinion changed the moment he arrived on its campus.

“He called me and asked me what I thought about it,” said Tom Dobbins, director of the Clemson Cooperative Extension Service and Keown’s former teacher and coworker. “I told him ‘Well, this will be a very good opportunity and it’s quite a risk,’ but I said ‘You’re young, and if you’re going to do something like this now’s the time to do it.’”

Keown said it’s his job to recruit students to de la Howe. The school’s continued existence depends on it. He said he will be looking for students who were born “into the wrong family” — a family living in a subdivision when they want the outdoors of a rural setting.

Wall doesn’t think he’ll have any trouble recruiting.

“I go anywhere with him and I feel like I’m with Elvis. Everybody knows him,” she said. “You mention his name to anybody in the agricultural world and they light up.”

De la Howe is remote, Keown acknowledged, but said people “sent their kids to Clemson in 1889 when it was nothing but log cabins.”

Contact staff writer Aleks Gilbert at 864-943-5644.