A divine calling

By Cheri Smith, assistant professor of education, chair of teacher preparation and director of elementary education

In February, the University family said goodbye far too soon to one of its most dearly loved professors. Dr. Betty Ann Watson was one of a kind, a true Harding icon, and a legend in her own time.

I first came to know Dr. Watson when I was a young education student at Harding in fall 1982. Her children’s literature course was a favorite of mine and many others. Dr. Watson had a contagious passion for children and children’s books. She could read a story aloud like no one else.

After I began teaching at Harding full time in 2004, I remember sitting by Dr. Watson in Benson Auditorium for chapel and hearing her sing. At the time, I didn’t know she had perfect pitch — she wrote that in her obituary. I just remember the awe I felt sitting beside her, being fortunate enough to learn from her again as a colleague. I never got over that feeling. I often asked her if she would let me sit in her classes again just so I could learn the secrets of her masterful teaching. She would always say, “Oh no. I don’t want people to watch me. Just be yourself, and they will love you.”

She was a constant encourager. When she saw education majors in the hallway of the building, she would say in her sweetest, slowest voice, “Look at these beautiful teachers.” She mentored thousands of students through the years, taking them under her wing as if they were her children. Retirement was a difficult decision for her. She loved her life, and she loved her work. It was her divine calling.

When Dr. Watson found out she had cancer in May 2016, she made sure the house she loved was completely decorated for fall. That was her favorite season, and she wanted to be certain she could experience it one more time. When she died at home on Feb. 19, a few days after Valentine’s Day, she was surrounded by cozy Christmas decorations, bright red valentines, red gingham pillows and roses, celebrating life until the very end.

At her memorial service, which she planned herself, her beloved husband, Zearl, and her grandchildren, Mackenzie and Josiah, welcomed guests as if it were the first day of school, including apple stickers and apple nametags. We signed our names on Big Chief writing tablets with fat, yellow school pencils instead of pens. We felt like first-graders again. Her magic touch was seen and felt even at her own memorial.

If you took Dr. Watson’s Children’s Literature class during the last few years of her career, you probably read Tuck Everlasting, a fantasy book about a family who drank from an enchanted spring and became immortal. This particular book was one of her favorites, and she loved discussing it with her classes. In one of our last exchanges, Dr. Watson shared with me the sad news that the chemo treatment was no longer working, and she felt she was ready to let go. I said, “Oh, Dr. Watson, but I wanted you to live forever!” Without hesitation, she quickly replied, “Oh, but Cheri, I will live forever!”

Yes, Dr. Watson, forever in heaven and in the hearts and lives of those whose lives you touched.

Betty Ann Work Watson (’64), 74, of Searcy, died Feb. 19, 2017. She received her Ed.D. from Memphis State University. She spent 47 years teaching at Harding in the College of Education where she was named a Distinguished Professor after winning the Outstanding Teacher Award three times. She served as director of the early childhood education program for 15 years as well as serving as a member of the Arkansas Diamond Reading Committee for more than 30 years. She is survived by her husband of 47 years, Zearl (’76); two sons, David (’98) and Zac (’00); four siblings, Ed (’67), Dale (’68), Nancy (’75) and Rick (’77); and two grandchildren. 

Categories: Passages.

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