By Dr. William Thomas
Every morning when I wake up, I thank God for my blessings. Besides a wonderful family that now includes two grandchildren, God has chosen to allow me to teach at Baylor for 32 years. Not once in that time have I dreaded going to work! How many men and women can say that?
As part of my job of teaching seniors and graduate students in accounting, I do a lot of career counseling. In the early days, my advice was "choose a career that can provide you and your family a good living." But I've come to realize that isn't the way it worked out for me. These days, my advice is "choose something you have a passion for, and prepare yourself to be the best you can be. The rest will take care of itself." In fact, if it hadn't been for my experience as a student at Baylor some 40 years ago, and for the care and guidance I received from caring Baylor faculty, I wouldn't know the benefits I enjoy today. I realize more and more that I am standing on the tall shoulders of those who came before me.
I first arrived at Baylor in the fall of 1965, fresh from a small-town high school just down the road, a member of the first generation of my family to be college educated. My parents sacrificed to scrape the money together for tuition for my sister (two years older) and me. Because we recognized the sacrifice they were making, there was no time to waste, and no safety net. We studied hard to make our grades. Both of us were good at music, and we had been given the opportunity to use our natural gifts in church and various school events during our high school years. My sister chose to follow her natural gifts. She majored in music education and has had a 40-year career as a master teacher and choral director. I was good with numbers, so I chose to major in accounting. But I had a passion for singing. How does someone integrate those two seemingly so dissimilar interests?
The next few years transformed my life. As an undergraduate accounting major I split my investments in the classroom with directing music at a local church, belonging to a fraternity, and singing with a band on Saturday nights. I was blessed to have such mentors as Rod Holmes, Jim Parsons, Emerson Henke, Bob Packard, Euell Porter and Helen Ligon as professors, who each made his or her mark on my character. In those days, while research was "appreciated," classroom teaching and the "personal touch" were valued above all else as the mark of a Baylor education. Jim, Emerson, Bob and Helen were later selected as some of the first master teachers of the University. These and so many others literally poured their lives into us, and I learned much from the example and standard of personal and professional excellence that they set. I think about this often as I watch our current students develop over the brief time they are here. We never know exactly who they will become, but they are watching us, and they learn as much from our example as our words.
After graduating with a bachelor's degree, I embarked on a career with a large accounting firm in Dallas. Although technically competent, I lacked passion for the job. I returned to Baylor after only 13 months to enroll in the MBA program, a decision that proved life-changing. When I graduated a year later, undergraduate enrollments in my field were exploding and qualified faculty were in short supply. Baylor came through with the opportunity of a lifetime, an offer to join the faculty of the accounting department. When I stepped into the classroom, I knew I had found my calling. The classroom was the perfect blend for my natural abilities--the technical skills I had learned in the Baylor classroom, and the ability to communicate. I came to realize that delivering a song and delivering a good lecture are strangely akin. Only the message and the medium are different.
I could go on and on about my blessings over the years that have ensued. Baylor has been at the center of all of them. In the mid '70s, through generous grants from successful alums, Baylor provided the funds for me to obtain a PhD. Although there were a few detours, I never really looked back. I returned to Baylor in 1978 to become the colleague of my former mentors. In 1983 they honored me by asking me to chair the department, a task I performed for 12 years. It was during that time that I started to realize the awesome responsibility that falls to a tenured faculty member, because, in a very real sense, tenured faculty assume ownership for the University's mission. Baylor changed much during those years, being carefully transformed from a regional teaching school to a nationally recognized research and teaching institution. Along the way, I realize I have grown with her.
In my opinion, the most significant single policy decision in Baylor's history to date is Vision 2012. Alumni ask me all the time, "How are things at Baylor?" I respond immediately, "Baylor is better in every way than the school I entered as a freshman 40 years ago." Much of these improvements are the result of Vision 2012. Our facilities are unparalleled in beauty and functionality. Our faculty consists of not only competent but highly dedicated Christian scholars. These young faculty are just as student-friendly as we were taught to be, allowing Baylor to retain the "personal touch" while growing academically. Our student body is brighter than ever, and better prepared than ever with graduate programs to enhance a strong undergraduate experience. Our research accomplishments, something so many of us thought would detract from our teaching mission, have rather enhanced it. We are winning a stronger academic reputation, thus enhancing our capability to attract even brighter and more qualified faculty and students.
I am blessed to have been a part of Baylor during the most significant time in its history. However, I always remind myself that whatever I have accomplished as a scholar and a teacher over the years has been as the result of the opportunities so unselfishly provided by those master teachers
I am still standing on tall shoulders.