Five prolific UMHB professors discuss teaching Shaq, raising longhorns, and everything in between
Looking back, every UMHB graduate can recall at least one professor who defined their time at the university. Whether it was a lecture that shaped the student’s thought process, or the time and energy the professor invested helping them discover and pursue their own passions, the profound impression these instructors make often influences the direction of their students’ lives. Over the course of a couple of weeks, UMHB Life sat down with five such Mary Hardin-Baylor instructors to delve into what makes them tick. What led them into their chosen field, and what research and projects keep them passionate about that topic year after year? We entered each of these professors’ worlds—sitting with them in their offices, musing over little clues to who they really are—from the history professor’s cluttered but cozy office, to the journalism professor’s perfectly organized work space. Through our conversations, we discovered the professors were as diverse as their drink preferences—from coffee mugs to Sonic cups.
Communication professor Dr. Kerry Owens is an animated man with an easy laugh. His office environment is laid back, with a collage of pictures of his two children taped on the doorframe and a few spare brown loafers sitting in the corner—for emergency situations where extra shoes might be needed, he explained. A coffee mug sits next to his computer with coffee rings circling the paper underneath. While describing his “natural environment,” he jokingly holds up a Hershey’s bar, a standard feature of his office environment.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
You could say that UMHB is in Owen’s blood. He comes from a long line of Mary Hardin-Baylor connections.
“My mother is a graduate and has taught in the College of Education for 38 years,” Owens begins, adding that his wife, Kathy, is also a communication professor at the university. But the connections don’t stop there.
“My father was a Campus Boy back before the school was co-educational. He was able to go here for two years tuition-free with room and board paid in return for work. And his parents, my grandparents, were both custodians on campus, so, essentially, for as long as I can remember, I have been connected to Mary Hardin-Baylor. I practically grew up on this campus as a child.”
TEACHING HAS ITS PERKS
Owens earned journalism and communication degrees from Baylor, then attended LSU for graduate school. He previously worked as a journalist for the Temple Daily Telegram, but says he found his true calling interacting with students in the classroom.
“The most rewarding part of my job is seeing students who are absolutely terrified to stand in front of an audience overcome that fear and learn to present their thoughts in a clear, concise, well-organized manner.”
Plus, Owens adds with a smile, teaching does have its perks. He taught basketball great Shaquille O’Neal while he was a professor at Louisiana State University and taught current Indianapolis Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman here at UMHB. “So taking my public speaking course is practically the fast track to professional athletic stardom,” he laughs.
A HISTORICAL NARRATIVE
This summer, Owens will devote his time to another passion: his research on the role of public communication in the Civil Rights Movement.
“I have been interested in this topic since I was in graduate school, and I wrote my dissertation on Martin Luther King and Malcolm X,” he said. “In particular, I have had a specific interest in how King and Malcolm X’s speeches work together to help contribute to the historical narrative we use to define the Civil Rights Movement.”
Owens plans to compile his research into a publication-length manuscript titled Mythmaking in the Civil Rights Movement: The Case of Malcolm X.
“I hope that by studying X’s writings and speeches, I can offer some insight into the overall mythic structure he uses to explain the history of African Americans, the role African Americans play in society, and the way that they fit into the overall American story. There’s a lot about the Civil Rights Movement that doesn’t get as much scholarly attention as I think it should. So hopefully anything that I can add will be a good thing.”
Stepping inside marketing professor Dr. Chrisann Merriman‘s office, the first thing you might notice are the framed longhorn pictures hanging on the wall behind her chair and the abundance of books lining her shelves. And among the array of papers on her desk, you would be likely to find a Sonic cup.
Asked if it is too warm for coffee, she laughs. Apparently, the marketing professor, who is known for her charismatic, energetic personality, gets asked quite frequently how much coffee she drinks. With a huge smile she proudly declares, “None at all!”
MORE TEXAN THAN TEXANS
Merriman is originally from New Hampshire, where she worked for a high-tech marketing company. She was transferred to Texas ten years ago, and she found she loved the state—particularly its warm weather, which is in sharp contrast to the frigid New Hampshire winters she was accustomed to.
“After about a year, my company wanted me back in New Hampshire, but I told them, ‘the weather’s just too nice down here!’ We’ve lived here nearly a decade now, and a lot of people think we’re more Texan than Texans,” she says. Glancing up at the longhorn pictures framed on her wall, she explains that she, along with her husband, Kelly, and son, Owen, raise eight longhorns on 14 acres in Belton.
THE START OF SOMETHING GREAT
Merriman will spend this summer working on a research project, thanks to the UMHB Faculty Summer Leave Grant. The research focuses on digital badges, which she describes as a portable online portfolio. These badges are obtained when students reach certain skill sets, including completing a course, conducting research, or working with a client. The badges are connected to LinkedIn, which can help students find jobs once they graduate. Because the badges are digital, students can continue using them well after graduation.
“Later on, as technology evolves or things change, graduates can go back and take a class or professional development course, or take a test by a third party to verify their knowledge and skills. They can update their badges, which will be extra credentials, basically.”
These badges are a new concept, and Merriman’s goal is to work them into the UMHB marketing curriculum this fall. There will be a pilot study on marketing students to determine if the badges help students get a job. If successful, this could be the start of something great not just at UMHB, but potentially on other campuses, as well.
THE SECRET TO HAPPINESS
So if Merriman doesn’t drink coffee, what, then, is the source of her energy?
“We all have our off-days, but for the most part I’m happy with life,” she says. “I’m not saying everything is perfect, but it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you deal with it. Happiness is a choice you make every day.”
Communication professor Vicky Kendig’s neatly organized office reveals many of the great passions of her life. Her bookshelves are filled with framed family portraits next to photos of newspaper staffs from years past.
Numerous plaques and awards are proudly displayed around her office, including awards for sweepstakes and best all-around student newspaper. There is no coffee mug to be seen. Not even a water bottle or old restaurant cup can be found. But even in such a tidy space, a stack of newspapers to the right side of her desk makes it clear that she is a journalism professor. She explains that she collects newspapers from all over the world.
“I have papers from countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Korea, India, Taiwan, China, and many more. Students bring me papers from places they visit, and when I am given one from a new country, you would think I was a kid in a candy store.”
LITTLE DID SHE KNOW…Kendig began her tenure at UMHB in 2001, although this was not her first encounter with the university. As a child, Kendig lived in Fort Smith, Ark., and her best friend was related to the family for whom Wells Science Hall was named.
“My friend’s family used to come to Belton all the time to visit family. When I was about eight years old, I begged my dad to let me come out and visit the campus. I remember the big tall trees and how beautiful it was, even at that time.”
Little did she know that decades later she would find herself back on UMHB’s campus as a professor.
A HEART FOR STUDENTS
Conversations with Kendig always seem to turn to The Bells, UMHB’s school newspaper, which she has advised since 2001. It is clear that her true passion is helping guide her students from apprehensive first-year journalism students into budding reporters. She has been known to recruit many promising young writers from her classes onto The Bells staff.
She smiles as she recalls the surprise she received in 2006, when she was named Adviser of the Year during the annual Texas Intercollegiate Press Association (TIPA) conference she and her students attend each spring.
“I was secretly nominated by my students and didn’t find out that I received the award until my name was called at the awards ceremony at the end of the weekend. The award means so much to me because I know that it came from my students.”
DIGGING THROUGH THE ARCHIVES
In her spare time, Kendig is working on an ongoing project about the Baptist Student Ministry (BSM). This worldwide organization traces its roots back to UMHB, where the very first chapter was chartered in 1922. Eventually, she would like to publish her research in a book. But for now, she plans to publish the two history chapters as articles.
“We’ve had some really interesting things start at UMHB. This campus has been blessed with a lot of unusual, great things that have come out of it. I love bringing attention to these little nuggets of school history. It’s fascinating.”
History and political science professor Dr. David Holcomb warmly greets visitors to his small, cozy office on the third floor of Heard Hall. Camouflaged in the piles of papers on his desk is a coffee mug that he typically sips as he visits with students.
Holcomb is known for his challenging and thought-provoking lectures, which demonstrate his passion for diving into the complexities of controversial topics such as religion and politics. But he is equally known among his students for his sense of humor.
“I have a cheesy, corny sense of humor that I torture my students with on a regular basis. I get a lot of eye rolls in the classroom,” he laughs.
Holcomb has coordinated the UMHB London Studies program since 2007. Each spring semester, the program gives ten students the opportunity to study abroad in London. During that time, students take a full load of classes, instructed by both British and American faculty. Every Friday, they take trips to places such as Canterbury and Hampton Court. Weekly theater and musical productions are also part of the London Studies program curriculum.
Holcomb had a similar experience as a student at William Jewel College in Missouri, so coordinating the program felt like a natural fit.
“One of the most significant events during my undergraduate career was the opportunity to spend a semester studying in Oxford, England,” he says. “I was able to take courses in the British tutorial fashion under some brilliant Oxford professors. My tutor in the French Revolution could read and write in 24 different languages!”
Once his semester abroad ended, Holcomb and his roommate spent a month backpacking through Europe: traveling to Amsterdam, visiting the Christmas markets in Germany, skiing the Alps in Switzerland, visiting the Louvre in Paris, and attending Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in St. Peter’s Cathedral at the Vatican.
“It was an amazing and, in many ways, transformative experience. I find directing the London Studies Program very gratifying because I get to see UMHB students have some of the same meaningful experiences I enjoyed as a college student. Whether it’s for missions or academic purposes, traveling abroad really gives people an important perspective on their lives and the world.”
GUARDIAN OF THE WALL
Holcomb is currently under contract with Lexington Books to publish his book, Guardian of the Wall: Leo Pfeffer and the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, which is an expanded and revised version of his doctoral dissertation. He first became acquainted with Leo Pfeffer’s work while he was in graduate school at Baylor. During Pfeffer’s career, which spanned the 1940s to the 1980s, he argued more First Amendment religion clause cases before the U.S. Supreme Court than anyone else in history.
“The thing that attracted me to this topic was Pfeffer’s influence on church-state law,” he said. “I hope that I can convey through this book how relevant his arguments remain to our current debates over the proper role of religion in public life.”
Helen Kwaitkowski’s office in the new Baugh Center for the Visual Arts is clearly that of an art professor. Her paintings line the walls while student art projects sit drying on a table nearby. A little coffee maker and several coffee mugs make their home in the corner, while a paint-splattered travel mug sits on her desk.
“Moving into this building was such a long time coming that it just feels right, like we’ve always been here,” she says. “And my office is sloppy enough now—it’s piled up with enough stuff that it feels like I’ve been here for a while.”
Kwaitkowski never considered becoming an artist growing up. It wasn’t until she took her first drawing class in college that she decided to change her major from pre-med and “never looked back.”
Her most acclaimed works are the approximately 40 paintings included in her Little Helen series, which feature images of Kwaitkowski as a child.
“The series started so innocently,” she said. “I was just trying to get through this period of mourning when my dad died. I decided to do a couple of these paintings, but here I am 14 years later, still painting them. The character has now become more of a platform to address things that trouble me, but they don’t look that way because of the bright colors and the little Helen character.”
Kwaitkowski will spend this summer working on a limited edition art book, which will compile many of her Little Helen paintings into hand-bound books.
This is her third summer leave grant from UMHB. In 2007, the grant made it possible for Kwaitkowski to embark on a month-long stay in Paducah, Ky. During her time there, she stayed at A.I.R. Studio as a participant in their working artist-in-residence program.
“I wanted to go to a place where I could be completely anonymous so that I could get a really honest, fresh take on my work. That’s when I first started thinking about putting the Little Helen series into a book.”
Once the project is completed, she plans to display the books in a gallery exhibition, along with her Little Helen paintings.
“I think enough time has gone by that I need a poetic pause to look at the work, what it was, what it is, and what it will become. At this point, I don’t know if this book is the beginning of a change or just a continuation, but I don’t think I will ever be completely done with the series.”
A PEACEFUL ENDEAVOR
Five years ago, Kwaitkowski started the annual Art of Peace Festival, which is a community gathering of artists, poets, and musicians to raise money for the Children’s Advocacy Center in Belton. Kwaitkowski also hosts an annual on-campus service celebrating the International Day of Peace, which gives art students the opportunity to take part in an international project called “Pinwheels for Peace.” Each fall, hundreds of these colorful, painted pinwheels are displayed on campus.
“The idea is to have the pinwheels spinning all over the globe to show an international prayer for peace. That collective energy helps heal the world.”
-Brittany Pumphrey ’15