A journey from then to now

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Betty decided to visit her former college professor when she heard he was terminally ill. She found him propped in a hospital bed, his emaciated body bearing testimony to the ravages of his relentless illness.

She told the professor how much he meant to her; how he had been instrumental in influencing her to continue her education. A gleam sparked in the old man’s eyes and he sat a little taller. “Let’s see if you can remember this,” he said.

In his classroom days, the professor had used an old-fashioned way of teaching, scribbling a question or part of a quote on an index card and asking his students to complete it. Now he recited some remembered sentences and waited expectantly for Betty to respond.

She tried hard to retrieve the long-forgotten words but finally admitted she couldn’t. Tears carved a slow path down the old man’s cheeks and the spark in his eyes faded. His shoulders slumped beneath the twin weights of disappointment and illness.

“I guess nobody remembers a thing I ever said,” he whispered.

Betty, wanting to cry, squared her shoulders instead and looked her professor in the eye. “I might not remember what you said, professor, but I remember who you were.”

By the time I heard Dr. Betty Siegel tell this story she was president of Kennesaw State University and the first female president of the university system in Georgia. She would soon become the longest serving female president of a state university in the United States.

She spoke at a volunteer luncheon I almost didn’t attend. At the last minute I decided to ditch some things on my to-do list and go, and to this day I’m glad I did.

Stepping to the podium, Betty could have been somebody’s matronly aunt or grandmother. Pearl beads, perfectly-coiffed hair and middle-aged girth combined to make her a comfortable, welcoming presence. But her oversize red glasses and boisterous laugh, the wide smile that never faltered, marked her as someone with a sense of fun; a person who enjoyed life and wanted everyone else to come along for the ride.

She praised us lavishly for our feeble volunteer efforts, which I suppose is what a speaker does at a volunteer luncheon. But it was the stories of her life that I listened avidly to.

Betty grew up in the mountains of Kentucky, the daughter of a coal miner who eloped as a teenager with his high school girlfriend. It was a hardscrabble sort of a life, with Betty’s grandfather and an uncle both killed in the mines, crushed by an avalanche of slate.

Betty’s father was a coal miner with an entrepreneurial bent, always starting some little business on the side. He went bankrupt her senior year in high school and regained their meager fortunes a year later with yet another venture.

Betty’s mother, grandmother and great grandmother instilled in her a lifelong love of learning and the importance of “A self to live with, a purpose to live for, and a faith to live by.” The men worked in the coal mines. The women loved education. Mountain women, according to Betty, are a vein of iron.

Betty’s mother got up early each morning to stoke the stove that would warm their clothes and cook their breakfast. Betty and her sister were allowed to read while cooking noises and smells permeated their home; the only time their mother permitted them to read at the table. She treasured the warmth of those mornings, her mother’s gentle clatter forming a backdrop to her voracious reading.

Years later when she was Dr. Seigel, recipient of enough awards to substantiate her position as President Emeritus and Distinguished Chair of Leadership, Ethics and Character at Kennesaw State, a bemused reporter asked her why she liked Waffle House.

“It reminds me of my mother’s kitchen,”Betty replied. “My fondest memories are of hearing her cook with me reading at the table.” Betty was a regular at the local Waffle House, where she went through three or four newspapers at a sitting while waitresses served up eggs, bacon and a steady stream of chatter to their regulars. When she finished reading and laid her papers aside, people approached her for conversation, sharing stories that helped to build relationships and a sense of community.

Betty’s family members, poor as they were in worldly things, were never poor in spirit. They were a family of story-tellers, and Betty listened, rapt, to the oral history that would shape her values and give her a sense of her roots.

She was the only one in her family to get an education, and with characteristic zeal and love of learning, she earned a bachelor’s degree at Wake Forest University, a Masters at the University of North Carolina, a Ph.D. from Florida State University, completed post-doctoral studies at Indiana University and received five honorary degrees.

But her most prized award was the Distinguished Teacher Award she received in 1969 from Florida State University. Hired by the university, she shocked a predominately male staff when she arrived pregnant. She had already flouted convention by waiting until her mid-thirties to marry, and now, as she explained it, “The men had a fit. There had never been a pregnant professor.”

She assured the men she would complete the semester and she did. Finishing the last day of exams, she went out to eat, took in a movie, then headed directly to the hospital where her baby was born in the hall. Betty spent the remainder of her hospital stay grading exam papers.

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In her journey from coal miner’s daughter to university president, Betty Siegel never lost the mountain values that propelled her rise through the ranks of learning and teaching. Folks in a rugged Kentucky mining town living a hard as nails life didn’t care what you owned. All that mattered was what you were. Steeped in this background, she developed an affinity for the underdog and a desire to help children who were not privileged.

To her family all people were valuable, possessing untapped potential that only needed the right teacher; the right opportunity to blossom into something special.

Teachers made Betty feel special, and from them she learned the redemptive power of a caring teacher. “Children are the living messages you send to a time you cannot see,” she said, her own desire to teach taking shape under the tutelage of her instructors. Teaching was a way to serve, and to the women in Betty’s family, service was integral and indispensable to a life well lived.

In Betty’s opinion, the quality of a child’s education didn’t come from the money poured into it, but from the passion of teachers who taught with courage, conviction, and inspiration.

Betty’s words and sentiments resonate with me. The teaching profession is well-represented in my own family: husband, son-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law and niece. I can’t help but think of my family members going into public schools armed not only with courage, conviction and inspiration to teach, but with courage to enter schools that can suddenly turn into killing fields of violence.

How can this be, I wonder, in the land of the free and the home of the brave? How can teachers filled with passion, enthusiasm, and knowledge have the fortitude and courage to continue, realizing on some level each day, There but by the grace of God go I.

How can we look at the faces of those innocents, children who still play basketball, attend prom, clump together with friends in the lunchroom, without crying out in anguish at innocence lost? How can we allow violence to lurk until ready to strike again, snatching away our living messages to the future?

I think all these things when I think of Dr. Siegel and her love of education. “Education is not preparation for life, it’s life itself,” she said, echoing a favorite quote by John Dewey.

Dr. Siegel believed in and wrote about four pillars of ethical leadership: Trust, Respect, Optimism and Intentionality. You respect that all people are able, valuable and responsible, you reach out to them in trust, believing in the untapped potential of every human being, and you are intentional in your purpose to lead and live life with integrity.

I wonder how we can teach the marginalized, the lonely, the potential purveyors of violence that they are valuable; that they have potential? How can we stem the current tide and reclaim the future for our children?

Dr. Betty Siegel retired as university president in 2005. When I was researching her life, I ran across an article in the Marietta Daily Journal by Katy Ruth Camp. The article described several years of Dr. Siegel’s fruitful retirement, followed more recently by the onset of dementia. Her husband, Dr. Joel Siegel, is her caretaker.

Even though she forgets an event that took place five minutes earlier and introduces herself to someone she has met dozens of times, her husband says “The wonderful persistence of her character from the old days has remained….her nature is still there.”

Joel goes on to say that she is mostly not aware of her dementia, lives very much in the moment and enjoys people. There is still much laughter, dancing and singing in their house. According to the Journal story, the couple continues to “live with gratitude, enjoying life’s moments and life’s pleasures together.”

I think back to that long-ago day, before school violence had become a thing, when my children were still young and innocent and I made time in my busy schedule to attend a volunteer luncheon. Dr. Betty Siegel stepped to the podium, eyes alert behind her signature red glasses.

I think back, and remember who she was.

Written by

Writer, editor, publisher, journalist, author, columnist, believer in enjoying my journey and helping other people enjoy theirs. bknicholson@att.net

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