Snead State Spotlights 50th Anniversary of the Class of 1966
You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone more passionate about Snead State Community College than the college’s own Dr. Cynthia Denham. For Dr. Denham, the director of the English and Languages division at SSCC, not only is Snead an important part of her family’s legacy, but also it’s a place where she has happily invested her entire career to teaching the students who chase their dreams at Alabama’s oldest, most historic community college.
This summer, on the 50th anniversary of her own graduation from Snead State, Dr. Denham reflected on her Snead experience - the differences and the similarities between the 261 of the 337 graduates who walked across the Bevill Center stage in May to receive their Associate degrees and the 68 who graduated with her in 1966 and the impact of the historic school on her family, her students, and her community.
Dr. Denham avoids the spotlight. She prefers to be behind the scenes and is not interested in accolades or recognition. She granted an interview “only if the story is about Snead, not me,” she said. But like the campus itself, the college’s longest-tenured faculty member blends a passion for Snead’s historic past with excitement for its future. She has come to embody the paradox of an institution that draws loyal students from across Northeast Alabama by blending a rich yesterday with a promising tomorrow.
Dr. Denham’s mother, the late Beryl Cobb Bailey, attended Snead Junior College from 1939 to 1941, when it was operated by the United Methodist Church of Alabama. The secondary school, founded in 1898 as Boaz Seminary, was known as John H. Snead Seminary. In 1935, it became Snead Junior College. Its mascot, the Parsons, came from that Methodist heritage.
Letters and newspapers Mrs. Bailey kept from her time as a Snead student referred to campus activities and fundraisers to support the war effort, and newsletters highlighted the issues facing the school and its students, including the struggling athletic program. The Snead Parsons football team, which had beaten the freshman team of the University of Alabama only a season before, was disbanded; a lack of funds and a lack of players, largely due to the World War II draft, were cited as reasons. The football program was never reinstated, but as a tribute, Snead students now wear t-shirts with a football logo that reads, “Undefeated since 1941.”
Miss Beryl Cobb, who would later spend her career working for the Marshall County School System, married E.H. Bailey, who began his teaching career in 1940 in a one-room school in Marshall County. He spent his career in education and eventually retired as a principal at Albertville’s McCord Avenue Elementary School in 1986. In the 1950’s, Mr. Bailey took his family to spend summers on the campus of the University of Alabama while he completed his Master degree and AA certification. With that childhood influence, it was a natural progression for the couple’s daughter to follow them into education.
“When I was a child, I would tell people I was going to get a PhD, even before I knew what that meant,” Dr. Denham said. “It was important to him to accomplish the goal of higher education, and I guess I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
When she graduated from Albertville High School in 1964, Dr. Denham also knew she wanted to attend Snead, which at the time was still a private Methodist college. It was conveniently close to home, but it also had a reputation for excellence. Even though it actually cost more at the time to attend Snead than to attend the University of Alabama, she had always known Snead would be her college choice. During her two years there, she edited the yearbook, worked a part-time job, earned distinction as her class’ “Most Outstanding Student,” and experienced college life in one of the most tumultuous eras in the nation’s history.
College life at Snead was different in the 1960’s than it is now; there were fewer scholarships and no government assistance for students. More people lived in the dorms, and fewer people drove cars on campus. Classes were offered quarterly rather than by semester, and tuition cost $150 per quarter.
“We had two full dorms and a very active campus life,” Dr. Denham said, recalling the names of friends who played on the tennis, baseball or basketball teams or who served alongside her in campus organizations. She knows what they did after Snead, whom they married, what career they chose and where they are now. The stories are extensive, their impact made important by the individuals who lived them.
The same is true for the broader issues that Snead and its students faced.
“At the time I was a student here, we were on the edge of tremendous social changes,” she said. “The Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam - these were the things our nation was dealing with, and we were dealing with them, too, here in Marshall County.”
What was it like to be a college student during Vietnam? During the interview, Dr. Denham pulled out a yearbook and pointed to a black-and-white photo of a light-haired, smiling young man. Dressed in a white dress shirt, coat and tie, his smile conveyed all-American charm. Beside the photo, his name and hometown was listed as Cary Lee Johns, Oneonta.
“Such a sweet boy,” she said. “I had English 101 with him. He was a football star in high school. His mother kept his room the way he left it for years after he didn’t come back.”
A Marine, Johns was one of five Snead students killed in Vietnam. Their names are inscribed on a memorial behind the Norton Building, along with the names of other students who died serving the country in various conflicts throughout the school's history.
While it is those stories and others - stories of courage, triumph and tragedy - that inform her experience at Snead as a student, her stories aren’t restricted to the past. They also reflect the continued inspiration of the students who have kept her coming back to work, day after day for the past 44 years. It’s the homeless woman, living in a tent pitched on a wooded patch in Boaz and spending her days at the public library to complete her coursework. It’s the soldier in Iraq, doggedly turning in all of his online assignments before their deadlines, even though Internet access at his camp is limited to the hour between 2 and 3 a.m. It’s the single mother with three kids and two jobs, determined to finish a nursing degree so she can make a better life for her children.
Those students are her first thought any time classroom or administrative issues surface. In discussions of policies, event scheduling, or textbook selections, she always asks, “How will this affect the working student? The student with a family or one who commutes a long distance?” And it is those questions that have led her, despite being an educational traditionalist in many areas, to be an advocate for technology and new approaches to the community college experience.
After her own graduation from Snead, Dr. Denham finished her Bachelor degree at Jacksonville State, married her fiancé in Hawaii while he was on R&R from Vietnam, and attended graduate school at the University of Alabama while waiting for her new husband to return from Vietnam. Her husband played baseball at Snead, and his father also was a graduate of the last class of John H. Snead Seminary in 1935.
While Dr. Denham continued her education, Snead fell on hard economic times and came to the brink of closure. To keep the campus open, Snead administrators joined the Alabama Community College System in 1967. Shortly afterward, when Dr. Denham finished her first post-graduate degree, a Master in English, she came back home and gladly accepted a job at her alma mater in 1971, with divided duties of teaching and working on the school’s accreditation review. After the accreditation, she moved into a full-time faculty position, where she has been ever since.
Pursuing her childhood goal to earn a PhD, she finished her doctoral work at Auburn University in 1986. While many people view the doctoral degree as a stepping stone to a position at a larger university, Dr. Denham never even considered leaving.
“I never wanted to go anywhere other than Snead,” she said. “I love it here. I love teaching the freshmen and sophomores; I love the nontraditional students. Snead is a special place, and it has always been the place I want to be.”
Dr. Denham passed that legacy on to her daughter, Callie, who graduated from Snead in 1996 and was a member of the Parsons dance team. Callie also pursued a career in education; she is an elementary school teacher near Atlanta, Ga. Dr. Denham’s experiences as a mother and now a grandmother (her grandson Anthony, 17, is about to enter his senior year in high school) only increased her empathy for the students she teaches.
John Haney, who recently retired after 29 years as an instructor, dean, and Director of Online Learning for Snead State, was first a student in Dr. Denham’s class before returning as a colleague.
“Dr. Denham is a one-of-a-kind educator,” he said. “She commands respect, all the while having a maternal instinct that is needed by so many students. She cares about her students and their success, she cares about her colleagues, and she obviously cares about Snead State.”
Haney is among many Snead students who sat in Dr. Denham's classes and later returned to become colleagues. Rhea Krueger is another instructor who took English 101 and 102 under Dr. Denham, then returned to teach alongside her in the Snead State English Department.
“Dr. Denham is amazing!” said Mrs. Krueger, who has taught at Snead for the 11 years. “I remember sitting in her class and thinking I wanted to be the kind of teacher she was, and, now, after all this time, I continue to learn from her every day.”
Through the years, Dr. Denham has watched gimmicks, trends, and theories come and go in the world of education. But the ones that made the biggest impact on her are those ideas that made education more accessible, especially for those who otherwise would have no opportunities. In the 1970’s, Snead was a leader in the concept of “taking the school to the community.” She and other faculty members happily commuted to six satellite sites that Snead opened at high schools and community buildings across Northeast Alabama. About the same time, Dr. Denham helped launch an innovative “swing shift” class schedule for local plant workers. Since people who worked day shifts one week and night shifts the next could never attend traditional classes, Snead implemented courses that met both at night and in the mornings. Those who taught the classes, including Dr. Denham, repeated the same material in each meeting so students could choose which class to attend according to their work schedules.
Later came the turn of the century and the transition to distance and online learning. Ask many educators about the growing trend of online college learning, and you’ll hear complaints about the loss of traditional education formatting and lamentations about students and their technology addictions. Not from Dr. Denham. Though she is Snead State’s most senior faculty member, she is one of the faculty’s most ardent advocates for new ideas and technologies. She was one of four instructors who taught the first online classes at Snead in 1999, and she continues to teach online classes every semester.
“It’s better for some of the students,” she said. “These people work so hard to earn their degrees; I see the times they turn in their assignments – 2 or 3 a.m. – and I know it’s because they had to work during the day and take care of their families at night.”
Snead has been a leader in online growth among Alabama system schools, with regular semester distance learning enrollment approaching 50 percent, and this year’s summer figures surpassing 78 percent. For Dr. Denham, those figures represent the great necessity for accommodating today’s diverse community college students’ needs.
“The flexibility of online classes is often the only way some of our students can ever earn a degree,” she said. “So we need to continue to provide every outlet we can for them to accomplish that.”
It isn’t just technology that has changed in education. Dr. Denham recalled when she began teaching English composition classes in the early 1970’s, a typical argumentative research paper topic might be “Should young men who went to Canada to avoid the draft be prosecuted?” or “Should air bags be required in cars?” At the time, no one would have imagined that today’s topics would include the legalization of recreational marijuana or genetic engineering.
“I see the passage of time in the allusions I can use in the classroom, too,” she said. “I remember the day I made a reference to the impact of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. When they looked at me with blank stares, I realized they were toddlers when that happened. And this fall, the entering freshmen who were toddlers at 9/11 have no personal memory of that event.”
She believes it is important to stay current with the changing times - like slang and pop culture - and even student perspectives.
“I never dreamed I’d be this far into my career and be having to reteach students to use a capital letter for the word ‘I,’” she said with a laugh. “But today’s students use text lingo in their papers, so we deal with the fact that, while it may be ok in a text to their friends, it isn’t acceptable in an email to their instructor or employer.”
But some things haven’t changed. Dr. Denham is proud that Snead’s reputation for excellence, one of the factors that drew her here as a student, has never waned.
“Snead transfer students traditionally are very successful at the university level, and they often are more successful than those who begin their education at the four-year schools,” she said. “I’m always so proud when students come back to tell me that Snead prepared them well for their university work.”
Though the students of 2016 may lead very different lives than those who walked across the stage of Fielder Auditorium in 1966, the feeling of family that comes with being a part of Snead State is as strong as it always has been.
“I think one of the things I’m most proud of is that we have a great appreciation for the history and traditions of Snead, but we have still continued to move forward,” Dr. Denham said. “We’re steeped in tradition, but we’re not trapped in the past.”
This article was written by Terri Narrell, an English, speech and mass communications instructor at Snead State Community College. Ms. Narrell has been at Snead State for four years. She is the co-advisor of the student Media Club. Before coming to SSCC, she founded and published The Danville Messenger, a weekly newspaper in Morgan County, for two years.