May 9, 2014
A lot happened in 1958. The United States launched SCORE, the world's first communications satellite. Bobby Fischer won the United States Chess Championship at age 14. Elvis Presley became U.S. Private #53310761. Fidel Castro's revolutionary army began attacks on Havana. Pizza Hut was founded.
A lot has changed since 1958, as well. Consider: The Beatles were still known as the Quarrymen, and it was the first year in which more people crossed the Atlantic by air than by sea.
One thing that hasn’t changed since then, however, is Dr. Roger Kirk at Baylor University. Baylor’s Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and Master Teacher, Kirk recently joined Dr. Rufus Spain as the only Baylor employees ever recognized for 55 years of service.
“It seems like just yesterday when I was coming to Baylor,” said Kirk, whose list of accolades is as long as his service.
In 1993, he was named Outstanding Tenured Teacher in the College of Arts and Sciences, and he received the 2008 Herbert H. Reynolds Award for Exemplary Service to Baylor University. Two years ago, he was honored as the Cornelia Marschall Smith Professor of the Year.
Kirk earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate from Ohio State University and was the N.S.F. Postdoctoral Fellow in Mathematical Psychology at the University of Michigan prior to joining the Baylor faculty. A Midwesterner, he never expected to stay in Texas.
“I thought I would move on,” he said of his early days at Baylor. “I thought I’d see what Texas was like, be here a few years and then go on to some other university. But I just fell in love with Baylor.”
He also fell in love with his wife, who he met on a blind date in 1975 shortly after returning to Waco from a one-year, visiting-professorship in Japan. Kirk reached out to his friend Mary Ellen Proufit in the music department and inquired about “interesting new women faculty.”
“I wanted to get back to my roots in music,” said Kirk, who studied music early in his life. “Mary Ellen said, ‘You have to meet Jane Abbott.’ I called her; she sounded marvelous on the phone. The next thing you know, we have a date.”
That first date was at Poppa Rollo’s, a spot at which the couple still dines occasionally for special memories.
“I thought he was a pretty nice guy,” Abbott-Kirk said. “He asked questions that I wasn’t prepared to answer, like a typical psychologist is going to ask. ‘What do you see yourself doing in 10 years?’ I had to really think about it. I wasn’t used to planning my life ahead like that.”
Few could have planned what lay ahead – the union of two Baylor professors who four decades later would still be teaching at the University. Together, they have served more than 95 years at Baylor.
Abbott-Kirk came to Baylor in 1973 from the University of Kansas where she taught the previous seven years. Born in Corpus Christi, she attended high school in San Antonio before attending Indiana University. When the opportunity to return to her home state arose, she did not let it pass.
“Once I got here and realized the assets of the School of Music, which has grown astronomically since I’ve been here, and got to know my colleagues and realized not only the talent of the students but what great people they were, I just assumed this was where I would retire,” she said.
More than 40 years later, her love of Baylor has not waned. Nor has her favorite part of teaching piano at the University.
“It’s the students,” she said. “And the colleagues. It’s a great place to work.”
Kirk echoed his wife’s sentiment.
“We have some great psychology majors,” he said. “I love the students I work with. This is a great department. I have outstanding colleagues and a great department chair.”
Abbott-Kirk describes her husband as consistent. “Straight and steady. That’s my guy,” she said.
Nowhere do her free spirit and his scientific mind meet better than on the dance floor – a quintessential union of music and psychology. The Kirks, who married in June 1983, began dancing together in the early 1990s, even before Baylor allowed such revelry.
“I trained as a dance instructor before I came to Baylor,” Kirk said. “I didn’t finish my training, just had started it. I thought I’d pick it up again. At that point, we were married. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we got together and did ballroom?’”
What followed was reminiscent of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” Kirk bought lessons for his wife at a Waco dance studio. Not knowing this, Abbott-Kirk also went to the same studio to purchase lessons.
“Thankfully they let me know what he had done,” she said.
Two decades later, it is the dancing that keeps them close – literally and figuratively.
“That’s the time when we’re together,” Kirk said. “She’s so often at concerts in the evening, and I’m at home writing. Ballroom dancing is something we practice together, something we work at doing. It keeps us young.”
The couple participate in competitions and teach ballroom classes. This summer, they will teach a five-week tango class.
“Both of us bring the same skills we use in teaching our professional courses to dancing,” she said. “He’s a very analytical person, so he can break down steps in that way. And we both try to relate to the artistry.”
Kirk said learning all the dance steps keeps him mentally sharp.
“In the foxtrot, you could learn 60 steps; that’s just American foxtrot,” he said. “Then there are 60 steps in waltz, 60 steps in tango, 60 steps in every other dance. Then there is international dance style. Keeping it all in your head really is a very, very challenging activity.”
Abbott-Kirk notes the mental exercise’s importance and benefit.
“They often say it can help prevent Alzheimer’s because every part of the brain is active,” she said. “And it keeps you physically active. Ballroom dancing is an aerobic and mental activity.”
One they will continue to enjoy together as long as possible. And the same holds true for their teaching careers.
“We’ll see how our health holds up,” Kirk said. “I love what I’m doing. So as long as I love what I’m doing and am physically able to do it, I’m going to keep teaching. I love being in the classroom.”