Posted on: March 3, 2017
By Allen Wallace, WALLACJ7@mailbox.sc.edu
A great many things have changed since Charles Aiken graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1976. More than 40 years later, he remains a proud Gamecock and says the lessons learned in those days have served him well throughout his dynamic career.
"I think my years there at the university helped prepare me, though I didn't know for exactly what at the time,” he said. “It’s the education. It's the confidence that comes with feeling like, 'Just give me a chance and let me show you what I can do.'"
A family of African-American firsts
While still a student at USC, Aiken found early success with an entry-level job at WLTX, Columbia’s CBS TV affiliate. He moved into larger roles, first in production and then as a reporter and photographer there and also at WIS before working for the nationally syndicated PM Magazine. He also met his wife, Valerie, while still at USC. And, her work at the William Jennings Bryan Dorn Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Columbia sparked an idea which would shape both their futures.
“What she saw while working at the VA got her really interested in home health care,” Aiken said. The couple launched Care Pro, a home care and staffing business, in Columbia in 1988. The company became the first African-American owned business of its kind in South Carolina.
"What I think is important is once a person develops a passion and a yearning to learn, there's no limit to what you can do.”
—Charles Aiken, '76 retail management
"The competition for home care business was really, really steep," Aiken said, but he and his wife persevered and succeeded, owning the company for more than 20 years. They now own Health Force LLC, a thriving case management company based in Columbia and employing care managers in nine states.
Aiken said Care Pro received an unexpected boost in the early years thanks to his daughter, Kimberly, who won the 1993 Miss Columbia and South Carolina pageants on her way to claiming the Miss America crown in 1994.
“She was the first black girl to be Miss South Carolina. She said 'I really want to be Miss America, because Miss America flies around on an airplane,’ Aiken recalled with a smile. “I said ‘Why don't you go do the very best that you can do.’"
A changing city
"We got a lot of positive press out of [her wins]," he said, though he added that as a black family from South Carolina thrust into a national spotlight in the days when a Confederate flag flew above the State House in Columbia, they also faced many difficult questions. Kimberly and both her parents called then for the flag to come down, though years would pass before it happened. "Change comes slow," Aiken said.
Aiken and his wife have made Columbia their lifelong home, and Aiken said he’s pleased by the city’s evolution. He attended segregated elementary and middle schools here and was at Eau Claire High School in the first years of integration, and witnessed racial tensions firsthand.
"There was a lot of friction,” he said. "As I look back and I see, that period in time was an opportunity for everybody to grow, and I think Columbia has grown. I think we’re on the right path."
The Aikens have grown along with their city and have played a hand in helping to turn a tarnished past into a shining future. Along with their home health business, the Aiken’s also own Elm Abode Mansion, a large home off Broad River Road which they restored after it had been abandoned for more than 10 years. "The place was pretty sad. You couldn't even see the front of the house,” Aiken said. "It turned out to be a great investment and is a wonderful home for entertaining.” The Aikens we host weddings, family reunions and fundraising events at the historic mansion.
Aiken said he’s also been particularly impressed with the growth of USC and the retail management program in which he earned his degree. At the time it was a two-year retail management degree, and now it has grown into USC’s Department of Retailing which is part of the College of Hospitality, Retail, and Sport Management. The department now offers both bachelor of science and master’s degrees in retailing with areas of focus in both retail management and fashion merchandising.
"I think the program has evolved. When I look at the university today, I can only say that program is awesome. It is a major part of the economic engine that drives the state,” he said. "It has so much more to offer.
Asked for advice for current and future students, he said “You want to take advantage of the internships. Plug into organizations that can give you personal experience. Having that at your fingertips can help you focus. When you're able to narrow your track and plot a course, you can get there a whole lot quicker."
Aiken is certainly speaking form experience. While he didn’t pursue a career in retail, his degree, internships and relationships built while at USC helped lay the groundwork for him to discover his passion and learn what it takes to succeed, as he has done ever since.
"What I think is important is once a person develops a passion and a yearning to learn, there's no limit to what you can do,” he said. "You just kind of have to make up in your mind that I'm going to get this done and I'm not going to let anything or anybody stop me."