Fran Clinkscales Tees Off for Second Round

Just about a decade ago, Women’s Wear Daily, The Wall Street Journal and other top publications that cover the fashion industry reported periodically on the latest career milestones for Fran Howell Clinkscales, whose pedigree in golf apparel is “second to none.” That comment came from the chairman and CEO of a top marketer and producer of branded and private label merchandise as he announced her appointment as president and general manager of the golf division of his company. In her 38-year career, Clinkscales spearheaded golf apparel brand building at Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Polo / Ralph Lauren. She had leadership roles in other companies in Florida and New York, including some she started.

Fran Clickscales headshot
While keeping her hand in the apparel industry with consulting and handling real estate transactions, Clinkscales says it’s never too late to go back to college.

Today, the 64-year-old Clinkscales resides in Albany, Georgia, where she is, among other things, enrolled in Brenau’s online undergraduate program. “I’m doing everything backwards,” she says. “But I always wanted to go to Brenau, so when I got my chance, I took it.”

She grew up in Blakely, Georgia. Her father, Mobley Howell, was a longtime representative in the Georgia General Assembly and subsequently served as chair of the State Board of Pardons & Paroles. Right out of high school, she enrolled in Georgia State University in Atlanta and worked in her dad’s legislative office at the state Capitol. While still in school, she moved into a position in the state Department of Agriculture for a couple of years. However, after sharing an apartment with three airline hostesses, she recalls candidly, the wanderlust kicked in, “and that was the end of my college career.”

After some time flying for Delta Air Lines herself, she landed a job at a golf club in Long Island, New York, which became her entry on a rocket ride to the top of the golf apparel industry, living and working in New York.

Five years ago, divorced with a grown son, Matthew Howell Matthews, she returned to Georgia from New York to get her mother settled in an assisted living facility in South Georgia – what she thought was going to be a brief hiatus between shutting down the Calvin Klein golf brand and starting something new. But in a local grocery store, she bumped into her old high school friend, Phil Clinkscales.

At that point, her plans changed.

Never too late

So why is Frances Clinkscales– after so many accomplishments and at a point in life at which many people prepare to retire – enrolled as a Brenau undergraduate?

“I think as we age, the answers we look for change with our circumstances,” she says. “Our options narrow, but staying mentally active is the key. As we live into middle age and beyond, the grand questions about life tend to give way to the practicalities of living in the moment. I know that I need to constantly challenge myself. It’s how I stay healthy and in touch with our ever-rapidly changing society.”

Nontraditional-age students – those who are 25 or older – represent about 40 percent of those enrolled in higher education, a number projected to increase another 23 percent by 2019. In fact, Brenau University is listed in the top 20 of “The Top 50 Schools for Adults Going Back To College” by Best College Reviews, which points out that “there are many options for adult learners in business, education, science and the arts at the university” with its 54 percent acceptance rate for people who are over 25 years old and its strong online potential with 59 percent of all students enrolled in distance education.

Clinkscales clearly lives by the ideology that it is never too late to go back to school. Her student adviser, Dr. Kathryn Locey, an English professor, saw from day one the spitfire passion that Clinkscales possessed. When Clinkscales started attending Brenau in 2014, she was sitting alongside teens and twenty-somethings in her classes and thoroughly impressing them with her work. But Clinkscales doesn’t just want to be a student; she wants to give back as well, hoping to mentor students in the fashion department.

“It’s a pleasure to meet someone so interested in Brenau who knows this is the place she truly wants to be. It’s inspiring to me, as a professor, to have a student so eager to learn,” says Locey. “She has so much to offer, and so much initiative.”

Unfortunately, due to health issues in the family, Clinkscales discontinued attending courses on campus and returned to Albany. But her determination to be a Golden Tiger never died, so she continues to attend classes online.

Freshman jitters

Clinkscales recalls her first experience on campus at Brenau with much ardor. “I found it energizing to be in the classroom with a younger generation. I enjoyed every minute of my sociology and oral communication classes. I find it much harder with online courses. The face-to-face interactions with other students are stimulating in a way online study cannot replicate. It would be my preference to attend classes on campus rather than online, but moving to South Georgia means having to do it online.”

But she has accomplished more in her life than most do with years of formal higher education. Besides a short stint at Georgia State University back in 1969, she joined the workforce straight off and since then has been on a non-stop roll. In a time where many still argue about higher education for nontraditionally aged students being either an investment or a waste of time, why does Clinkscales desire it so badly?

“Although I held high positions in the companies I worked for, deep down I felt I might have been more effective if I had had a formal education – maybe for no other reason than the confidence level I thought a degree would have provided,” she explains. “I had intended to go back to school all along the way but became so entrenched in the business that I never had time.”

Oddly enough, her fashion career started not in any of the major clothing line companies she would eventually work for, but as a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines beginning in 1971. A friend of hers worked as a flight attendant. The prospect of seeing the world appealed to Clinkscales.

A natural swing

After flying for Delta for four years, she moved to Long Island, New York, and took a job in a golf shop at Muttontown Country Club. There she met golf professional Roger Ginsberg, who was one of the first professional golfers to carry golf and lifestyle apparel in his shop. He took her under his wing and together they concentrated on what sportswear they could provide for the country club members.

Later she would work for company Herman Geist, and then for Polo/Ralph Lauren Golf where she became director of merchandising for men’s golf apparel, and later the national sales manager.  In 1994 she was hired as president of Tommy Hilfiger’s golf division, and the business soared to $25 million in 18 months.  Clinkscales started her own company, Babe Didrikson, which was her first chance to design women’s luxury sportswear. Three years later, the company closed. Clinkscales went back to work in Manhattan to launch and run Calvin Klein Golf as its president.

Ironically, she says, she never had much time while she was an executive in the golf industry actually to play much golf. She often got invitations to play at business-related tournaments and functions, but usually had to pay more attention to taking care of business.

Now she does get a chance to play occasionally with women friends. However, she confesses, don’t expect to see the former head of some of the most upscale golf clothing lines to be a magazine ad-ready model on the links. For her these days an invitation to a tee time is a come-as-you-are affair.

The Brenau legacy

When Clinkscales took her break five years ago from New York and the fashion industry, she says she really did think it would be a temporary thing. She never intended to run out to the grocery store that day and pick up a few things, including a new husband and a new last name.

After she and Phil married, they moved to North Georgia. She accompanied Phil to a medical appointment at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville and had some time to kill. Just next door to the hospital was Brenau University.

“I had wanted to attend Brenau when I was in high school, but it wasn’t an option for me at that time. I had first heard of Brenau from my great aunt, Eugenia.”

Clinkscales’s aunt, Eugenia Donaldson Howell, WC ’20, majored in education at Brenau, and she went on to become the dean of a large high school in Graham, Texas. While she did get to visit her aunt from time to time, it was Clinkscales’s grandmother’s stories of “Aunt Gene” that truly inspired young Fran. Her grandmother also encouraged Clinkscales to go to Brenau.

In her brief walk-about on the campus that day, she bumped into Nathan Goss, one of the university’s top student recruiters, a guy who never misses an opportunity to make a pitch to a prospective student.

With so much experience in the fashion industry and Brenau’s programs in both fashion and business, one would think Clinkscales would have an easy time deciding what course to pursue for her education. However, Clinkscales says the presence of a blank canvas on which to draw the rest of her life became at once very appealing and very intimidating.

“Some days I feel like a child again when someone asks what I would like to be when I grow up. One day it’s a firefighter, the next a lawyer. I still see myself going back into business as an entrepreneur,” she says. “I am often consulted by friends to help them re-decorate their homes. If I thought I could pursue interior design online, I would probably enjoy learning the right way to do it rather than winging it.”

I’m still struggling with this question. Having a blank canvas to work with, being post-career, actually makes it more difficult than one would think. Some days I feel like a child again when someone asks me what I would like to be when I grow up. One day it’s a firefighter, the next a lawyer. I still see myself going back into business as an entrepreneur. I am often consulted by friends to help them redecorate their homes. If I thought I could pursue interior design online, I would probably enjoy learning the right way to do it rather than winging it. I originally wanted to go back to school to find a way to give back to an industry in which I had spent my career. I wanted to work with women in business to make their trips a little easier than mine. I’ve struggled with how to accomplish this.

She hit a bit of a bump when she and Phil moved back to South Georgia recently. She wanted to continue with school, but after a little tire-kicking with colleges in commuting distance, she did not find the right fit for her.

After I moved to North Georgia a few years ago, I was finally able to enroll in the Women’s College and I really liked that. Even though I was a commuter, being around younger people in classes and on campus energized me. It just felt like something I was supposed to be doing. When we moved back to South Georgia, I thought about attending another school closer to my home, but I’ve had such a wonderful experience at Brenau that I decided to continue by enrolling online. The classes are harder and different [from on-campus classes], but I really like it when I get engaged with other students.”

So, what advice would she offer to others like her who are considering a similar course?

“I’d say the same thing to them as I’ll tell my granddaughters when they come of age – follow your passion, be it through a liberal arts curriculum or self-study or any other way you can realize your potential. For me, being back in school at this stage of life gives me a sense of belonging. I’m ‘still in the game’ in my way, and I will continue to grow and contribute whatever I can.”


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