When Life Overflows

December 9, 2003
Helen Hailey Ligon, emeritus professor of information systems whose teaching career spanned almost five decades at Baylor, died Aug. 22, 2003, at the age of 82.
Ligon touched countless lives of her students and colleagues with her enthusiasm and passion for learning, says Reagan Ramsower, associate vice president and chief information officer and a former student of Ligon's.
"Her life just overflowed around you, and she did that so much more than anybody that I've ever been around. You just had to experience that presence," he says. "As people get older, they tend to spend so much of their mental time looking at what it used to be like, thinking about the past. Helen never dwelled upon the past -- she was always thinking about the future."
She was committed to staying current in her field, Ramsower says. The last class Ligon taught -- last summer during the second session when she substituted for another professor -- was on computer security. "That was really off track from the kinds of things that she studied. But she didn't have any problem at all preparing for that class, grabbing all the books and journal articles and getting herself up to speed on computer security," he says. "And she did not consider that a burden for a moment."
Fred Hulme, senior lecturer in information systems, is another of Ligon's former students and had been a colleague of hers since 1975. He says throughout the 45 years she taught at Baylor, she embodied the spirit of her department.
"She was never the 'head' of the department, and she was never the last word ... . But probably no one would've ever taken a direction that she didn't think was the correct direction," he says. "She didn't use that power, but it was an informal, 'We need to know what Helen thinks about this,' and we will miss that sorely."
Her death leaves a void in the lives of colleagues and students who appreciated her open-door policy and trademark, never-ending supply of jelly beans, Ramsower says. "Those of us who knew Helen and all the people who came in contact with her will experience an emptiness -- like a hole in our lives."
Ligon, who earned her bachelor's and master's degrees from Texas Woman's University in 1942 and 1945, respectively, began teaching at Baylor in 1958 and was selected in 1962 to learn how to use the University's first computer. She was named a full professor in 1976, the same year she earned her doctorate in management information systems from Texas A&M -- one of the first two graduates from that university to do so. In 1991, she was awarded the Herbert H. Reynolds Award, given for outstanding dedication and service to Baylor.
Being prepared for her classes was a priority for Ligon, who would record each of her textbooks onto cassette tapes so that she could listen to particular chapters as she drove between Waco and her home in Lott, Texas, about 25 miles from campus, Hulme says. "None of us prepares like that. You teach a class, you adopt a new book every couple of years, you probably don't read it all. If you've taught the subject as many times as she would've taught the subject, you kind of know what's in it. But she would do this just to be that prepared," he says.
One thing she wasn't quite ready to do in recent years, though, was to stop teaching, he says, even though she "officially" retired in 1993. Each year, the chair of her department would ask her what she planned to teach. Initially, she said she would continue teaching until her three grandsons graduated from Baylor (the last one earned his degree in 1995). Then, in 1997, she met a graduate student named Hope Koch, and she found another reason to stay -- she saw in Koch her future replacement, Hulme says.
The two women became fast friends, and after earning her master's, the younger woman taught for two years as a lecturer in the department. Wanting to continue her education, she began doctoral work in management information systems -- a goal Ligon encouraged. Koch defended her dissertation in July, a month before her mentor died.
Koch says she heard Ligon say that she wouldn't retire "until Hope came back," so that her teaching position would be available. "It wasn't a big thing that we had plotted or really talked about, it was just kind of joking," says Koch, who was hired last January by the University and started teaching in August. "She was so excited I was coming back."
Little more than a week before fall classes began, Ligon admitted herself to a Waco hospital, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia. She died the following week. She is survived by her son, Grady Ligon III, and his wife, Diane, of Austin, Texas; three grandsons, Grady Ligon IV and his wife, Dawn, of Houston, Gregg Ligon and his wife, Rachel, of Wichita Falls, Texas, and Grant Ligon of New York City; nephew, Chester Springfield of Lott, Texas; and two great-grandchildren, Tanner and Libbie Ligon of Wichita Falls.
"The single reason for my becoming a teacher is Helen Ligon," Hulme says. "I knew from the first day I was her student in 1970 that I wanted to be a person who could make a difference in people's lives like she had."
And her legacy, Koch says, will live on. "She created a culture in this department where we don't compete with each other; we share what we have," she says. "When I go into that classroom, approach the class, approach the preparation, approach how I want to live my life -- she's a picture of that."
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