Rhea Retires with 43-Year Bison Hill Legacy

October 23, 2009

"If I hadn't had a good time teaching, it would have been difficult to do. But I've had a good time," Rhea said. "Parting is such sweet sorrow."

The Bison Hill fixture, who retired from Oklahoma Baptist University at the end of the 2008-09 academic year, has literally seen generations of students come through his classes during the past half century. One student recently informed him he not only taught her and her mother, but also her grandmother.

Students who learned under Rhea in the mid-70s and returned in recent times to visit their math professor found his former office had been transformed into a men's restroom in Thurmond Hall. That was not the only transformation during Rhea's tenure. He says he has noticed changes in student preparation, dress codes and even the teaching styles and preferences of other teachers.

Through the years, Rhea has faced head-on the challenge of attempting to teach students, including those who are ill-prepared, to raise their knowledge and understanding of math to a level where they can succeed. In doing so, he found the greatest reward of his job: to see students succeed and to feel he contributed just a little part of their foundation for success. His former students include Dr. Deborah Blue, OBU's senior vice president for academic affairs, who became his coworker and, eventually, his boss.

A native of Waco, Texas, Rhea earned a bachelor's degree from Baylor University in 1959. He earned a master's degree from Oklahoma State University in 1961, where one of his housemates was John Parrish, OBU executive vice president emeritus. Following his OSU graduation, Rhea moved to Oskaloosa, Iowa, where he taught at William Penn College, and met his wife, Marianna, who he married in 1964.

In 1966, Parrish told Rhea about two mathematics vacancies at OBU. The Rheas have been in Oklahoma ever since.

Wayne Rhea (third from left) was part of Oklahoma Baptist University's mathematics team spanning six presidencies. Here he walks with his colleagues (from left) Dr. John Nichols, Dr. Eugene Hobbs and Dr. Eileen Hargrove.

Through the years, Rhea said his favorite courses to teach were Calculus Sequence and Differential Equations because they pose a lot of challenging problems. That is a leap of learning from his role as a young man who, in elementary school, was terrible at arithmetic but had a loud, booming voice. People wanted him to be a preacher because he could speak well, but he discovered he was not called to that profession.

In ninth grade algebra, where his teacher expected students to solve problems on the blackboard, something clicked.

"It opened up a new world to me," Rhea said. "My teacher let me come early to help students - my classmates who were having difficulties - and it grew from there. The more math I took, the more fun I had. That is why I encourage students to work through problems with others. It is a good way to learn."

Soon after his arrival at OBU, professors started a tutoring program, largely because Rhea had enjoyed tutoring through the years. The program has continued to evolve, leading into the Student Success Center which aims to help today's OBU students in a variety of subjects.

In addition to his classroom teaching, Rhea has been a long-time avid Bison and Lady Bison basketball fan. He attended all but two conference games last year. For 15 years, from 1967-82, he kept the scoreboard in Clark Craig Fieldhouse. He also follows Bison baseball and Lady Bison softball. He hopes to keep following the athletes and sports from his new home in Tulsa. He knows he will miss the campus activity - and he expects he will miss his many OBU friends even more.

"In his 43 years of dedicated service, he has never lost his passion for either his discipline or the University," Blue said.

As he enters a new phase of his life, Rhea anticipates the time he will get to spend with his grandchildren, who call him "Big Daddy." His children, Matthew Rhea and Heather Rhea Streich, '93, anticipate him helping the grandchildren with their arithmetic. That task will come easily for the mathematician who is leaving a legacy of his unbridled excitement for the world of arithmetic on Bison Hill.