COLUMBIA -- Speakers at a memorial gathering Tuesday for former University of South Carolina president Andrew Sorensen remembered a positive, energetic man who build strong relationships with students and reached out to the community's black leaders.
More than 400 people -- including university, city and state leaders as well as faculty and students -- shared stories and paid tribute to Sorensen, who died suddenly this month in Ohio at age 72.
Sorensen was USC's 27th president and served from 2002 through 2008. He was a professor at USC's medical school until the fall of last year, when he became the chief fundraiser for Ohio State University. During his career, he also was president of the University of Alabama, provost at the University of Florida and executive director of the AIDS Institute at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.
USC president Harris Pastides remembered meeting Sorensen years ago when he was applying for a college dean position and Pastides was on the search committee.
Pastides recalled talking with Sorenson just days before he died, and made his comments as though he were still speaking to him.
"We have lived in the same house, we have worked in the same office, and we have served the same communities and I am so glad I called you about four days before last Sunday morning," said Pastides. "And you laughed when you asked me to not mess things up. And I know that you were only half-joking."
Hearing that Sorensen had died after one of his usual morning bike rides, Pastides said he couldn't believe it and called his friend's cell phone.
"It was the most irrational thing I could have done. I called your cell phone," Pastides said. "Perhaps I just hoped to hear your voice."
He said he thought he might get Sorensen's voice mail, but his wife, Donna Sorensen, answered. "We talked and I was comforted," Pastides said.
Donna Sorensen and their son Ben attended the service Tuesday.
Ben described his father as a man who liked things that "got his heart pumping" like bike-riding, as well as spending time with his family and students.
One of Sorensen's prized pupils, Tommy Preston Jr., a former USC student body president, spoke fondly of the man he referred to as his second father. Preston said he met Sorensen in spring 2004 when he, as a freshman, was given 30 minutes to present his ideas to the president on increasing the number of minority students at USC.
"To this day, I remember sitting in his office thinking I was so special that the president was taking this time with me," Preston said. "I would eventually learn that Dr. Sorensen did this for any student."
Preston recalled stories of the Sorensens' accepting an invitation to have dinner with students in their dorm rooms and of students showing up at the president's house with pizza and being invited in for dinner and conversation.
"His greatest legacy in my eyes is his relationship with students," Preston said. "He loved his students."
Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, pointed out that Sorensen reached out to black leaders and residents when he arrived in South Carolina.
"The Andrew Sorensen that I knew was indeed a star in this community," Randolph said. "We honor him because of the things he did for others. ... The thing that I remember him most for is how he treated those who were considered the least of them."