During nearly four decades in the college classroom, Dr. Bev Harris championed the cause of educating math educators in Missouri, leaving behind a legacy that continues through his students, who are teaching at high schools and universities across the country, preparing future generations of math educators.
“At one time, before the state colleges really got with it as far as math education is concerned, I was the leading math educator in the state of Missouri,” he said. “I was putting more students in high schools to teach mathematics and more students in graduate schools to pursue graduate school mathematics than any college in the state.
“The thing I’m most proud of from having taught at SBU, at least from an academic standpoint, is that over 50 of my former students have at least a master’s degree in pure mathematics. That’s better than one a year. I taught 37 years at Southwest.”
Harris encouraged and inspired his students to study pure mathematics and to be educators.
“I remember when I first went into his office my freshman year,” said Dr. Bob Glasgow, professor of mathematics at SBU, who was one of Harris’ students and joined the mathematics faculty in 1989. “I had just made my decision to be a math teacher and was still very unsure of myself. By the time I left Bev’s office, I had a four-year plan and was starting to think about graduate school after graduation. That’s the way Bev advised. He was encouraging while giving you strong nudges to do more than you thought you were capable of doing.”
Even students who weren’t math majors remember his caring and helpful demeanor.
“He was very interested in the students,” said Elizabeth Pace ’59, one of his many students. “He is just generally interested in people and was always helpful.”
As an SWBC graduate, he was very familiar with the college when he was offered a job. Attending Southwest Baptist College after graduating from high school was not optional for Harris, whose family moved to Bolivar in January 1943, during the middle of World War II, because his mother wanted all of her children to attend SWBC. Harris said the family left behind a nice farm in the Kansas City area of Jackson County, Mo., to move to Bolivar so he and his siblings could live at home while attending SWBC.
He started college during the summer of 1945 but was then drafted into the U.S. Army in January 1946. He served as a Regimental Control Sergeant in the Transportation Corps for one year, being discharged according to the newly enacted college clause that limited service to one year for anyone who was drafted out of college. He returned to SWBC for the spring and summer semesters of 1947, graduating that year with an associate of arts degree. He completed a bachelor of science in education with a major in math and a minor in biology from Southwest Missouri State University in 1949.
Harris taught math and science at Humansville High School in northwestern Polk County for two years before joining the SWBC faculty in 1952 while working on his master’s degree in mathematics, which he finished in 1953 at the University of Missouri. While he was teaching at Humansville, Dr. John Dowdy, president of SWBC, told him that if he finished his master’s degree he would have a job at SWBC.
“I found out later that my junior college math professor, J.F. Hurst, had requested that I take his place,” Harris said. “I’ve never had to ask for a job in my life.”
While teaching at Humansville, he married Zodee, who was the first full-time secretary at Bolivar First Baptist Church. They had three children: Susan, Steven and Joy.
Harris completed his doctorate 10 years after completing his master’s degree, about the time SWBC was transitioning from a junior to a senior college. At that time he was one of two professors to have a doctorate, the other being Dr. Jasper Clark, a biology professor. When SWBC became a senior college, Harris was promoted straight from instructor to professor. He later received the title of “Distinguished Professor.”
“I felt like the Lord called me to teach at SBU, just like he calls ministers,” Harris said. “I felt sure after Dr. Dowdy had invited me to teach that it was God’s will for me. When I first came to SBU, I told the Lord, ‘Send me students I can help.’ Notice I didn’t say send me good students; I said send me students I can help. It’s kind of like when King Solomon prayed and he said, ‘Lord, help me to have the wisdom to guide the Israelites’ and not only did he do that, but he gave him wealth besides. So the Lord, when I asked for students I can help, as a bonus he gave me outstanding students.”
Harris hired former students John Smashey and John Bryant to teach alongside him, and the trio taught math together at SBU for 23 years until Harris’ retirement in 1989. Smashey also has since retired, while Bryant is still on the math faculty and coaches men’s and women’s tennis, a job for which he was recommended by Harris.
“As the department chair, he arranged my class schedule in the mornings so I could work with tennis,” said Bryant, who took an algebra class with Harris in 1960 and returned to teach at SBU in 1966.
Harris hired his replacement, Dr. Kevin Hopkins, who filled the department of mathematics chair position. When Hopkins sent an inquiry letter in 1987 about any possible openings, expressing an interest in teaching at a small, Christian university, Harris decided it might be time to look at early retirement. Hopkins’ resumé was impressive, and his references were solid. But there was one line in that letter that really caught Harris’ attention: “I know a big school could pay me more money, but money isn’t everything.”
“I thought, ‘BINGO!” Harris recalls. “I thought the Lord was trying to tell me something. I felt we would never have another opportunity to have a Ph.D. at the head of the department, especially from one of the top math universities in the country. I checked on his credentials, and all the teachers that I talked to said he would be an outstanding candidate not only for our university, but for any university in the U.S. because he is a top student in his class and is very much respected.”
For Harris, early retirement meant an opportunity to do more of the Lord’s work, which he already had done for many years through involvement at Southern Hills Baptist Church and First Baptist Church.
“I prayed, ‘Lord, give me something worthwhile to do,’” he said. “So he gave me Polk County Christian Social Ministries with Share Your Christmas. I was one of the leaders for 25 years.”
PCCSM was a young ministry, having just started in 1985. Bev served as treasurer for more than 20 years and organized the Share Your Christmas project that now assists more than 600 families annually with donations of food, toys and other items at Christmas.
“I enjoy helping people,” Harris told the Bolivar Herald-Free Press in 2009. “It makes tears come to your eyes sometimes when you see a needy family and you’d like to help them but there’s just no way in the world to help them. I take that work very seriously.”
Also in his retirement, Bev became an avid tennis player, ranking second in the state of Missouri in the 65-year-old age bracket. He was the center on SWBC’s basketball team in the fall of 1947, and he was a scorekeeper at SBU men’s basketball games for 34 years. Even now, when he is not able to be as active, he enjoys watching sports on TV. One of his favorite SBU memories is when he saw the men’s tennis team win a national championship in Kansas City.
“Bev was devoted to his students, to the Bolivar community and mostly, to serving our Lord,” Bryant said. “He created math champions for years.”
Scholarship fund to honor Dr. Bev Harris’ legacy
In recognition of Dr. Bev Harris’ contributions to mathematics education during his 37-year tenure as department chair and faculty member in SBU’s Department of Mathematics, the Dr. Bev Harris Mathematics Education Scholarship Fund has been established.
Only two people have served as chairman of SBU’s Department of Mathematics during the past 62 years. Harris served from 1952-1989, when he hired Dr. Kevin Hopkins to teach and assume the department chair position, allowing Harris to take early retirement. Hopkins is still in that position and, 25 years later, has led efforts to establish the scholarship fund in recognition of Harris’ legacy at SBU and in the Bolivar community.
“When I came to SBU, I didn’t have any experience to have ideas about how to properly honor Dr. Harris’ years of service,” Hopkins said. “My mother passed away in September 2013, and I have thought much more about legacy (her legacy and the legacy of others) during the past few months since her passing. Now, even though it is 25 years after his retirement, seems an appropriate time to establish a scholarship fund that would honor and continue to recognize Dr. Harris’ legacy of service to the math department and to the Bolivar community, which he continued to serve faithfully in his retirement until health issues prevented him from continuing that service.”
Scholarships will be awarded with priority given to junior or senior level math education majors.
Through the years, many scholarship funds have been established in honor or in memory of SBU professors. Donations can be made to any of these funds through a check mailed to SBU, Att: University Relations, 1600 University Ave., Bolivar MO 65613, or online at www.SBUniv.edu/give and click on “Give online.” To find out which professors have been honored with scholarship funds, search the list of funds in the “Give online” section of the website or call (417) 328-1804.