Winthrop University: Winthrop’s Simrill Back Home After Long Career in the S.C. House
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Winthrop’s Simrill Back Home After Long Career in the S.C. House

July 26, 2022

HIGHLIGHTS

  • The Winthrop graduate will turn his attention to helping his alma mater as the special assistant to the president for community engagement. He started work on July 1, the same day as new Winthrop President Edward Serna.
  • Simrill said he never sought House leadership positions, but they came to him eventually. He served the last few years as Majority Leader of the S.C. House, as chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and chair of the Ways and Means budget subcommittee on higher education. 

ROCK HILL, SOUTH CAROLINA - Gary Simrill ’91 learned the importance of building relationships in his teenage years when delivering the Evening Herald newspaper.

The Rock Hill native, who retired this year from the General Assembly and recently joined the Winthrop University President’s Office, made valuable connections taking the afternoon paper to downtown businesses and residents. He got to know people along his route and learned customer service skills which helped when he first ran for the S.C. House 46 seat in 1991 in a special election. 

Then a 26-year-old recent college graduate, he lost that election but returned the next year to run during the presidential election, which draws more voters, and won. He has remained in that seat for 30 years until this year when he retired as the longest serving Republican in the S.C. House.

In his farewell speech to the S.C. House, he recalled being an eighth grader visiting both the House and the Senate and deciding he wanted to run for office. He chose the House because that was where the action was. He learned over decades and seeing six different governors’ tenure that it was as important to listen to other’s positions and viewpoints as it was to push his own.

Simrill said he never sought leadership positions, but they came to him eventually. He served the last few years as Majority Leader of the S.C. House, as chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and chair of the Ways and Means budget subcommittee on higher education. 

Simrill found that he enjoyed problem solving, making policy and consensus building. He leaves some high-profile achievements, such as serving as the primary sponsor of the Infrastructure and Economic Development Act of 2017 that increased the gas tax to pay for much-needed road widening and repaving projects. He also worked on a bi-partisan initiative to give colleges and universities more money for technology, deferred maintenance and capital needs if the institutions keep tuition low. Most recently, he fought and won $26 million for Winthrop in that endeavor.

He has amassed several awards for his legislative work in the last few years, including the S.C. Chamber of Commerce’s 2017 Public Servant of the Year award and the Riley Institute at Furman University’s 2019 David H. Wilkins Leadership Award. The awards note Simrill’s colleagues described him as hard-working, knowledgeable and personable, and he embraced ideas that moved the state forward regardless of which side of the aisle they originated from.

And for his work on behalf of higher education, three Charleston-area universities – The Citadel, College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina – all presented Simrill with honorary degrees this spring. Winthrop had already shown its appreciation in 2019 when he received a similar honorary degree. He will receive the Algernon Sydney Sullivan award, Winthrop’s highest award to an alumnus for selfless dedication of time, energy, and talent in service to others, this fall. 

End of an Era

So why retire now from politics? Simrill said 30 years was a good marker, and he is disappointed with the toxic nature of today’s politics. “I had a calling to run for office and a calling to leave,” he said. “It’s nice to go out on top.”

He can speak with some authority when he says that “good politics is not always good policy.”

The Winthrop graduate now turns his attention to helping his alma mater as the special assistant to the president for community engagement. He started work on July 1, the same day as new Winthrop President Edward Serna. Together, the two of them will tell others about the Winthrop story, its welcoming campus community, and its willingness to work with others.

As Simrill tells it, he has seen the last decade where Winthrop wasn’t as involved in a community that has grown expansively. “Winthrop was operating as a silo as lots of projects were going on,” Simrill said. “Yet Winthrop is a cornerstone of Rock Hill and has been an economic engine for this community.”

Area government leaders weren’t invited to campus which Simrill expects to change. He looks forward to bringing politicians, community leaders, college presidents and others to visit the campus to collaborate on partnerships or to participate in a speaker series with the university-based John C. West Forum on Politics and Policy.

Simrill listed three specific areas he will address. They are reaching out to business partners, employers and entrepreneurs in York County, political leaders and those at other higher education institutions to work on degrees and cost saving measures. He joked about forming a “band of colleges” to help look out for each other in what are challenging times for universities.

His Winthrop Experience

Due to family circumstances, Simrill was forced to put himself through college. He started in 1984 and graduated in 1991 with a business degree as Winthrop was on the cusp of transitioning from a college to a university. During those years, three presidents led Winthrop: Phil Lader who stayed two years before running for governor, Martha Kime Piper who died in office, and Anthony DiGiorgio who remained in the position for 24 years. 

Simrill believes he understands the many facets of Winthrop and its alumni. The university attracts plenty of first generation students now, he said, but there also are many with family members who attended Winthrop, including in Simrill’s own family. “We need to keep dialing into those legacies,” he added.

Winthrop will need to capitalize on programs such as the Small Business Development Center and to continue to update its degree programs to stay abreast of the times, Simrill noted.

For his part, Simrill wants others to know that Winthrop stands ready to be a partner, and “we are open for business.”

For more information, contact the Office of the President at 803/323-2225.

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Last Updated: 10/4/22