by Mike Schoeffel
Mark Epstein developed a mantra he used to inspire his players and students during his 27 years in Charleston County schools: “Maturity plus motivation equals success.”
“It’s no wonder where that came from, because at one point in my life, I didn’t have a clue about either one,” Epstein said.
Epstein, a 67 year old who retired in 2015, forged a reputation throughout the Lowcountry for his notable contributions to politics (as an activist), education (as a guidance counselor and teacher) and athletics (as a basketball coach). In his upcoming memoir, They Call Me Pathfinder, which is slated to be published by Elite Authors later this year, he lays his story bare, openly recounting the low points of his history as willingly as he celebrates the highlights.
“People are going to think I wrote a brag book,” Epstein said. “But it’s really the opposite. There’s a lot of heartbreak and self-caused drama that probably wouldn’t have occurred if I would have done what I preached to my students.”
Perhaps the most notable instance of heartbreak is the story of how Epstein ended up in Charleston in the first place. After divorcing his second wife, he hopped in a car on Christmas Day 1988 and headed south, leaving behind his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts, and his two daughters, Karli and Brooke. He planned to take a long vacation, perhaps in Florida, to clear his head before returning home. But after arriving in Charleston, he felt drawn to the city’s Southern charm. He eventually got a part-time job as a substitute teacher and, later on, a masters degree from The Citadel.
Epstein never moved back to New England. He frequently ventured north to spend quality time with his daughters, but Charleston became his new home. Over the next three decades, he taught, coached and counseled at numerous Charleston-area schools, including in North Charleston, West Ashley and James Island, earning a reputation as a mover-and-shaker within the community. He primarily worked with at-risk students, and in 2016, he received a Martin Luther King Jr. Picture Award from his friend and colleague, S.C. Rep. Wendell Gilliard, with whom he lobbied at the Statehouse to raise the dropout age from 17 to 18.
It’s a fight he’s still attempting to win.
“The dropout age means everything to me,” he said. “We lost too many good kids over the years. Perceptions about struggling students, both white and Black, aren’t accurate. There are views within the Statehouse that prevent progress.”
Epstein began writing They Call Me Pathfinder (the title is a reference to a childhood nickname given to him by his father), at the beginning of May, not long after the COVID-19 lockdown began. His wife, Barbara, was trying for years to convince him to put his stories down on paper. But Epstein didn’t think anyone would be interested in what he had to say.
“‘I don’t know how to write and no one’s going to read it.’ That was my answer for about a decade,” he said.
But, the coronavirus pandemic-induced quarantine gave him a reason and the free time to give it a shot. He wrote the first four pages on his iPhone while sitting in front of the television, then spent the next six weeks typing eight to 10 hours per day on a computer, frequently going on four-mile walks to clear his head because, “I was so intense with emotion,” he said. “I didn’t take a day off.”
Epstein’s initial plan was to give the book as a Christmas gift to immediate family members. But his editor was apparently riveted enough by his stories that she convinced him to publish it for a wider audience. The book has received pre-release endorsements from nationally known figures Epstein came to know through the years, both during his time in Massachusetts (where he’s a member of the New England Sports Hall of Fame), and Charleston. That list includes former University of Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun, former Maryland coach Seth Greenberg, NBA All-Star Xavier McDaniel and others.
But it’s Aki Stavrou, the World Bank Ambassador of Peace for All African Nations, who bestowed perhaps the most moving praise for Epstein’s book:
“He is not a man whose name you will find in the history books, nor among those making the news, but if you asked each and every one of the students with whom he worked, they would certainly have volumes of positive stories to tell.”
It’s been a winding road for Epstein, and he’s proud to have overcome missteps early in life to embody the mantra he preached to his students and players.
“I was on my deathbed when I left New England,” he said. “I used to have a hard time talking about it because I would go into a deep depression for weeks, but I’ve made it back on my feet.”