Bethesda Remarks

We know that a famous question asked by St. Louisans is “Where did you go to high school?” I am often asked, “Did you grow up in St. Louis?” How many of you did? When I reply “no” the next question is—where is home? I thank you for the opportunity to talk about the concept of “home” as a way of understanding my personal and professional journey.

How many places have I made my home? 12, as far I know. My first home was Newcastle, Wyoming when my parents first married in Tennessee at the close of WWII and moved west to the oil fields for needed employment and to start their life adventure. (Her parents had moved to Texas, where my mother was born a generation before.)

Shortly after I was a year old, my parents moved to the Chicago suburbs, where my father’s parents and brothers lived. He continued the hard labor of drilling water wells for businesses and my mother was a homemaker.

While we had comparatively few financial resources, our family life was rich in its own way. Teachers encouraged me to work hard and to prepare for college, which I knew would depend on how well I could compete for scholarships. I took accordion lessons for eight years, and we spent happy Sundays and summer vacations with the two sides of our family, in the Chicago area and on my grandparents’ farm in Tennessee.

After my younger brother and I were both in school, my mother returned to work after a long absence. While my father had not completed high school, she had one year of junior college and was a math whiz. I remember her starting out as the drive-in teller at our local bank but she advanced quickly in the 70s and 80s. 

I left for college, attending Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, and at the same time, my mother was mentored at the bank, joined the trust department, became a vice president and head of operations and in 1983 was named president of the bank. I will never forget her reaction to the headline in the local paper: “Heritage Bank Names Woman President” (could just as easily been—“Heritage Bank Names Chipmunk President”). She always believed, just as her mother had, that gender was not a limitation on ability and should not be a limitation on opportunity.

Meanwhile, as I graduated from college and began to substitute teach with the intention of finding a full-time teaching position in the Chicago suburbs, it was clear that the job market was not going to support that wish.

Chicago Tribune ad for a placement agency: We can find you a teaching position if you are willing to move.

That’s the first time, other than going off to college, that I pondered that question. A lifelong question as it turned out. Am I willing to move?  Absolutely, and thus began my life marked by a physical journey, much like my parents before me and my grandparents before them and indeed generations before that. It is an American story.

I made my first adult home in a new place: Vandalia, Illinois.

Marcel Proust, turn of the 20th century French novelist, wrote: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

New landscapes helped to give me new eyes, and Vandalia, rural farm community where I taught English to every sophomore at the high school for 10 years, was the beginning of learning how to immerse myself in a new culture, geography, community and to embrace the differences with curiosity and appreciation. I had never before lived in such a rural community, and I was the first new teacher at the high school in many years.

One of the discoveries I made in my very first year there was the joy that comes with opening up larger worlds for students—I, along with other theatre program directors in Illinois—took 12 seniors to London for a spring break theatre tour. Many of them had never flown or gone any further than St. Louis. From seeing an escalator for the first time at O’Hare to seeing live theatre at West End theatres, this trip was life-changing for them and in many ways, for me. I continue to have contact with some of those students.

I married a local farmer—another voyage of discovery for me who had grown up in the Chicago suburbs—and soon experienced what it meant to fight cancer as he experienced numerous recurrences of childhood leukemia and associated cancers—a fight he lost in 1982.

In 1984, I married Paul Stroble, who grew up in Vandalia, had attended Yale Divinity School on his way to ordination as a United Methodist minister, and we decided together to launch into Ph. D. programs. We were both accepted at the University of Virginia, and off I was again on making a new home with a new career and identity—

Without providing a blow by blow account of the moves that took us from Charlottesville, VA to here, let me just say that our first jobs after grad school were at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. And, of course, we were willing to move west to launch our higher Ed careers. “Go west, young man, and grow up with the country” Horace Greeley famously said. And while we were there we our daughter was born, 24 years ago.

Since then we have sometimes been the parish family because Paul sometimes has done parish work and at other times has taught and been a writer. Over his career he has published 16 books and is working on his 17th now.

As we made geographic moves back to the middle of the country, I moved from the role of professor of teacher education to administrator in the School of Education and to dean of the School and then provost and chief operating officer at the University of Akron, where I served from 2000 until 2009. I decided that I wanted to make the attempt achieve a university presidency, which would require moving from my current home, and after a two-year job search, I was recruited by Webster University in 2009.

I became the first woman to be Webster’s president in 40 years. Jacqueline Grennan Wexler was the last. And I am the first president who is not Catholic. In my own family I am a first generation college graduate, but I became a second generation president. As you can imagine, my mother had been my closest mentor and advisor and she continued to be in my first years here, until Parkinson’s disease robbed her of communications ability and she passed away last November, exactly 86 years to the day from her birth.

To come full circle, I now have the wonderful opportunity to lead a university community that is dedicated to a mission of transforming students for individual excellence and global citizenship. Webster is a wonderful fit for someone with my background and inclinations. As I have learned to make my home in multiple places with very different heritages and traditions, we seek to help our students make themselves at home in the world.

Why?

Because the world’s peoples are increasingly interconnected—politically, culturally, ecologically. Each of us is touched by events continents away and our future as a globe depends upon leaders who see people around the world as their neighbors and as members of a human community for whom they must have concern and compassion. Not to mention that increasingly the jobs of the future will depend upon global skills and competitiveness.

Where are the places that Webster students call home? I have personally visited 40 of the 60 locations.

And how we do help our students as well as our faculty and staff gain their sense of their place in the world—opening their perspectives to others’ diverse experiences?

  • Airfare, residential campuses (newest), faculty and staff exchanges, same curriculum to enable progress toward degree, a new general education program that focuses on global citizenship
  • Since I arrived—focus on opening up new worlds to Webster and our students to new worlds—most recent additions are Ghana and Greece.
  • Increasing the focus on global diversity and inclusion on this campus—faculty, staff, students, leadership including trustees
  • Creating a new strategic plan that will squarely focus on global competitiveness for Webster University

In the future when a Webster grad is asked, where do you call home? It is my hope that they can name a variety of places where they feel at home and truly, as global citizens, feel the world is their home and embrace the inhabitants of many homes around the globe as their extended family and neighbors, for whom they share a responsibility.

And I hope their families—just like you—will be comfortable sending them into the world, knowing that the Arch, symbol of the westward migration of generations of Americans seeking their fortune and adventure, continues to symbolize the welcome St. Louis provides as well as the launching site for careers and contributions to a larger world.

From those beginnings in Newcastle, Wyoming to right in Webster Groves, I have found a home that expands my opportunities. As Webster celebrates 100 years making its home in St. Louis, the Gateway to the West, we imagine ourselves a Gateway to the World for our students and for the region.

/president/speeches/
/president/speeches/