Following a long drive from Jacksonville last Tuesday, Thomas “Dusty” Rhodes attended an Aiken County Board of Education meeting, believing he was there to help give an award to an old friend, retired Principal Rod Greenway.

To Rhodes’ surprise, he received the award along with a plaque.

So why would the School District honor a guy who has done nothing more than sell Jostens school rings for the past 38 years?

Well, thousands and thousands of people in Aiken County alone received those rings during their junior years of high school.

Even if most didn’t know Rhodes by name, they sure remember those rings, and many administrators have long appreciated his work and his financial generosity to education – among them Greenway, Deputy Superintendent David Caver, retired Deputy Superintendent Dr. Bill Gallman and the late principal, Warren Whitson.

“I’ve gotten a lot of awards, and this is the most touching I’ve ever received,” Rhodes said. “It’s still so cool to see the look on teenagers’ faces when they get their rings.”

That still means a lot to some former teenagers; more than 20 attended the meeting on Tuesday, most of them School District personnel. The group also included Troy Williamson, the star football player at Silver Bluff High School and the University of South Carolina who went on to an NFL career.

Smiling, Williamson displayed at least seven Jostens rings, arranged by Rhodes in past years for all the team state titles and individual awards Williamson received.

Rhodes is an independent contractor for Jostens, as are all the others with the company. He started out as a salesman for another man in South Carolina before going out on his own in 1977, enjoying the true story that he then ran the business from a spare bedroom in his house in the small town of Summerton.

Decades later, Rhodes still operates an office from that community, serving the state’s midlands area. However, he and his sons, Thomas Jr. and Austin, also operate satellite offices in Jacksonville and a newly-opened location in Tallahassee.

“We’ve got the largest dealership in the country,” said Thomas Jr. “Dad has always said that when we try to do best for our customers, everything falls into place.”

Madison Sutton received her ring during a ceremony at South Aiken High School.

In the past, Rhodes developed the companion ring product, providing students the opportunity to honor a family member or a friend.

Sutton presented her ring to her tearful grandmother, Rose Puckett, who works as Superintendent Dr. Beth Everitt’s assistant.

“I worked all summer to pay for that ring to give to my grandmother,” Sutton said. “She has always been at everything for me – band competitions and football games and other stuff at school.”

Tammie Newman, the District’s public information officer, organized Rhodes’ ceremony with his sons. She got her own ring at Silver Bluff.

“Mr. Rhodes goes far beyond what is necessary to fulfill his commitment to Aiken County high schools,” Newman said via email. “He is the ultimate professional and the ‘Dick Clark’ of class rings.”

Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard’s education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001.

He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.