Amazing Feat! 60 Years of Pomp and Circumstance

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Betty McNight Speairs receives hood from Provost Darrel Colson

Is there any professor anywhere who has marched in a college’s annual commencement procession for 60 consecutive years with nary an absence? There’s at least one. She’s Betty McKnight Speairs, professor emerita at Centenary College of Louisiana.

On May 5, 2007, the sprightly 82-year-old marched in Centenary’s academic procession for the 60th time since she joined the faculty at age 22 and tackled math classes teeming with returning World War II veterans. “Centenary has been my life and I have always wanted to participate and be involved,” Speairs said with a smile. She was especially pleased at this year’s turn of events when Centenary presented her with an honorary doctorate. “I was flabbergasted,” she said. “(As a faculty member) I had voted on honorary doctorates for years and we never voted on one like this. ”Though often called “Dr.” over the years, Mrs. Speairs corrected that notion whenever possible. “I’m just Mrs. I don’t have a doctorate,” she would point out. Now, she doesn’t have to utter that correction any more.

Lengthy Tenure Wasn’t Planned

Her lengthy tenure at Centenary was unplanned, as are so many of life’s events. She had originally intended to teach high school math and indeed had done only student teaching when she completed her master’s degree at Southern Methodist University. But returning soldiers, sailors and the G.I. Bill brought demands for faculty as Centenary’s enrollment almost doubled. Still, high schools were adding the 12th year and college officials were expecting fewer students the following year, so she started with just a one-year appointment. “I had no teaching experience, got tenure in three years and was promoted to full professor without a doctorate,” she recalls. “I’ve had many surprises and many blessings over the years.”

The one-year appointment was extended when another Centenary professor resigned to take a then-huge $1,000 yearly pay raise at another campus. That’s compared to Mrs. Speairs’s beginning annual salary of $2,250, she recalled. “That’s why I got to stay 40 years instead of one.”

Along the way, she met a handsome biology professor—Richard K. Speairs, who came to Centenary in 1949 and became her good friend and ultimately her husband in 1961. Shortly after their marriage, the couple decided to find a place where they could take students on field trips. They found it in the nearest mountains— some 200 miles away from Shreveport near Mena, Ark., surrounded by national forest lands. Though their union ended with Dick’s death due to West Nile virus in 2005, their Ouachita Mountain Biological Station remains in existence today, managed by a director and a resident manager, and continuing to serve students.

An Extraordinary Career

Centenary’s bestowing of the honorary Doctor of Science degree is the latest surprise in an extraordinary career at a single institution, a career that included Mrs. Speairs’s receipt of the Outstanding Teacher Award in 1981 and her designation as Honorary Alumna in 1978.

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Upon her retirement in 1987 after 40 years, Centenary’s magazine said: “Her rapport with students, her willingness and eagerness to volunteer for special projects and her interest in everything that had to do with Centenary College past, present and future has endeared Mrs. Speairs to the entire Centenary family.”

The article also described her as “a 5-foot-2, 62-year-old strawberry blonde …who doesn’t look much different from the day she started teaching at Centenary.” Indeed her health was a source of amazement and commentary as well over the years. She never missed a day of class due to illness in all her 40 years, and unless she was at a conference, never missed a single one of the compulsory chapel services held every week until they were discontinued in the 1970s. “I was sick once, but it was in the summer and I wasn’t teaching,” she said.

Seems that Betty McKnight Speairs is just tailor made for the term “They just don’t make ‘em like that any more.”

by Lynn Stewart, Editor, Centenary magazine

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