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Alum Gladys Lewis: Building an Educational and Literary Reservoir

August 24, 2010

More than 50 years ago, a registered nurse named Gladys Sherman arrived on Bison Hill to pursue a bachelor's degree so she could be appointed as a medical missionary. In a journey of half a century which took her to the Southern Hemisphere and back, Dr. Gladys Sherman Lewis, a member of OBU's Class of 1955, now serves as a professor in the English department of the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond.

Lewis teaches courses in American literature and graduate courses in American and British literature. She said the most challenging aspect of her work with undergraduates is to help them learn the connections between sociology, history and art.

"My goals each semester come from my determination to help s tudents learn, appreciate and feel at ease in their identities as cultural subjects whose experiences are treated in the literature of our culture created by the best minds we have produced," she said. "That continues, of course, with graduate students, but in those classes, I am challenged to help them learn ethical research of substance so they can contribute to our educational and literary reservoir."

Lewis' plans as a college student did not include shaping tomorrow's literary leaders at the turn of the millennium. When she finished a three-year nursing degree at St. Anthony's School of Nursing in 1953 and successfully completed her board exams to be a registered nurse, she knew she wanted to be a medical missionary. The Foreign Mission Board, now the International Mission Board, of the Southern Baptist Convention required a bachelor's degree for missionary appointment, so Lewis pursued the coursework. Her family could not help her financially in those days prior to student loans, so she sought employment.

She learned OBU employed nurses who were also students to operate the student health clinic. She applied for a position that had just come open and was hired.

"To my delight, the salary was room, board, books, tuition and $25 a month!" she said. "What could be better? I supplemented my income as I could by working occasional shifts at what was then the Baxter Clinic. That decision gave me experience with another kind of academic life, friends who have remained friends the rest of my life, and a reassurance that I was in the right path for my life."

In 1955, she married Dr. Wilbur C. Lewis, a 1951 OBU graduate, and she finished her baccalaureate degree at Texas Christian University while he was an intern in Fort Worth. After his residency training, the couple studied for a year at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth before they were appointed as medical missionaries to the Baptist Hospital in Asunción, Paraguay, where they served 11 years. They left that post because of political problems in the country and returned to Oklahoma, where Dr. Lewis went into private practice.

The Lewises spent many years as "professional Baptists," serving in a variety of capacities. Wilbur was one of seven doctors who formed the Baptist Medical Dental Fellowship and participated in many service and humanitarian projects around the world. Gladys said she found joy and absorption in her local church while assuming a number of roles in the SBC, such as serving on the Southwestern Seminary board of trustees and the SBC committee on order of business. She has been an active participant in student work as a speaker for weeks at summer assemblies such as Glorieta and Ridgecrest. She also enjoyed a long period of being a speaker for chapels, conferences and study groups.

"When my last child was in high school, I decided to return to study myself to the first love: literature and writing," she said.

That decision took Lewis through a master of arts degree in creative writing at UCO and a Ph.D. degree from Oklahoma State University with a specialization in American and British literature. She started her teaching career at UCO in 1991 and recently completed her 20th year in that role. Though she was not considering a future role as an educator while a student at OBU, she said her experience on Bison Hill afforded both fun memories and life lessons which still apply.

Lewis said she had a good time "on duty" in Owens Hall, where the clinic was located when she first came to OBU. Later, the clinic was moved to a central campus location which afforded even more opportunities for social activity. Lewis said she enjoyed the annual Christmas events, in particular Hanging of the Green. And she was fond of Sadie Hawkins Day activities because she could "hit on" the good looking guys without apology or guilt.

"I did learn the importance of the bond between student and teacher, the blend of friendship with academic demands, and the mastery of academic material," Lewis said. "Years since in other academic institutions have reaffirmed those qualities and given me additional skills in practicing them."

She recalled OBU professors who impacted her tenure as a student and throughout life since: Dr. W. Forbes Yarborough, her Bible professor, whose kindness and gentleness, combined with high expectations, helped her understand the depths of Old Testament and New Testament material in ways she had not encountered before; Dr. Robert Laessig, her German professor, who taught her zest for life and joy in each day in addition to the requirements of academia; and professors in government and history who taught her the value of critical thinking and analytical insight.

"My English professor, Dr. Katherine Rader, inspired a love for literature that had already been a part of my passion, but she showed me how far the heights of study could go and how literature plays such a prominent role in cultural identity," Lewis said.

Today, Lewis is the professor who is shaping tomorrow's leaders.

"The most rewarding (aspect) comes at the end of the semester when I see the growth of student minds, watch them progress across the stage to receive earned degrees, and hear their accolades of appreciation," she said. "A particularly rewarding dimension of my work comes with continued contact through the years with students who have gone on to become professionals of various kinds in their own right."

Lewis' husband died five years ago after battling for life for 11 years after a tragic skiing accident left him a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic (the Christopher Reeve injury). The Lewises' children attest to their value of education and service: Karen is a professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business; David is an oceanographer with the Navy Research Lab at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi; Leanne teaches educational administration at Baylor; and Cristen, a critical care R.N., is a heart recovery nurse at Oklahoma Heart Hospital.

Lewis has "nine practically perfect grandchildren (my PPGs)." They have an incredible example to follow in their grandmother -- a nurse, wife, missionary, mother, professor, churchwoman, scholar, speaker, writer and volunteer.

Click the following link to view a full list of previous Profile in Excellence recipients.