When USC Aiken biology professor Dr. Harry Shealy arrived on the campus in 1973, he soon met Emilie Towler, the psychology professor.
Towler died in Brentwood, Tenn., Tuesday at the age of 92. She had started the psychology department a few years before his arrival, and Shealy believes Towler had been the only psychology instructor at that time.
“She was outspoken and such a force and certainly could have done it all herself,” Shealy said.
Many people shared an appreciation of Towler’s gifts – not only as an educator, but for her enormous commitment to the Aiken community and statewide. Dr. Tom Hallman retired last year as USCA’s third chancellor. He arrived at the university in 1983, and soon his admiration for Towler grew as she approached retirement that would come a few years later.
“She was a strong professional at a time when that role was just emerging for women,” Hallman said. “She led the way for many others, both male and female. Mrs. Towler was an important part of the institution’s history – a leader in the community and on the campus.”
She and her husband, Oscar Towler, 91, arrived in Aiken in 1953 after he took a position as a nuclear physicist at the Savannah River Site. They were married for 67 years, and when Emilie Towler was hospitalized for several days before her death, “My father never left her side,” said their daughter, Kimberly Towler of Brentwood. “We couldn’t get him out of there.”
For many years in Aiken, Emilie Towler often visited Tri-Development and its predecessors, children and adult special needs programs – agencies she knew quite well.
“Her husband was always at her side,” said current Tri-Development director Ralph Courtney. “They were really a team.”
Kimberly Towler and her sister, Marianne Towler – two of the five children – said their mother was far ahead of her time. She was concerned that, for years after she arrived in Aiken, adults and children with special needs had no opportunities outside the home.
“She went into schools and homes and would help them with skills,” Kimberly said. “She was instrumental in starting Tri-Development and advocated for that program.”
Emilie Towler later was appointed as the chairwoman for the S.C. Department of Disabilities and Special Needs. Even then, Courtney said, she would call Tri-Development to check on updates there.
“If she was going to be involved, she wanted to make it meaningful,” he said. “She was a dear, dear lady.”
Indeed, Towler was involved in many endeavors. She served as president of the South Carolina chapter of the Philanthropic Educational Organization Sisterhood – an organization that provides educational opportunities for young women. All four daughters would join the P.E.O as well.
In 1992, the Aiken County Chamber of Commerce awarded her as the Woman of the Year. Towler also received the Order of the Palmetto – a prestigious award selected by the governor.
Her children described how their mother grew up in Nevada, Iowa. Her parents were very poor and during the depression, Towler planned to attend a women’s college. But she got a letter at the last minute, informing her that she could not enroll without sufficient funds.
Kimberly Towler said, “Her mother put her on the train and said, ‘You’re going.’ She did, and they made it work.”
Emilie and Oscar became talented musicians. Emilie often performed at events with friends, and she and her husband were early members of what is now called Symphony Orchestra Augusta.
“We were little then, but they took us kids to the concerts,” Kimberly said. “Marianne’s job was to keep us straight in the chairs. Our mother saw to it that we all got involved in music.”
Dr. Bob Botsch, a political science professor at USCA, began his carer there in 1978. Towler was on the team that appointed him to the faculty.
“She was one of the mothers of the university,” Botsch said. “She was one of those during the two-year to four-year school change and was always part of the decision-making.”
Harry Shealy marveled at Towler’s level of activity in the community.
“She had her hand in so many things and left them better than they were,” he said.