FORT JACKSON, SC -- When Thomas Manigo graduated from North Carolina's Barber-Scotia College in the early '70s with a bachelor's degree in sociology and history, he had hoped it was his minor in drama that would provide his real bread and butter.

So the Conway native traveled to the "Big Apple" to embark on what he thought was the beginning of an exciting and prosperous acting career.

But while taking acting classes at night and earning his living substituting at a day care center during the day, he gradually discovered that appearing on the big screen might not be his true calling.

"On the way to theater, I fell in love with children," Manigo said. "There were a lot of 'Sidney Poitiers' in the city, a lot of great actors, and I found out that the same type of theatrics that I would do on stage, I could do in the classroom."

Reading to children, playing with them and acting out with them had become so invigorating for Manigo, he decided to become a teacher.

He went back to school to get a master's in early childhood education from Antioch University.

He landed his first teaching job in Harlem. Three years later, he became the director of a Head Start program in Yonkers, N.Y., where he stayed until 1984.
That year, Manigo and his wife, Lynn, traveled to Fort Jackson to visit a cousin who had recently retired from the Army.

During their trip, they visited the site where a new day care center was being built.
Manigo's cousin turned to him and said, "You could be the director of that center one day."

Manigo thought, 'Yeah, sure."

But even with doubts, he submitted an application for the position.
To his surprise, he was hired to become the director of Fort Jackson's already existing hourly day care center, Cricket's Corner.

By 1986, he was the director of the newly built building, the Scales Avenue Child Development Center.

And ever since, Manigo said, he has been doing everything he can to provide an atmosphere in which children can thrive without worrying about making mistakes or falling down, without feeling pressure or being afraid.

"I want the kids to have multiple opportunities to be successful and multiple opportunities to fail," he said. "I want to instill in them confidence and to help them feel as if there is nothing they can't accomplish."

For the past 26 years, Manigo has helped cultivate the minds of Fort Jackson's youngest community members by implementing curriculums that expose them to creative ways of learning, different cultural traditions, and activities reflecting milestones in their growth.

His colleagues, as well as his family and friends, say he's a big kid - something he's quite proud of - knowing that it's that type of enthusiasm one must have to help nurture 300 young children, on average, on any given day.

He's become known amongst his staff as an advocate for hands-on teaching, getting down on the ground to build block formations with the kids, being animated when he reads to them, and inspiring them to plant gardens speckled throughout the landscape surrounding the CDC.

In August, Manigo will officially retire.

In honor of his career, staff, parents and students of the CDC's Toddler Two class recently planted a garden and dedicated it to him last week.
Van Frinks, assistant director, said the Green Thumbs Up Garden was the perfect tribute to Manigo, who always said that gardens were symbolic of children - both needing lots of love and nurturing to grow.

"Whenever we come out here, we're going to think about how special he was," Frinks said. "He has inspired so many of us at the center and throughout the (Child, Youth and School Services) program. I hate to see him go."

For parents like Jacquelyn Frost Burnett, whose children grew up participating in Fort Jackson's youth programs and whose 3-year-old granddaughter now attends the CDC, saying goodbye to Manigo will be difficult.

"It's going to be hard because he's done so many wonderful things, not only for the staff, but also for the children," Burnett said. "He makes every moment a learning experience, and you can see it in the way he interacts with everyone that he loves what he does. And that makes a difference."