As the clock winds down on another fall semester, so too is it ticking away the final hours of a teaching career that has spanned more than 50 years.
That kind of longevity in one profession —including more than 40 years with the same employer — is something that few ever even attempt, much less attain. But now, South Arkansas Community College mathematics professor Henry Culbreth has decided to retire. It’s a decision that has come with mixed emotions for this local classroom veteran who has guided untold thousands of students during his tenure.
“I mulled it over for a long time, arguing with myself, back and forth, back and forth,” Culbreth, 73, said. “I could have retired a long time ago. I continued working because it gave me a purpose to get up in the morning.”
He has other purposes. After taking some time off, Culbreth intends to be with grandchildren who live out of town, but he hasn’t created a schedule for himself.
After all, he has kept a schedule for a very long time. He was the founding member of what is now the math department at SouthArk, in its former incarnation as El Dorado’s branch of Southern Arkansas University, and for a number of years was its sole instructor.
That was in 1976. Prior, Culbreth had been working adjunct teaching jobs at several different colleges in Texas. Though he wasn’t an El Dorado native, his mother was, and his grandparents still lived here. After being informed that El Dorado was getting a college, he received some encouragement from his family to apply to work there.
He did so, and received a call to interview with college chancellor Ben Whitfield, who later would become SouthArk’s first president. Culbreth said Whitfield “offered me the job on the spot.” Culbreth accepted.
What happened next was 42 years of learning — and not just by the students, Culbreth said.
“I was kind of feeling my way around the first couple of years. It was tough,” he said, noting that he had to teach classes both early in the morning and late in the evening until the college began bringing on adjunct faculty to help with the math course load. “For a long time, until into the ’80s, it was just me.”
Now, the department that Culbreth started has grown to four full-time faculty members and a number of part-time ones. College enrollment has quadrupled since those early days. Technology, Culbreth said, has changed so much. In the mid ’70s, most students didn’t even have access to calculators, much less anything more sophisticated.
Those still were the days of the slide rule. Culbreth’s own is on display behind glass in the student center, a relic of a bygone era.
“I couldn’t use it now,” he said. “I probably won’t claim it after I retire.”
And when Culbreth says things like that, the statements often are punctuated by an intense, hearty laugh that suddenly explodes out of him and fills every square inch of the room.
It’s a sound that multiple generations of students are familiar with. He remembers many of them by name — even where they sat in his classrooms. That’s due in part to a memorization exercise that he often exhibited for his students on the first days of his classes, one that former student Sherrell Johnson — later a SouthArk Board member — called “spellbinding.”
“With no fanfare, he started row by row, one student at a time and asked our first names. We each said it once,” Johnson said. “Class size was probably over 30 — maybe closer to 40. After the last student at the back of the last row said his or her name, Henry went back to the first student and repeated our names back to us. He didn’t miss a one. I don’t recall that he even stumbled.
“It was unforgettable, and an incredible teacher-student connection.”
Over the course of half a century, though, it would be impossible to remember every name or face. But the impact that Culbreth has had is unquestionable. He said he runs into former students frequently, at times out of town and even out of state; they recognize him even if he sometimes does not recognize them. They tell him about their lives — of their successes and his place in them. The conversations always are “satisfying,” Culbreth said.
He expresses admiration, even amazement, at the level of commitment that many of his students have exhibited through the years.
“Some of them made tremendous sacrifices in order to improve their lives,” he said. “I don’t think that I could have done that, even as a young man.”
Connecting with students, Culbreth said, is the part of the job that he will miss most. He also said that he will miss his colleagues. That feeling is mutual, according to a number of co-workers past and present.
“I never heard a bad word said about him by students or faculty members,” said retired SouthArk English faculty member Bettie Mahony. “Although his personal life brought losses and challenges, those challenges never affected his commitment to his students. Henry is the consummate teacher.”
Mahony also noted that Culbreth easily could have pursued another job with more financial rewards, but instead chose to stay and teach at SouthArk.
“And I’m glad,” Culbreth said. “It’s been good to me.”
Carolyn Langston, a business professor who was the first hire made at the college when it was founded in 1975, and who is the only current employee with a longer tenure at SouthArk than Culbreth, took her co-worker’s college algebra class when pursuing her doctor’s degree.
“Henry and I were both new on the faculty, and still pretty young,” she said. “I was amazed at his depth of knowledge and ability to bring the material down to the level of the students. I must say I have tried to emulate his teaching style in many ways in the years since.
“Henry will be greatly missed and impossible to replace. He has been a treasure to our college, the students, and the community.”
Referring to Culbreth as a “master educator,” SouthArk President Barbara Jones said he also has been “an exceptional peer, employee and friend to all.”
She continued, “He has given mathematical knowledge, wise counsel and advice, and collaborative spirit to thousands of students. He has prepared students to succeed in their chosen occupations and in life. We thank Henry for his decades of service, and wish him well as he transitions into retirement.”
Heath Waldrop is the coordinator of marketing and communications at South Arkansas Community College.