By Jantzen Haley | Photography by Jeff Montgomery |
On the afternoon of Feb. 13, Harding colleagues received an email announcing the retirement of Dr. Beckie Weaver after 37 years of service to the University. The announcement came from Dr. Marty Spears, provost, and his thoughts succinctly encapsulated Weaver’s passion and commitment over her time here.
“The Harding family owes her a great debt of gratitude for outstanding service as a teacher and administrator,” Spears wrote. “Dean Weaver retires as the founding dean of the College of Allied Health and professor of communication sciences and disorders. She is a beloved member of the deans’ council and has provided strong leadership on this important academic team for the past nine years.”
Spears goes on to list a few of Weaver’s many accomplishments and contributions to the communication sciences and disorders department, international programs, Center for Health Sciences, and institutional research board, to name a few.
“Dr. Weaver is a good friend and a trusted colleague,” Spears wrote in conclusion. “Her approach to leadership is very Christ-like, which has given me great confidence in her ability to manage even the most difficult situations well. She is a wonderful example of how to truly live out our mission in a way that honors God and impacts the lives of those around her.”
Yeah, that sounds good.
Beckie Oldroyd stepped onto Harding’s campus as a freshman student in 1969. She wanted to major in speech and theater, and was pursuing her degree when a friend, Dan Tullos, planted a new thought: They could take one extra speech class and become certified to be speech therapists.
“So, I took the class, and that was fun.”
Tullos wasn’t done there. He prompted that a master’s degree in speech pathology would allow them to practice anywhere they wanted to practice. The University of Mississippi was her next step.
“I said, ‘sure, why not? I’ll go.’ A group of us all went to Ole Miss, and I think I fell into the profession by saying, ‘yeah, that sounds good.’ After I had been in it for a little while, I developed a huge passion for it.”
As she neared the completion of her master’s degree, she received a phone call from Dr. Evan Ulrey, former chair of Harding’s speech department.
“He said, ‘You’re about to get your master’s degree, aren’t you?’ I said yes. And he said, ‘Would you ever consider coming back and working at Harding?’”
That was 1974, and Dr. Richard Walker had been leading the speech therapy program alone since the early 1950s. He and Ulrey wanted to talk to Weaver about joining the growing program.
“I came and talked to them, never dreaming that it might be something that I would do. And by the end of the day, I was hired as their newest instructor.”
After about two years, during which Weaver met and married her husband, Gene, they packed up and moved to Texas for Gene to pursue a high school football coaching position. While in Texas, Weaver worked as a speech therapist, her husband coached, and their daughter Reagan was born.
Eight years passed. The University’s speech therapy program had since hired Weaver’s friend, Dan Tullos, as an instructor, and when he went on leave to pursue a doctorate, a position in the speech department was once again open. After eight years of long hours and weekend games, Gene was ready to be in the classroom full time, ready to spend more time with his family. The Weavers decided it might be time to look into Searcy again.
“So, we checked it out, and I was hired by Harding for a second time in the fall of 1984. I’ve been here ever since.”
Weaver attended and initially worked at Harding College as part of the speech department. When Harding achieved university status in 1979, the speech department fell under the College of Arts and Sciences, then moved to the College of Arts and Humanities several years later as the need for more colleges grew.
She taught in the speech department, which was narrowed to the field of communication, which eventually became known as a degree in communication sciences and disorders. At the time, the degree was considered an emphasis major available only at the undergraduate level. In 2005, then president Dr. David Burks came to the faculty members — Tullos, Weaver and Becky McLean at the time — and said it was time to think about what it would take to add a master’s program. After a year and a half of studying, it was decided that a master’s program was, indeed, needed. In the meantime, Weaver had gotten her doctorate, and while Tullos was on board with the addition of a graduate degree, he did not want to lead it.
“They said, ‘Well, would you lead it, Beckie?’ And I said, ‘Well, sure. I’ll give it a try.’”
Conversations continued, the communication sciences and disorders department was created in conjunction with the master’s program, and Weaver was named the first chair in 2007. Developing the master’s program was no small task to undertake. The decision for Weaver to lead the program was just the beginning. She visited with the chair of the CSD department at the University of New York at Buffalo to review their materials and came back to Searcy with a step-by-step plan.
“One of the first things we needed was a mission statement. And then we needed a strategic plan.”
After the strategic plan came the fun part: meeting accreditation standards by evaluating and implementing each and every one in some aspect of the program. When discussion of a graduate program had previously come up, expense always halted progress. Standards required access to a certain number of resources that would have added exorbitant costs for the library, but the technology age opened access to hundreds of databases and the interlibrary loan system.
“That was not the obstacle anymore. The only obstacle was finding people.”
From this round of hires came Sara Shock, Melanie Meeker, Jennifer Fisher, Jan Traughber and Tim Chance.
“We’ve hired other people, and the Lord provides people who are here, who are qualified, and who do an excellent job in teaching. And that’s essentially how the program developed.”
Curriculum and clinic
Following accreditation standards to build a curriculum provided a basic outline, but Weaver was looking for ways, in addition to the amazing faculty, to make the graduate program stand out from competing schools. She started this process by looking at how other universities approached curriculum when she came across the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Their curriculum was built to cover age ranges — rather than have one class on articulation, one on language, and so forth, they have a class on each age range and all the possible communication disorders one might encounter during that age.
“I called them and said, ‘We like this. Can we copy you?’ And they said, ‘Absolutely, we don’t own this. Take it, make it yours. Do what you want with it.’”
Weaver goes on to explain that curriculum has to cover the entire lifespan as part of the graduate program requirements, so this new outline was a perfect fit. She also speaks to how this style benefits the work that happens in the on-campus speech clinic.
“Say someone walks into our clinic who is 18, so they fall into the adolescent, young adult stage. We can, with confidence, look at their speech, their articulation, their voice, their fluency, how they interact socially — we can do all those things because we’ve been trained to look at that particular age range.”
It’s clear when she speaks that she holds a passion for the subject, particularly related to the experience students get while working in the speech clinic.
“The speech clinic was in an office adjacent to [Richard Walker’s] on the third floor of the administration building. It eventually grew to three rooms on the third floor, which is where it was when I was a student. And from 1953 to now, we have continually offered speech therapy services to the public.”
Weaver details that services are one of the ways the University can connect with local residents and make an impact on the community. Ten clients in the clinic’s early days has grown into an average of 120. What started as one room connected to Dr. Walker’s office is now a 12-room clinic in the Swaid Center for Health Sciences equipped with the latest and greatest technology, capable of serving clients of all ages. And the services are free.
“We have always had a caseload of people, always had people with very unique and interesting needs. We saw children who would fall under the diagnosis of autism in the ‘60s and ‘70s before there was a real diagnosis, before anybody really knew much about it. And we continue to this day to see a lot of individuals with that particular diagnosis.”
Adding the graduate program added the capability to work with more adults. Passionately, Weaver speaks about the many disorders that students are trained to work with and recent discoveries in technology that aid in treatment strategy in the clinic as well as classroom instruction. While the curriculum and clinic work made Harding’s program distinctive in their own way, Weaver and the CSD team were looking for something more.
Taking it international
Weaver had developed a passion for travel as she watched her daughter participate in international trips as early as the age of six, when she went to Europe; two years later to Australia; and as a college student to an international study abroad program. Weaver wrapped up her doctorate in 2000 and was invited to serve as faculty to HUF that summer.
“I was just absolutely hooked.”
A last-minute cancellation allowed her to go to HUG in 2002, and in 2006, she returned for a second trip to Italy — during which time she worked on the CSD graduate program application for accreditation.
“At that time, I had a lot of ties to International Programs. I was doing all of their orientations for them, and I had gone on several overseas programs as faculty.”
Those connections led to a conversation with Dr. Jeff Hopper, dean of international programs, who insisted that Africa — an English-speaking country with a solid infrastructure — was the perfect place to have a program specific to speech pathology.
The Namwianga Mission has a board in Africa and in the United States, and both approved a visit to further explore the possibility and start making plans. As luck would have it, during this time, Harding gave the then president of Zambia, Levy Patrick Mwanawasa, an honorary doctorate degree, and he made a trip to campus with most of his ministers. Weaver helped host a lunch during their visit. Sitting with the ministers of health, education, forestry and transportation, Weaver discussed what she was hoping to create. Their response: we’ve got nursing students, physician assistants, but no speech pathologists in our entire country. We need them.
“I looked at them and said, ‘We’re coming. We’re going to do everything we can to get there.’”
The discovery trip
That summer, Weaver, Tullos and Shock visited Zambia.
“We looked at the country, we looked to see what kind of fun things we might do. Because after you work real hard, you’ve got to have something fun. And we wanted to talk to the people at the Namwianga Mission because that is the one where George Benson Christian College is, that’s the one Harding has had the longest relationship with. We met some incredible people.”
One of those people was Ellie Hamby, whose husband, Kelly, was the first director of George Benson Christian College. Hamby told Weaver exactly who she needed to talk to and took it one step further — she invited them all over for dinner that same night. Weaver explained what she thought a speech pathology trip could do, how many students would be part of it, and how the Zambians would benefit. When she finished, the head of the mission, the head of George Benson Christian College, and a few others gathered to the side to talk.
“We were sitting, saying, ‘oh, did we offend them? Is everything okay?’ When they finished their conversation, they looked at the three of us, and the head of the mission said, ‘We believe you’re a gift from God.’ Oh my goodness! That’s like the most emotional thing.”
Prior to the meeting, the mission leaders had been told they needed to expand the mission’s offerings, and they thought Harding’s proposal to bring speech pathology was the perfect answer. Just two days later, a meeting was scheduled in the capital city of Lusaka with the minister of education.
“When we said we were going to offer some of the first speech pathology classes in the country, the minister said, ‘We must alert the media! Would you come back later for an interview?’ And we said of course we will.”
Weaver, Tullos and Shock headed back toward the hotel, just a block or so from the minister’s office, when the phone rang. It was the education minister — the media had arrived. He needed them back for an interview right away. The news crew filmed a live interview with Weaver and the minister of education. With quite the pigmentation difference between the two, Weaver wound up appearing on screen surrounded by a large, white glow.
“You can’t tell where my face is … and he’s talking about me, saying, ‘she’s coming, and she is going to bring speech pathology to Africa.’ It looked like some kind of an angel had dropped down — quite humorous. They were not accustomed to having the whitest woman in America filmed next to their minister of education.”
It was safe to say that everyone was on board with a speech pathology program being brought to Zambia, and details were quickly ironed out. Aside from the discovery trip, Weaver has been to Zambia eight additional times as part of the HIZ-PATH program, accompanying more than 150 students.
Weaver says that students’ lives are changed each year, noting that a few have made repeat trips on their own. It is not uncommon for graduate students from other universities to call and inquire about going on the trip, as well. HIZ-PATH has helped put the CSD graduate program on the national map, but a study abroad option is just one aspect of Harding’s CSD program that attracts students. With the program’s growth and other University-wide updates, it was time for a structure change.
Reorganization: round two
In late 2009, Dr. Mike James announced he was stepping down as dean of the College of Communication, and Weaver decided she might be interested in taking on the role. The selection process ensued, and she was chosen as the next dean for the College of Communication.
Not long into her deanship, Harding had much going on in the world of academics — the College of Pharmacy had taken shape, engineering programs were started — and the decision was made to create a College of Allied Health. Leadership and administration wanted Weaver to be the dean.
“So that happened at the end of 2010, and that’s where I’ve been ever since.”
Along with the communication sciences and disorders undergraduate and graduate programs, the physician assistant studies program was one of the founding departments of the College of Allied Health. A graduate program in physical therapy quickly followed. Most recently, administration discussed bringing athletic training under the health sciences wing as it transitions to master’s level. Even as her date of retirement nears, she has worked tirelessly to continue bettering the College of Allied Health and the communication sciences and disorders field nationwide.
Weaver said she always loved going to continuing education classes, but she was quite comfortable in the back row, unnoticed, where she could do her own thing, and learn what there was to be learned. When Tullos brought to light that networking was an important piece of these conferences — that it was their job to make Harding known so that Harding students would be known — Weaver knew he was right.
“I told him, ‘Well, I can do this. It’s not my first choice, but I can do it.’ And then I found out that I really enjoyed some of it.”
Working up to the national level with the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Weaver has found it exciting to help make decisions that affect the whole profession across the nation, from lobbying on Capitol Hill for matters that would benefit clients to being part of changes to educational requirements. She has held offices at the state and national level and has been appointed to numerous boards and councils. In 2012, she was selected as a fellow of ASHA for her contributions to the field. She set out to help students, to create a reputation for Harding among other CSD professionals, and as is common when she sets her mind to it, she greatly succeeded.
“After about 10 years [of involvement with ASHA], I was at a national meeting, and they had a lot of faculty and supervisors from across the South in one room. I made a comment about something, and the moderator said, ‘if you all don’t know her, that’s Beckie Weaver, and she’s from Harding University. And if a Harding University student ever applies to your university for grad school, you need to snap them up because they are prepared, and they’re ready to learn.’ That was a fabulous feeling. In that moment, I knew that’s why I’ve been doing this. That’s why I’ve been going to all these meetings. That’s why I’ve been saying, yes, I’ll run for this office. Yes, I’ll serve on this board so that our students could benefit from it. And they have indeed.”
Not all moments have been glorious. Weaver described a scenario when a student visited her office.
“She came into my office, sat down across from me and said, ‘Well, everybody tells me that you’re very easy to work with, but, frankly, I haven’t seen it.’”
Weaver apologized and asked to talk through it. When she realized the girl was requesting the rules be bent in the student’s favor, Weaver explained how that would be unfair to all others in the class.
“That hasn’t happened very often, but that one kind of brings you back to reality.”
Aside from the rare disgruntled student, Weaver’s experiences and relationships with students, faculty, peers and administrators are the driving factor in her career at Harding. She is quick to answer how she knew Harding was where she was supposed to be.
“Some of [knowing I’m supposed to be here] comes from a relationship with my colleagues, things we’ve lived through together as colleagues, and we just had to lock arms and just keep going because things got hard at home, or some of the students we were dealing with — that’s when you know you’re where you’re supposed to be. When students come back or they write and say something, that’s when you know.”
Beyond her department, Weaver speaks to the blessing of support from the presidents she worked under — Dr. Ganus, Dr. Burks and Dr. McLarty — as well as the friendship she has found with each.
“That’s amazing to me. People from other universities ask, ‘you know the president?’ Yeah, I do!”
She makes a point to thank Dr. Ganus for not hiring her once, but twice, and is still impressed that she receives a call each year from him on her birthday — something he does for all employees hired during his presidency.
As she continues to think through her list of mentors and important relationships at Harding, and with tears in her eyes, she ends with this.
“Those are the people who I look up to, and I can’t even start on my colleagues who were so, so much a part of my life.”
The next chapter
While Weaver looks fondly on her 37 years with Harding, she won’t miss some aspects of her work. She jokingly reflects on things she’s grateful to leave behind.
“I look forward to never grading a test. I can remember being 10 years old and playing school. You know, I had a grade book and all those things. When it actually comes down to it, grading is not fun. I don’t know why I thought that might be fun when I was younger. I won’t miss that at all.”
She knows that her retirement will be bittersweet, that the time will come when she must talk about her colleagues and let the tears come. She will celebrate a long, successful career and will always be vested in the success of the students, faculty and administration of the communication sciences and disorders department, the College of Allied Health and Harding University. But retirement is brimming with new opportunities, adventure and excitement as she and her husband move north to be closer to their daughter and her family, who live in Massachusetts.
“The other day, my husband looked at me and said, ‘You know what, either this year or next year, when we get everything sold and we’re up there, and we wonder what the leaves look like in New Hampshire, we’re going to just get in the car and drive over there.’ And I said, well that’s wonderful. I’m looking forward to that a lot.”
Yeah, Beckie, that sounds good.