Colleagues, former students warmly remember two Tusculum faculty members during tree dedication ceremonies

GREENEVILLE – Warm reflections brought smiles and laughs to an audience filled with family members, former colleagues and alumni as Tusculum University memorialized two longtime faculty members with tree dedication ceremonies.

Daughter Allison Snyder, left, and grandson Tatum Snyder kneel by the tree for Dr. Donal Sexton.

Left to right, Michaela Conley Gandy, Myra Conley, Eleanor Conley, Lynn Conley and Albert Conley, stand by the tree for Ron Conley. Eleanor Conley is his widow, and the other four are their children.

The university remembered Dr. Donal Sexton, a history professor who served at Tusculum for 40 years, and Ron Conley, a faculty member for 30 years, who retired as associate professor of mathematics, during events next to the Old College building on campus. Those who served with these two faculty members or were their students highlighted during the Saturday, Aug. 26, ceremonies how they influenced in people’s lives.

“From the first time I met him, I found Dr. Sexton to be a superior intellect with a unique passion for history,” said Levin Sudderth, a 2002 graduate with a major in history education and a minor in political science. “On the first day of class, he introduced himself, handed out the course syllabus and then proceeded to deliver a brilliant lecture on the origins and history of the executive branch. I loved every minute of it. I watched, pencil in hand, furiously taking notes as best I could, mesmerized by the scene unfolding before me. I finally knew that I was exactly where the Lord intended me to be.”

“Ron Conley was a role model extraordinaire,” said Dr. Bob Davis, professor emeritus of biology, who taught at Tusculum for 42 years. “Many students left this college knowing how to act, what to do in the world because of Ron Conley. He was a role model for other members of the faculty. He has a lasting legacy in the students and the community members who got to know who he was. From a jet fighter pilot, to a farmer to a teacher, think of the wealth experience that man had.”

Here are some additional memories and observations of these two men that were shared during the ceremonies.

Dr. Melinda Dukes, professor emeritus of psychology and a faculty member for 29 years who also served as vice president of academic affairs

She remembered Dr. Sexton’s smile and contagious laugh. She enjoyed many lunches with Dr. Sexton and other faculty members and shared the story of the first one with him and Bruce Batts. She recalled that it started as a post-hire interview.

Many current and former Tusculum family members came for Dr. Sexton’s ceremony.

“Bruce, who I knew from graduate school, offered me hints as Dr. Sexton quizzed me about my experiences in academia and snuck in a question or two about historical events and current political/social issues,” Dr. Dukes said. “The interview slid into a fun conversation about teaching, the liberal arts and campus life. For me, the most rewarding point was when Dr. Sexton, with a warm smile and generous handshake said, ‘Melinda, for goodness sake, call me Don.’”

She affectionately recalled gatherings at the President’s House, which included Dr. Sexton, for curriculum discussions. She said she became more discerning, thoughtful and socially engaged because of those conversations with faculty, which set the stage for the professors anchoring curricular elements in virtues such as justice, humility and the university’s Judeo-Christian traditions.

“Don’s love and pride for his family – Peg, Drew, Allison and his grandchildren – his commitment to truth and scholarship, his generosity and compassion for those struggling to find the truth and his love of teaching – indeed, these are qualities of a virtuous person,” Dr. Dukes said. “And I am thankful for this opportunity to participate in the dedication of this tree to the glory of Don’s time with us.”

Levin Sudderth

Now a social studies teacher in Elk Park, North Carolina, he was a Tusculum student when 9/11 happened, and he remembers how Dr. Sexton and other faculty and staff members joined students around a television to watch what had transpired. He said students were frightened and confused.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but the perspective, wisdom and analysis of Dr. Sexton and the other faculty helped all of us process the unfathomable in a world that was literally changing in front of our eyes,” Sudderth said.

“I will consider myself a success in life if I can have a fraction of a percentage of the influence on my students as he had on his. I am eternally thankful that the Lord saw fit to allow my life’s path to intersect with Dr. Sexton’s at Tusculum, and I am delighted to know that Tusculum students can visit this tree site and continue to remember him for generations to come.”

Dr. Scott Hummel, Tusculum’s president

Dr. Hummel said Tusculum has provided an outstanding education for centuries because of its outstanding faculty. Dr. Sexton and Professor Conley are prime examples. He said Tusculum is recognizing the legacies of Dr. Sexton and Professor Conley not just because of their broad contributions over long careers but also their deep and lasting connections with individual students who have become successful alumni.

“Their lasting influence has been multiplied through their thousands of students who themselves are making a lasting difference, informed and influenced by these remarkable men,” Dr. Hummel said. “Their legacies continue to ripple from their many years of dedicated service. Dr. Sexton’s 40 years at Tusculum University is even bigger than his impact on students because he also made major contributions to his academic field, community and church.”

Dr. Hummel had similar thoughts about Professor Conley’s imprint, not only in the classroom but in life as well.

“In his time as a department chair and working on various committees, he impacted numerous students – not just those pursuing a major in mathematics but also other students across the university,” Dr. Hummel said. “As I read about him, I saw that his legacy was not just with students and colleagues but also with family, church and community. I think what a blessing it is to have someone who contributed so broadly across the community, family and work.”

Dr. Bob Davis

Fighting emotion as he shared his recollections, Dr. Davis described Professor Conley as unassuming and without vanity. He touted all of the other elements of Professor Conley – Marine, businessman, home remodeler, carpenter, electrician, plumber, farmer, dairyman and cowboy.

“He was 100 percent Ron Conley,” he said. “He was not judgmental. He was humble. He loved everybody. He was not interested in impressing anyone. He was there to take care of people. He had endless patience with kids. He was a problem-solver. He brought his boys and girls up to know how to take care of things and handle life.”

Dr. Sonja Woods, one of Professor Conley’s students in the early 1990s

She is now a family medicine physician in Greeneville. She shared a comment from Dr. Amy Keesler, a friend of hers and a former student of Professor Conley. Dr. Keesler disliked math and dreaded having to take statistics, so she put it off until her senior year. Fortunately, she said she had Professor Conley for the class and managed to survive it through his clear teaching and humor.

The dedication for Ron Conley’s tree attracted many current and former Tusculum family members.

Dr. Woods shared the memories she and Dr. Mike Hartsell, who was Professor Conley’s physician, held of him. One of those was wondering whether Professor Conley the farmer could actually be a mathematician, a comment that drew laughs from the audience. That was the same first impression she had of him as a professor but said that was encouraging to her as she was preparing for the workforce.

“It helped me pursue my career because I grew up on my grandparents’ farm in Hawkins County,” she said. “It was nice to see that somebody from that setting in rural East Tennessee had a role in academia and could further their education in this way.”

Kim Carter, another student of Professor Conley

She vividly remembered the active and experiential learning in his classes – determining the height of trees using angles and trigonometry and calculating the acreage of a tobacco patch. When she became a Tusculum employee, Professor Conley became a trusted friend and advisor and a second dad. In summarizing Professor Conley, she noted three things: He loved God, his family and the university. She said he gave his all in everything he pursued.

“Mr. Conley meant a lot to me,” said Carter, who serves as the university’s chemical hygiene officer, Environmental Protection Agency coordinator ad lab assistant. “I’m proud to see that he is being honored with this tree.”

Dr. Dan Barnett, a former chemistry professor

He served at Tusculum for 28 years and recalled how he and others would gather each morning for a session of Professor Conley’s College of Farming in which they would discuss that line of work and try to resolve various problems. As a professor, he saw Professor Conley spend multiple hours helping students who struggled with math to successfully complete the course.

“The best things I remember about Ron were No. 1, that he was a Christian gentleman,” Dr. Barnett said. “He was a good family man, he was a good friend, he was a concerned professor, and I really appreciate the many wise things he said to me over the years about teaching and being a good person.”

The thoughts of the families

“I’d like to thank Tusculum for memorializing my father in such a meaningful way,” said Allison Snyder, Dr. Sexton’s daughter. “Having a tree in his honor is the perfect tribute. It was wonderful to see so many colleagues and friends of his that came to enjoy the ceremony. We look forward to seeing the progress as the tree grows.”

“We are all so thankful for the years that we had with our Tusculum family,” Mrs. Conley said. “It was just his nature to want to teach.”

“I’m glad to see the impact that he made on his students and his colleagues,” son Lynn Conley said. “The speakers were true in what they said. I’m glad it made a helpful impact.”

“I appreciate the ceremony, honoring his time here,” son Albert Conley said. “He spoke well of the students, cared for them and helped get the foundation started. That’s probably the legacy that he is leaving behind – helping shape the students in that formative time when they were here. He really enjoyed it.”

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