As the slightly built woman smiled and swiped my card in Penland cafeteria, there was something all too familiar about her. If eyes truly are windows to the soul, Selma Choucair's are stained glass, full of meaning and purpose, flooding her surroundings with soft, filtered light, a glowing glimpse of a life well lived. Then I realized - these were the same striking eyes that shone at me from behind another register more than a decade earlier and 250 miles away in Munday, Texas, halfway between Abilene and Wichita Falls. In the back of the old brick building on the square, the shoe department was decorated with a Dallas Cowboys 'Doomsday Defense' poster and a Larry Bird/Magic Johnson Converse cardboard cut-out. There, this woman - Mrs. Choucair - had helped me try on school shoes, a pair of Nike Air Pegasus, my first with air compartments. For decades, Selma Choucair's family owned and operated The Fair Store, the last department store in this small farming town of 1,500. She was the last person I expected to see working in Penland during my freshman year at Baylor in the fall of 2000, but the more I learned about Mrs. Choucair, the more it made perfect sense.
After finishing elementary school near the end of World War II, Selma had a grown-up decision to make: go to work, or go to school? The young girl's love of learning altered the trajectory of her own life -- and the lives of her four future children, three of whom became Baylor graduates.
Selma chose to attend a boarding school four hours from her home in the hills of Arsoûn, Lebanon. A sponge of a student, she developed a particular interest in history. After graduating, Selma became a teacher for a few years before marrying a family friend, Joe Choucair, on Aug. 5, 1956.
Joe, who was already an American citizen with a life in the U.S., returned to Lebanon to marry Selma and bring her back to Texas. He worked at his brother George's department store, known as The Fair Store in Munday.
Between the hamlets of Arsoûn and Munday, Joe took Selma on the honeymoon of a lifetime, taking two months to visit friends in major cities: Athens, Paris, Rome, London, New York, Washington, D.C. But that would be Selma's first and last such trip; between raising children and working at the store, Selma never was able to return to Lebanon. In fact, she did not see any of the family she left behind in 1956 until her sister came for a visit in 1997.
"Something Mom taught us is the value of relationships, and caring about each other, trying to continue those bonds," says Salwa Choucair Lanford, Selma's youngest. "Family is very important. That's why I've always been amazed, especially now that I have kids, how she could have left her family and never returned. That's just so unfathomable to me now."
"Everybody in Lebanon wanted to come to the United States for a better, more productive future for yourself and your children. My family supported me because that is what I wanted to do," says Selma. "It was hard at first learning the language, but after meeting people in Munday who were so nice, they made it easier on me. I wanted to be able to speak to them, and it didn't take me long."
Selma and Joe eventually bought a stake in the store, taking over more ownership and responsibilities in the 1960s. Still, Selma never stopped dreaming of going to college.
"I would have loved to go back to school, but Joe and the children needed me there, of course. I always had the desire for more and more school, which I tried to pass on to my children."
Despite Munday's considerable distance from higher education opportunities, Selma never stopped learning. As she had time between raising her children, working in the store, and numerous community and church activities, Selma quietly enjoyed taking correspondence courses from American Schools. She would receive a workbook from the college, complete it, then mail it back in for grading and college credit. Selma was constantly reading, and she often took her children across the town square to the city library.
Over the years, Selma and Joe's dedication to education made lasting impressions on their four children. In fact, all four of them graduated as valedictorian or salutatorian of their classes at Munday High. Dr. Ramsey Choucair is a highly sought-after plastic surgeon in Dallas. Omar Choucair, BBA '84, is a very successful business executive in Dallas. Dr. Mona Choucair, BA '86, PhD '00, is a popular Baylor professor. And Salwa Choucair Lanford, BA '90, is an award-winning journalist in San Antonio.
After graduating from Munday High in 1975, eldest son Ramsey became one of the most experienced plastic surgeons in the southwest. He earned degrees from Rice University and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, then served as a faculty member and fellow in plastic surgery at Harvard Medical School and completed a Reconstructive Plastic Surgery Fellowship at the Shriners Burn Institute in Boston, becoming a recognized surgeon in facial burn reconstruction. Today, Choucair operates a successful plastic surgery practice in Dallas and has appointments at several Dallas-area hospitals, including Baylor University Medical Center, where he has been on staff since 1999.
Choucair and his wife, Ginger Mariani Choucair, have three daughters: Christine, Jacqueline and Angelina.
Younger brother Omar's plans to study engineering at Texas A&M were put on hold when tragedy struck the Choucair family two weeks before school was to start that fall. Joe, the patriarch, passed away on Aug. 15, 1980, after battling a recurrence of cancer he had successfully fought off 12 years earlier. Aside from the severe emotional toll Joe's loss took on the family, he had also been in charge of the family's clothing business.
"My kids knew that if we were going to make it, we all had to work hard and help each other," says Selma. "Omar was the one who kept us all going. The store was the main thing for us. He helped us, and the girls started helping me more. We all learned the books and how to keep the ledger. It's a lot of work to buy all the clothes, market everything, do all the displays. Omar deserves a lot of the credit. We all tell him, 'If it was not for you, Omar, we could not have made it in this way.'"
With Ramsey already in his second year of medical school, and Selma -- now a widow in her late 40s -- watching over the children, Omar assumed the lead role at the store instead of leaving home.
"I remember life just changed. It was totally different," says Salwa. "We all felt that extra responsibility, but we embraced it and came together as a family."
"Dad died two weeks before the fall semester started," says Omar. "And so I decided I couldn't go to A&M because mom was not able emotionally or financially prepared to get up and go to the store every day and deal with clients and everything else. I decided to stay home for a year, but I did not want to delay my college plans."
Omar commuted the 150-mile round-trip to Abilene Christian University for a year, taking classes on Tuesday and Thursday and helping his mother and sisters transition into managing more responsibilities at the store.
"Until you have a small business, you really can't comprehend how much work it is. It is a tremendous amount of work," says Omar, who handled everything from borrowing working capital loans from banks to stock the shelves, to purchasing merchandise from the Dallas Apparel Mart, among other duties.
A local physician recognized Omar's business savvy and recommended that he check out Baylor's business school. Though he had plenty of college options, one factor made the decision easy.
"Baylor just offered me incredible scholarships. I don't even know how; I think they just felt sorry for me," he says. "I had good grades and test scores, but even to this day, I couldn't explain how I got such great scholarships and comprehensive financial aid packages."
After thriving under the tutelage of professors like Dr. Vivienne Malone-Mayes, Dr. Emerson Henke and Dr. Bill Thomas, Omar earned his degree in accounting and finance, then went to work for KPMG. In his third year there, Omar was at a recruiting dinner in Dallas when he met a Baylor senior, Allison Barto, BBA '87.
"She was a lot smarter than I was, and all the accounting firms were after her," says Omar. "To her, the funny thing was my commitment to KPMG and how I thought no one should even consider the other national accounting firms."
Allison did ultimately choose KPMG, and several years later, she and Omar married and started a family. After a decade at KPMG, in 1994 Omar went to work for Chancellor Media, which owned and operated radio stations. Omar served as Chancellor's vice president of finance until 1999, when the company was sold to Clear Channel Communications.
For the past 13 years, Omar has been executive vice president and chief financial officer of Digital Generation, Inc., the world's leading ad management and distribution platform. DG connects more than 11,000 global advertisers and agencies with their targeted audiences through an expansive network of more than 6,000 television broadcast stations and 11,500 web publishers in over 75 countries. In 2009 he was named Dallas Business Journal's CFO of the Year for a small- to medium-size public company. He recently elected to transition from his current CFO role at DG and remains a consultant for the company.
Omar and Allison live in Plano, Texas, with their two teenage daughters, Sydney and Samantha.
Omar's time at Baylor overlapped with his sister, Mona, who chose Baylor over schools like Sweet Briar, Brown and Virginia because Omar seemed so happy in Waco. Here, Mona flourished as part of Student Foundation and Alpha Delta Pi.
Influenced by a host of professors, Mona switched from pre-med to English after coming back from a Baylor in the British Isles trip.
"I was just so impressed with my professors -- great Christian role models, people like Ann and Robert Miller, Jim and Betsy Vardaman, Andy and Rachel Moore, Tommye Lou Davis, Bill Pitts, Martha Lou Scott, Bill Hillis, Ann Karaffa, Maurice Hunt, Dianna Vitanza, and a lot of others," says Mona. "And I knew that I loved English literature, and I also loved working with youth. I thought maybe I could make a career out of it."
After graduation, Mona taught for nine years at Waxahachie High School and earned her master's degree at University of Dallas. She earned her doctorate in 2000 from Baylor, where she has taught ever since. Today she is a senior lecturer with a dual appointment in the College of Arts and Sciences (English department) and the School of Education, teaching literature and advanced grammar as well as curriculum and instruction. Choucair considers herself very lucky to hold her unique position.
"I love walking into a classroom. It's my passion, and I hope it's contagious," Mona says. "I just love the relationships. I love that literature doesn't have one answer, that there are many angles and perspectives when we come to a piece of literature. We can analyze it and talk about it. I love the fact that literature mimics life, and that we can talk about our spiritual lives and our real-life issues along with literature."
Choucair's classes are among the most popular on campus. In 2008, Baylor seniors voted her the Collins Outstanding Professor, given annually to an extraordinary teacher at Baylor. Often during her office hours, a long line of students meanders outside her door.
"I love that part of my job, and I love that just like I used to go into my professors' offices, my door is open," says Choucair. "I consider it an honor when they come by. I think we owe it to the parents because we are a Christian community. And we talk about life behind those doors.
Mona's study abroad experience will come full circle as she leads the Baylor in Maastricht trip for the first time in the fall of 2013.
"I try to be the best for my students because I was taught by the best. I wonder who I would be if I had not gone to Baylor with such personal attention given to me by teachers, the study abroad trip, the Christian environment, the small classes, wonderful Christian friends around me; I don't know that I would be the same person. It's a wonderful place to grow and learn about life."
After Mona left for Baylor, Salwa and her mother shouldered more of the store's day-to-day operations. At age 14, Salwa would drive her mother to Waco to visit her siblings.
"We would stop at the bridges that cross Lake Waco on Highway 6, and Omar would come meet me so I could follow him into the big city," says Salwa.
As the youngest, Salwa wanted to do something different from her siblings and first chose the University of Texas. Stuck on the dorm waiting list there, she valued the experiences of Mona and Omar at Baylor enough to give it a try. After taking a radio and TV class and D.J.-ing for a semester,
she found her calling -- journalism -- in a writing class.
"I discovered that I loved reporting and giving both sides of a story. It just seemed to be a great fit for me."
While at Baylor, Salwa was a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, President's Leadership Foundation and Student Foundation and worked as a sales clerk with Mona at Cox's Department Store and later as a waitress at Steak and Ale. She especially enjoyed going on the Baylor in the British Isles trip, recruiting new Baylor students and being asked to speak during Greek Rush.
An award-winning freelance writer and editor for the past nine years and in her third year as president of The Association for Women in Communications San Antonio chapter, Salwa's work experience began at a daily newspaper in Huntsville, Texas, The Huntsville Item, and continued in San Antonio as editor of a tourism magazine, Qué Pasa San Antonio! Currently, she works as a freelance writer for various publications in San Antonio including the San Antonio Business Journal and Our Kids San Antonio.
She and husband Tom Lanford, vice president of real estate for Clear Channel Outdoor, have two children, Olivia and Joseph.
Inspired by the love of learning their mother had passed down, Omar, Mona and Salwa have all done their best to pay that love forward. The three Baylor graduates have each given to support Baylor scholarships in hopes that others like themselves can find their places at Baylor.
But that's not where the story ends. With her children grown, the store closing and retirement age approaching, Selma Choucair's thirst for knowledge had not yet been quenched. She still wanted to experience college for herself.
"When all the kids finished high school is when I first started thinking, now maybe I can go to college," she recalls.
"I told her, 'Mom, here's your opportunity. You can do it,'" says Mona. "And before we knew it, she was selling her house."
In 1999, at age 67, Selma left Munday to move four hours away and enroll as a freshman at McLennan Community College in Waco. Now it was her turn to learn.
With considerable grace and courage, the always-adaptable Selma mingled with students and again embraced a new culture -- this time, in the world of academia. Armed with her vast life experience and her ever-present sense of proper decorum, Selma bought her books and sat down in school desks, learning and interacting with youngsters who often saw the world far differently that she did. Her favorite class, appropriately enough, was World History.
For the next six years, she made her home on the edge of Baylor's campus among students with a half-century less life experience, in University Place apartments. During that time, she worked at Baylor, first swiping IDs at Penland and Memorial dining halls, followed by a brief stint at the Baylor Bookstore, then reshelving books and manning the check-out desk in Moody Library. (Is it any surprise that Selma ended up serving in the academic heart of campus -- the library?)
"I was so happy to be working at Baylor and enjoyed seeing what was going on," she says. "The people that I worked with were a little bit younger than me and they had different ideas. The students' attitudes about life were different, but they were all still really nice and I loved them. I loved my experiences working at Baylor and going to class at MCC. The courses were wonderful and something new to me. I loved my world history class the most."
"Mom was so proud that she could study," says Mona. "I realized we take college and higher education for granted once we were in it. It was an awakening to me, seeing it through mom's eyes."
At age 73, Selma Choucair completed her general studies degree from MCC in 2005, finally earning what she had wanted for decades.
"It was ironic that Mom had been pushing us all those years to get an education," says Ramsey, "while deep inside her she's always been about reading and learning. None of us were surprised when she took advantage of the chance to do it more formally, and we were thankful she had this opportunity."
"Watching Mom walk across the stage was pretty amazing because she had always made school the number-one priority for all the kids growing up," says Omar. "That she was able to work at Baylor, drive across town to MCC, and actually get a degree is just phenomenal. It's unbelievable. I don't even think she recognizes that."
"Our parents taught us that it's never too late. You never have to give up. They never told us that we couldn't do something, that we didn't have the money. They never told us that we couldn't go to Baylor, we couldn't go to Harvard. We could go anywhere. They just made it work," says Salwa.
"Here's a woman who came to the U.S. trusting in a new marriage approximately 7,000 miles from her family, looking for a new opportunity and a better life," says Mona. "Her belief in God was just steadfast. Total faith directed her life. She raised four kids and worked hard in the store, all while adapting to a new language and culture. She kept the family together and helped each of us finish what we wanted to finish, no matter what, because that's what Dad would have wanted.
"I think Dad would be pretty happy with how we all turned out, and he would be so proud of Mom."