Former USC President Andrew Sorensen, a man known for his colorful bow ties, extreme work ethic and compassion for everyone he met, died unexpectedly in Ohio Sunday morning. He was 72. The cause was an apparent heart attack.
Those who knew him described him as a brilliant educator, dedicated friend, innovator, preacher, singer, talented fundraiser, sports fan, avid reader and tireless fighter for the underprivileged.
And he was friendlier than almost anyone you’d ever meet.
Sorensen played with the pep band at basketball games and football games, sang with student a cappella groups and threw snowballs on the Horseshoe with students. He rode his bike all over campus.
“He was a wonderful, wonderful spirit,” USC President Harris Pastides said. “I can’t imagine him gone frankly. I spoke with him approximately a week ago, and he said he was having the time of his life.”
'Sorensen is my homeboy'
Sorensen joined the University of South Carolina in 2002, leaving his job as president of the University of Alabama. Sorensen had visited campus two years before at the invitation of Pastides, then Dean of the Arnold School of Public Health, to speak at a 25th anniversary of the school. Pastides and Sorensen were previously colleagues in Massachusetts.
“He met then-President John Palms and many other university officials during that time and became enamored with the University of South Carolina,” Pastides said. “And everyone became enamored with him. When it was time to search for a new president in 2002, a lot of minds went to Andrew Sorensen.”
On his first day as president, Sorensen was escorted by Dennis Pruitt, USC’s vice president for student affairs. The pair made their way to civic, student and alumni groups, and Pruitt was nervous about how to best introduce the new leader.
“I remember walking into this ballroom, and he starts working the room and talking to everyone, making friends all over the room,” Pruitt said. “He would get on an airplane and introduce himself to everyone down the aisle. He knew every custodian’s name on campus. He knew everyone that worked in the cafeteria. He knew so many students. He knew professors. Everywhere he went, he made friends.”
His gregarious style dominated his presidency at the university. He gave out sugar to students looking for an extra cup to fulfill a recipe. A group of students made T-shirts saying “Sorensen is my homeboy.”
Anna Hecksher, a fourth-year chemistry student, remembers a 2008 snowball fight on the Horseshoe. Hundreds had gathered, talking, throwing snowballs and lamenting the snowfall that wouldn’t stick. One student knocked on the president’s door, and Sorensen answered.
“He came outside and talked to a huge impromptu group of students for about 15 minutes and just hung out with us on the Horseshoe. This was at 11 p.m. Finally after about 15 minutes, he apologized for needing to leave but said that he had just gotten home before we knocked and hadn’t eaten dinner yet and was starving.”
Katie Dzwierzynski, a fourth-year English student, was sitting outside on the Horseshoe one afternoon in 2008, clad in a University of Illinois T-shirt.
She was a first-year student, and Sorensen walked by and struck up a conversation with her.
“After telling him I’d had numerous family members attend there and had almost gone myself, we held a 15-minute conversation, and he made me feel a connection between my old home and my new home that I hadn’t felt yet. After four years at USC, that conversation with Dr. Sorensen is still one of my fondest memories.”
As a leader, Pruitt said Sorensen was an agent of change.
Some of his major credits include the new Carolina Stadium, the advent of Innovista, the Gamecock Guarantee need-based scholarship program and the Student Success Center. He deepened relationships with community and civic leaders. His emotional leadership during the Ocean Isle beach fire built a connection with hundreds of students.
He worked 18 hours a day and always gave “110 percent,” Pruitt said, never backing away from an emotional or tough situation.
His main goal for the University of South Carolina: to educate as many students as possible.
“He really thought we should give our attention to minority students and low socioeconomic students,” Pruitt said. “He was always looking after the little guy, the downtrodden, the weak, that person that needed taking care of,” Pruitt said. “He always felt that those of us who had enriched lives should work to help and advance others.”
Pastides said Sorensen increased standards for faculty and built the profile of the institution across the Southeast.
Charles Bierbauer, dean of the College of Mass Communication and Information Studies, shared a special bond with Sorensen. They both joined the university July 1, 2002.
Bierbauer said Sorensen would often create large visions for projects and expect immediate, concrete results.
“He was straightforward, he was direct and he made his expectations known,” Bierbauer said. “He liked to get things done, and he was accessible.”
And he was smart. He could talk jazz. He could talk football. He could talk educational theory.
His jokes contained references to classic novels, his health background or his extensive travels.
“If you didn’t have a good feel for the world, his humor would sometimes bypass you,” Pruitt said.
A preacher, friend and husband
Sorensen was an ordained minister, and he’d travel across the state at least twice a month to preach and sing.
He primarily visited African-American churches, Pruitt said.
“He would go to rural churches in the middle of nowhere,” Pruitt said. “If you asked him go to preach, he’d go. He’d stay and eat and spend time with the folks. I couldn’t tell you how many times he did it. It was in the hundreds.”
Even after he stepped away from the presidency in 2008 and handed over the reins to Pastides, he often traveled across the state.
That was just his style, Pastides said. He frequently offered his advice and engaged in monthly conversations with the president even after he left USC to take an administrative job at Ohio State University in September 2010.
“He always told me he’d be there if I ever needed him,” Pastides said. “Sometimes I called him, sometimes he called me.”
Former Student Body President Andrew Gaeckle first met Sorensen in 2007 through his role in student government. After Gaeckle was shot in the back during an armed robbery earlier this year, Sorensen called him on three separate occasions to check on him.
“He wanted people to know that we are a great community, and through his leadership, the Carolina community was able to grow to a new level. We reached the next tier,” Gaeckle said.
“I was a great admirer and considered him a great friend.”
Of all his relationships, Sorensen was closest with his wife Donna. Pruitt said Sorensen didn’t want to go anywhere without her.“People don’t know what a wonderful first lady she was,” Pruitt said. “She complemented him in so many ways.”
He leaves behind his wife Donna and two children, Aaron and Benjamin.