Black History Month: The Wesleyan Way: George ’69 and Seretha (Summers) Tinsley ’71

by Kathy Rutherman

Thumb through the pages of 1966-1969 Porphyrians, and George Tinsley ’69 is everywhere; on the basketball court firing a jump shot, posing with teammates and trophies, or circling the dance floor with Seretha Summers ’71 at a Sadie Hawkins Dance.

“That dance,” recalls Tinsley with a smile, “was my first date with Seretha and my best memory of KWC.” Earlier in the day, Summers had enlisted her friends to capture Tinsley as “her man” for the dance. “I didn’t run very fast. I wanted to be caught,” he shares. Fifty-four years later, George is still Seretha’s man. They were married in 1972.

Many years and many accomplishments later, the Tinsleys live in Winter Haven, Fla. They own PenGeo, Inc., Tinsley Group, Inc. and Tinsley Family Concessions with holdings that include numerous restaurants with various franchises. Committed civic leaders, they are both as visible on Google as they are in old KWC annuals. George says Seretha’s mother was a social worker and a tremendous influence on the couple. “Her example of giving back became the fabric of our lives,” explains George. The Boy Scouts of America have honored the couple with the Distinguished Citizen of the Year Award in recognition of their outstanding civic service, and the city of Winter Haven proclaimed April 11, 2019, as George and Seretha Tinsley Day in their honor.

George is chief executive officer of the family businesses. He was inducted into the Kentucky Wesleyan College Alumni Hall of Fame in 2005 and the inaugural class of the College’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2013. He was named to the NCAA 50th Anniversary Division II Men’s Basketball Elite Eight ten-member team in 2006. Small College Basketball honored George twice in 2017; with induction into the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame and with the inaugural Larry Smith Award, created to honor a former player who has used the game to learn and apply life lessons that have significantly enhanced their life and impacted the lives of others. George received the most votes from fans for the 30-member team honorees of the KWC All-Century Team in 2010. He served on the National Basketball Association Retired Players Board as treasurer and president, and now serves as past president.

Seretha, chief financial officer of the family companies, is past president of the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce and the first African American to hold the office. She is a former first vice president of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Inc., and presently serves on the board of directors. The organization’s mission is to advocate on behalf of black women and girls to promote leadership development and gender equity in the areas of health, education and economic empowerment. She received an honorary doctorate from Webber’s International University in May 2009.

George arrived at KWC by way of Smoketown, one of Louisville’s roughest neighborhoods. Tinsley was raised by an elderly woman who walked with a crutch. He describes her as a God-fearing optimist who saw the positive side of just about everything, despite poor health and extremely challenging financial circumstances. Sometimes they would be down to their last nickel around Christmastime, and George would spot a $20 bill on the sidewalk. “I still consider that money to be blessings from God.” She died when George was only 13 years old.

“God watched over me,” says Tinsley. “Pimps, prostitutes and drug pushers frequented the corner in my neighborhood. It’s hard to believe, but they protected me.” He remembers prostitutes saying, “Now, George, walk home on the other side of the street. You don’t belong over here. You have a future.”

His seventh-grade social studies teacher calls George “my prize.” Gaye Howell describes him as “extremely positive and always smiling; and he didn’t have much to smile about.” He came to class every day in the same white shirt and corduroy pants, and as the year progressed, the pants and shirtsleeves seemed to get shorter as he grew.

“His smile lit up my classroom,” says Howell, who was a 20-year-old first-year teacher. She says every day at noon, he skipped lunch and went to the gym to shoot baskets. “We knew he loved basketball, but we were concerned that he probably didn’t have lunch money, so we came to the gym to watch and just happened to have food to share,” Howell remembers.

After playing basketball at Louisville Male High School, Tinsley was recruited by Kentucky Wesleyan Head Basketball Coach Guy Strong. He led the Panthers to their first NCAA Division II National Championship his freshman year in 1966. Two more titles followed in 1968 and 1969. He received All-American recognition as a junior and senior and was an alternate to the 1968 U.S. Olympic Team.

Seretha Summers arrived on campus George’s junior year. She was the only African American female at KWC her freshman year. Her best friend on campus was Edna (Nall) Bates ’71 from Island, Ky. “I was the first African American she had ever known,” recalls Summers. “Edna nicknamed me Sam because she couldn’t remember my name. I was class chaplain one year, and Edna’s motto was ‘Before you cram, pray with Sam.’ I did a lot of praying that year.”

Check out the annuals from 1968 – 1971 and Seretha Summers, just like George, is everywhere. She was a cheerleader, Pacesetter, class officer, Judicial Council member and Homecoming attendant. “Sam was so loved,” says Bates, “because she was genuine and caring and fun-loving, a beautiful bundle of energy.”

George was the first African American, and Seretha the first African American female, inducted into the prestigious Order of Oak and Ivy. They ended the 1969 academic year as May King and Queen. George was also Sigma Alpha Mu National Athlete of the Year in 1969.

George played professionally in the old American Basketball Association, and after an eight-year management career with Kentucky Fried Chicken Corporation, he acquired his first franchise in 1984. Seretha, whose father owned Louisville radio station WLOU, managed several stations in the Southeast. She was general manager of WAOK in Atlanta and vice president and general manager of WPDQ in Jacksonville prior to her involvement in the Tinsley family businesses.

Gaye Howell saw her “prize” for the first time in 44 years when he delivered the 2009 commencement address in Hocker-Hall Grove. She called the trip to Owensboro a pilgrimage.” As Tinsley walked to the podium in a cap and gown, Howell says she saw the boy with short pants and no lunch money. “I could still hear the ball bouncing on the gym floor during lunch hour, and it was a very emotional moment.”

George Tinsley saw Mrs. Howell on the front row and remembered the pretty teacher who believed in a shy teenager with no self-esteem. “As I began my speech, I also thought of Nurse Fullerton and Dr. Bob Cockrum. They both treated me like a son, and there were many others on this campus who encouraged me.”

George describes KWC as “this wonderful institution that brought sorely needed structure and self-confidence into my life . . . and there’s that Sadie Hawkins Dance, too. I absolutely love this place.”

George and Seretha were awarded honorary doctorates at KWC in 2010.