Saving Our Shorter Legacy – The Spirit of Shorter: Dr. Sara Wingard


Shorter University Departure # 84
Ms. Anita Baker
Financial Aid Assistant
8 years of service


Saving Our Shorter Legacy

The Spirit of Shorter: Dr. Sara Wingard

Open your eyes, Shorter University: Get past your short-sighted legalism and see what you’re destroying.

I am compelled now more than ever to tell you about Dr. Sara Wingard—and her legacy of academic excellence—before you steam-roll it any flatter than you’ve made it so far.

Even though she’s gonna kill me for this later.

English professor Sara Wingard, a 1950s graduate of Shorter College, taught at her alma mater for thirty-plus years.  Nearly every student during my years at Shorter had to have at least one core class with her.  Her courses were rigorous, demanding.  She was absolutely intolerant of mediocrity—I think she actually cured most of us of it.  And, as one veteran faculty member told me, administrators and colleagues always knew exactly where they stood with her—she could be just as demanding and unforgiving with faculty and administration as she was with her students.  She earned respect, gratitude, loyalty—and occasionally, fear.

Months before her death in 2004, an aging Sara Wingard told my classmate who visited her, “If you have a memorial service for me, I will come back to haunt you.”

To say that Sara Wingard’s legacy lives on is an understatement—and that very phrase—her legacy lives on—has just the kind of saccharine sweetness, worshipful corniness, stilted greeting-card prosody that Sara must have had in mind when she forbade any kind of formal posthumous praise of her.  And if anyone could, from beyond the grave, smack down a roomful of kiss-ups and buffoons and legalistic demagogues with a single raised eyebrow, it’s Sara Wingard.

Hear her voice: “Shame on you, Shorter University.”  Hear how she pauses for rhetorical effect.  Now she whispers, just to me, that when I’m done writing this, she and I are going to have a little private talk about my breaking her anti-memorializing mandate.

I’m up for the challenge and I’ll take what’s coming.  As 1985 alum Dan Treadaway said in the letter announcing his tough decision this year to remove Sara’s name from a scholarship endowment he established in her honor, “I know that when I see Sara Wingard again, I will do so with a clear conscience.”  I stand with Dan and more than a generation of students shaped by Sara Wingard’s career at Shorter College.  It’s Sara’s and Shorter’s longstanding tradition of academic excellence I’m fighting for, a legacy Shorter University’s misguided trustees and administrators and backroom planners are killing—as this year’s astronomical number of departing faculty and staff demonstrates.  Sara herself would be, were she alive, one of those departing faculty.  She’d not go silently.  I’d hate to be the recipient of the copiously detailed written criticisms she’d dole out to Shorter’s current leadership.  Five-foot and formidable Sara Wingard—vocal, articulate, and never unprepared—embodied the very spirit of Shorter College.  Sara’s Shorter always promoted critical thinking, academic freedom, and serious intellectual inquiry.  She refused to stand down in any challenge of such academic excellence.

I should know.

I came to Shorter in 1985 as a Solid Student of Great Potential but a salty smartypants sometime-fly-by-nighter.  Sara, diminutive though she was, had the look of an imperial schoolmarm—impeccably and traditionally dressed, always positioned behind the podium with books and notes, with glasses perched on the end of her nose to intensify the beam of her laser stare.  Severe arthritis had knotted her hands—and we’d learn later that she often taught us in great pain, that she’d get up early to warm her joints to make it through the day, that sometimes the pain would be so torturous she’d have to stay home in bed—but to a roomful of naive first-semester freshmen in Honors Comp, her body’s stiffness conveyed a kind of severity that made us tremble.  Some of our concern was grounded.  She never gave us grades: we just had to write and rewrite papers until she said we were done.  As one who believed myself (at seventeen, mind you) an accomplished writer—and as one enamored with Vonnegut-esque irreverence—I had to suck up my stylistic pride and adapt to Sara Wingard’s requirements for a formalism I thought belonged to decades past.

She quickly singled me out summarily for classroom shamings.  I could whip out a killer paper in an all-nighter.  Unfortunately, I’m also frank. “Whew, that one took me all night,” I said once in turning in an essay.  Also unfortunately, I’m sensitive.  My nascent impressionability likely exaggerates my memory, but I swear she said, “Oh? You will be sorry, Miss King.”  It took a whole roll of gauze to dab up the red-ink blood all over my prized draft—which I believe I had to rewrite five times.

I had it coming.

She could elicit a delicate balance of simultaneous reverence and terror from an entire classroom.  I came to loathe her evil-eye glare, her regal last-naming of all her students (“Hmmph, Miss King”; “Yes, Miss Chestnut”; “Mr. Montgomery, you’re not making any sense”), her tradition of scanning the room for shruggy evasive body language to pinpoint a victim for a question over last night’s reading.  As an English major, I had class upon class with her.  Sara’s World Lit tests required rapid-fire hand-cramping paragraph-long analytical recountings of symbols, images, plot points, character identifications, and instantaneous reproductions of universal theme strands—and usually a full multi-literary-work essay to boot.  She was furiously stingy with A’s and intimidatingly secretive about her subjective grading standards.  She forced students to play her game by her rules or else.  She made us memorize and recite Chaucer in Middle English (say it with me now: “Whan that Aprille with his shoores soote. . .” ).  She loved English manners and the Queen and high teas and Victorian novels and Jane Austen.  She was, as far as I could see it, a staunch traditionalist, a dictatorial figurehead married to rules, rigor, outright rigidity.  My polar opposite.

I had no idea then how much I loved her.

Though Sara was certainly more traditional than I am in her pedagogy, she knew her stuff—and she knew just how to push your buttons when they really needed pushing.  I recall more than one meeting in her office my junior year for lectures about responsibility.  I’d gone through a horrible and awkward breakup that distracted me not only from my studies but from my own personal potential—academically and otherwise—for the latter half of my time at Shorter.  I flubbed my way half-heartedly through homework.  Sara pulled me aside for a lecture, then another, then another: shoddy work ethic, misguided priorities, what regrets I might have down the road when I’d gained hindsight.

And though Sara’s Advanced English Grammar course ushered me into what became a thrillingly automatic propensity for diagramming extensive multi-clause sentences (I loved it when I had to attach a second page to fit it all in), she recognized that my breezing through what came easily to me (I could actually diagram on the chalkboard on the spot without having completed assignments ahead of time) was no excuse for ill-preparedness (her biggest pet peeve).  At the end of the course, a lecture, again, longer this time: “Melissa, you knew more grammar than anyone in this class.  I’d venture to say you know grammar better than most students across my teaching career. . . . ” (I fought rolling my eyes with an active internal monologue: please oh please, Dr. Wingard, good grief, just get on with it).  She closed her lecture with a zinger: “And that is why you get a B.”  Whatever, Sara.  “And not just a B, but a B minus.”

Lectures notwithstanding, I got what I had coming.  I missed valedictorian by .015.

They may not have sunk in, but all those lectures were evidence not simply of a tough professor’s overborne efforts to draw the best out of students not accomplishing tasks responsibly.  They were pure proof: Sara Wingard was not just my professor.  She was my greatest advocate.

At twenty I didn’t see myself in Sara Wingard.  Here was a woman my mother’s age who’d lived her life unabashedly self-propelled and single.  She’d fulfilled a need for family beautifully by taking in animal after animal (I remember her dogs Jane and Darcy, a cat or two, all named after Austen characters).  Sara saw me, though, for what I was: beneath my brash and salty and forthright exterior, I was vulnerable and heartbroken, someone who thought she’d lost the only love of her life.  Sara had pinpointed in me what I could not yet see: that deep down, in some inexpressible place, I feared that I could not truly stand alone and that I would be forced to do so.  I know now that Sara Wingard, lover of dogs and rescuer of feral cats, had taken me in, too, as a kind of protégé, a proud willful bulldoggish daughter after her own heart—but a misguided daughter who had yet to find herself, to find how to be herself independently, without fear or apology.

The last lecture was the best.  It wasn’t a lecture at all.  “I have something for you,” Sara said, so I walked down Shorter Hill to her house for what I thought might be yet another talking-to.  Over tea and English biscuits served up via antique china, Sara played for me a crackly recording of a song from the 1950s Leonard Bernstein musical Wonderful Town— Rosalind Russell brashly belting “One Hundred Easy Ways.” “I heard you were planning to be a contestant in the Miss Shorter pageant,” she said.  “This will be just perfect for you.”  She even had sheet music ready for me.

I took her up on it.  I love good musical theatre.  The song’s a real puncher, with quick quips I still sing to myself (“Just be more well-informed than he/ You’ll never hear ‘O promise me.’/ Just tell him where his grammar errs/ Then mark your towels ‘hers’ and ‘hers’./ Yes girls, you too can lose your man/ if you will use my little plan!/ One hundred easy ways to lose a man!”).

Sara, of course, was in the audience that night.  I don’t know if I rocked the house, but I certainly cracked up some of the more knowing members of the pageant audience (remember, everyone knows everything about you on the Hill, whether you like it or not).  I am not a pageant girl, but I got first runner-up.  But you could tell she wanted me to win.  She even gave me post-show coiffure commentary, some vague recommendations for a stylist.  “Your hair.  It was just . . . there.”  (see photo above; she’s right—like I said, I’m not a pageant girl.)

Dr. Sara Wingard made me think—even if in simply rethinking who I was, reshaping myself, rebecoming.  She made me believe in myself.  Lecture after lecture, she made me suck it up and be tough.

Lecture after lecture, Sara Wingard loved me.

I owe Sara Wingard everything I can to reclaim Shorter and give it back to her, the Shorter College that was: the Shorter that entrusted its faculty to carry themselves responsibly in public places and in public and private relationships without requiring them to sign away their name and their integrity, the Shorter that would never have forbidden the teaching of Gothic literature out of a Puritanical fear of occult influences, the Shorter that entrusted its faculty to teach, to teach without censorship or unwarranted oversight, to teach well because teaching is their calling, their duty, their profession.

Shorter University, why have you thrown away Lux Veritas—Shorter College’s decades-tested pledge to light and truth?  Sara Wingard’s Shorter, my Shorter, taught me that seeking the truth—whatever it is, wherever it lies—is not merely an opportunity, but an intrinsic mandate—the kind of Right We Do in this world simply and purely because it is right, not because we have signed a document forced upon us by an insultingly mistrustful administration.

Despite all that Shorter University’s trustees and administration have done to kill it, Sara Wingard’s legacy does live on—in her continuing influence in her students’ lives, in my own teaching, in my code of ethics, in my craving excellence from my students and demanding it from myself.  Yes, Sara Wingard, your powers certainly extend beyond the grave—but I trust that’s just a nice metaphor.

Nonetheless, I’d hate to be Shorter University’s current leaders and policy makers.  Open your eyes, Shorter University.  Shame on you, shame on you indeed.  You have killed everything Shorter College and Sara Wingard stand for.  Hers is a lecture I would fear.  And oh, is it ever one you have coming.

Melissa King Rogers, PhD

Shorter College Class of 1989

12 responses to “Saving Our Shorter Legacy – The Spirit of Shorter: Dr. Sara Wingard

  1. Beverly Woodward

    A marvelous but futile dissertation~~ and I am grateful to read it. What a miracle if Dr. D. or any of his appointees manage to finish it! BWoodward, ’55

  2. Beverly Woodward

    OK. No further comment. BW

  3. Oh Melissa how wonderful a tribute you have written!!! You are so much everything she would have wanted you to be!!!!!

  4. Well done, Arf. This might well have garnered a “check +” the first time around from SBW.

    I could write voluminously on the spirit of the Shorter that was and the continuing impact of both that spirit and Dr. Wingard’s teaching in my life. Recalling another of the classic maxims* issued to me in her classroom, however, I will be brief.

    Dr. Wingard, like a number of my Shorter professors, not only changed my life for the better but also kept me in the land of the living. As their names and legacies are systematically erased from the Hill in the current deplorable milieu, the long shadows they cast and the crucial work they did there are not diminished in memory or in fact. Indeed, their teaching, mentoring, friendship, examples, and scholarly labors live on in my own life and teaching and that of scores of others.

    Betty Zane Morris, Meighan G. Johnson, Robert G. Gardner, Joe R. Baskin, Charles W. Whitworth, Jr., Dennis Vogel, Sara Burke Wingard: I count it a blessing and a privilege to have studied with you and learned from you.

    I remember these wise companions of my undergraduate days with affection and gratitude. I regret that the kind of education I received under their guidance is no longer available to students at the former Cherokee Baptist Female College. Selah.

    Donna S. Mote, PhD
    Shorter College Class of 1986

    *”Economy of language is a virtue, Ms. Mote.”
    –Sara Burke Wingard, 1st Floor, Rome Hall, 1983

  5. Phillip Coffey

    No one can ever say enough about how good Shorter’s faculty was in the 1980’s. I will try to limit this to Sara Wingard and her fellow English faculty members. I majored in Religion and Philosophy with a weighted schedule in English.

    I remember my first exam in World Lit. I waited eight years after graduating high school before I started my college career. I have an attention deficit disorder; therefore, I always sat in front of the class if possible. In Dr. Wingard’s class, it was in front of her desk.

    She passed out the exams and we, the students, began our exam. I dropped my head and focused completely on the test. The first time I looked up, Dr. Wingard looked over her reading glasses straight at me. If you had her class, you know the look. I was about halfway through. I dropped my head for the second time. I knew I was taking way too much time on her exam. So I picked up my speed and finished the test. I thought I was at the end of the “hour”. So I got up from my desk and turned in my test paper without completing the bonus question.

    She raise her head, looked over glasses, and said, “Well Mr. Coffey, I see you are the first to finish the exam at a quarter of the hour; therefore, I will be sure to grade yours first.” I turned around to see all of my fellow students still in their desk taking their test. I replied, “yes ma’ am,” then eased out the door. Dr. Wingard required us to do our homework assignment and she, also, required herself to grade all papers and exams turned in by the next time the class met.

    The next time the class met, she started with one her short speeches of how we are not in high school any longer. Then she began to hand out the exam to each individual as she walked down the rows. If you had the fortune of being an “English Major” or an “Education Major”, you could expect extra criticism if you did not do well when she handed you your exam or paper. She saved my exam for last. As she handed to me, she said, “As for Mr. Coffey, who finish at a quarter of the hour, (long pause while she let my heart fall to my knees) he has the high grade with a 93 without even attempting the bonus question. I cannot keep him from making high grades on my exam; however, I can make sure he does not finish at a quarter of the hour.” The look of thanks I got from my fellow classmates was unforgettable.

    The next exam, I did not fair so well. It wasn’t because I was not prepared, nor was it because she did not present the materials well. As she commented on my exam in red, “Mr. Coffey, I see that you have prepared well for this exam ; however, you missed the point of my question, -40 points.” With completing the bonus question for 2 additional points and missing 3 points on the identifications, I made a 59.
    This was the only test or paper, I failed at Shorter College. After the class, she called me to her desk to encourage me on how well I did on her test, and if it wasn’t for missing the “point” I would have made a 91 because she only found a few omissions in my essay from the point I presented. This class was my low grade at Shorter College, B–.

    In Dr. Wingard’s Advanced Grammar Class, I did much better. The first time I signed up for the class, my second year at Shorter, I was not prepared. After two weeks right before the add/drop deadline, she called me again to her desk and advised me to drop this course. She knew I wasn’t ready for it. After completing two years of German and American Lit with Dr. Wilson Hall, English Lit with Dr. Thelma Hall and another Lit class with Dr. Wingard, I signed up again in the fall of my senior year. This time, I was properly prepared.

    There were articles that she assigned to read in newspaper and magazines, where the class was required to find the mistakes made by the writers. Then there was the assignment of diagramming sentences and completing them on the board in front of classmates. This was the hot seat. You had to write your sentence on the board, then diagram it, then explain it and then ask, “Are there any questions?” After you completed this task successfully, she would dismiss you and call the next student to the board.

    One day Melanie Denson and I were talking about how unnerving this was. When a student finished their assignment, the chalk board was littered with fingerprints and steams of sweat. When my turn came, I approached the board and the light clicked on. I had an idea; instead of touching the board with my finger, I turned my hand over and touched the board with my finger nail. After my presentation and receiving Dr. Wingard’s approval, I was allowed to sit down. I turned and looked at the board, and said, “Look Melanie no prints.” Melanie and I started laughing. Dr. Wingard look over her reading glasses, and replied, “Well one day Mr. Coffey, maybe you or Miss Denson will allow the class to enjoy your sense of humor.” Then she called the next student to the board.

    My friends thought I was “nuts”, for working Dr. Wingard classes into my schedule, because I could have made an “A” easier in other classes. That was not a true statement. What my friends feared was her intimidation she could apply, if you did lest than your best. She not only taught language arts, but also, discipline in study habits.

    As I mentioned earlier, other top quality professors in the Language Arts department that I had were:
    Wilson Hall 5 German 1 American Lit
    Thelma Hall English Lit

    Yes I remember Sara Wingard, and yes she still haunts me as I write this post. I loved her as a professor and friend, and enjoyed her fellowship as I walked past her office door and she would look up and sometimes smile over the pain of her arthritis.

    I am proud to be a graduate of Shorter College and to have the opportunity to walk on the Hill among the “Giants” of professors.

    My heart breaks for the students who are caught up in the middle of this “redirection.” (I used this term for lack of ability to find a better term.)

    Phillip Coffey 1986-87

  6. John W, Howell - Class of 1958 Shorter College

    Such heart-felt words from deeply caring people. As I have stated earlier, I was a 1958 graduate with Sara Burke(also called Flower-Belle by her mother). While serving as our 40th Reunion committee chairman, I phoned Sara to see if she would be attending
    the festivities. To which she replied, ” *#^@ no, I could not stand most of those people then and I surely do not want to see them now!!” She
    was a tremendous credit to our class and our College.
    My Friends, so much of the CLASS is gone from our Shorter. We need to continue the task of bringing that prestige back.

  7. I was lucky enough to call her friend and co-worker at Coosa High School. She was amazing as both and i agree that her spirit will live on in all those who knew her.

  8. Lisa (Howell) Nelson, Shorter alum, class of 1990

    I also entered her freshman Honors class feeling rather good about myself, a bubble which would soon burst.I also remember being reduced to tears over coming to class unprepared one day(*Gasp*). I must havefallen and hit my head at some point after that, because I got the notion to go to her office and confront her about the incident. Many of you know what’s coming next. I said “Dr. Wingard, I just don’t think it’s right the way you treated me earlier.” Her reply(looking down over the glasses perched on the end of her nose),”Well, Miss Howell, I believe that embarassment is often the most effective form of punishment.” Me: “Well, Dr. Wingard, I disagree.” SBW,”Let me ask you this question then, Miss Howell- will you ever come to my class unprepared again?” Me: “No ma’am.” End of discussion. I left her office, and never showed up unprepared again. Though I didn’t possess your talent, Dr. King, Dr. Wingard(I don’t think I’ll EVER be able to call her Sara) brought out the best in me. She made me a better student, and showed me that I still had heights to reach, even when I thought I had reached my maximum potential. I am proud to have earned an A twice in three tries in her classes. This paragraph would no doubt earn a “check minus” from her, and I am sure there would be something init that she considered “trite.” Apparently, I was the most prolific author of “triteness” in Shorter history. I’m not sure I ever wrote a paper for her that did not have that word written in red somewhere on it.
    But I learned. Did I ever learn. Of all the teachers and all the professors I ever had, I may have hated her most, and loved her most at the same time. And I was a history major, for goodness sakes! I can hear her voice and see her fingerprints all over your tribute (yes, I said it), Melissa, and she probably will haunt you for it. But therein lies the paradox, I guess. She haunts us all in a way. She did not want us to “memorialize” her, but our memories of her will remain forever.
    I’ve no doubt in my mind that there is not a person alive that she could not have cowed in a corner with a single look, and I believe she would have certainly done that more than once if she were still with us. I won’t speculate on possible “targets,” but I will say this- no matter what, no matter what, she left an indelible mark on all who knew her. And I am better for it(here’s where she would insert a “trite”).

  9. Melissa King Rogers

    I love these shared stories. Phillip, sounds like you and Sara had similar exchanges. My heart breaks too for this re(mis?)direction. John, your story just gives me a complete kick! first, that she’d ever be called “Flower Belle” (wish I’d known that….. I’d have loved to drop that name somewhere in a class discussion)–and second, her reaction to your alumni gathering offer. We do indeed need to bring the class back to Shorter. Even the lit up sign at the bottom of the hill seems to scream ‘diploma mill’ to passers-by. Scottie, I wish I could have worked with her. I loved her salt. Salt of the earth indeed. Shamrocks,, right back at ya. Donna, I am so thrilled you remember me as Arf. You, too, were a model of how to be a strong, intelligent, outspoken leader– and funny to boot.

    Beverly– this may indeed be futile– though I loved writing it and love remembering the professors that inspired me (some still on the Hill, go get ’em, veterans…. I hope you can stick around the pick up the pieces). You are right– I doubt that any Shorter administrator would read this or even pay any heed to how blindly they’re dismantling what was a fine institution. I’m going to fight for it anyway.

    Jesus was a bulldog, too.

  10. Gerald Parker - class of '90

    Reading these replies brings a few indelible anecdotes to mind:
    “Mr. Parker, IF you are ever tardy to my class again, lightning wil strike you from the top of your head to the soles of your feet. Take a seat.”

    Handing out the final exam in grammar, I recieved what I thought was the last page (she handed each page out one at a time; no staples). The bottom of the page read: “Diagram five of the following sentences.” There were only three. Confused, I raised my hand and asked if there was an error. Dr. Wingard replied: “I will give you the last page presently. I am distributing them as fast as my crooked little fingers will fly.” I was mortified.

    Cleaning her patio one afternoon with a bleach solution and a wire brush while she watched, sipping tea on the screened in porch, we discussed her consternation that popular movies were often overlooked by the Oscars. “For instance, E.T.” she explained. “The film is clearly an interpretation of the life of Christ.” “What do you mean?” I asked, bewildered. “The alien,” she continued, “is loved by the little children, hated by the adults he tries to help, has a healing touch, an inner light, is killed and ressurected, and ascends to the sky but promises to return one day.” I was flabbergasted. “Amazing! How did you come up with that?” I asked. Pregnant pause, then a sly hint of a smile, and the raised eyebrow. “Oh, I read it in a magazine.”

    After housesitting and dogsitting (Jane) for a couple of weeks while she travelled abroad, I recieved a phone call: “Gerald, I hate to ask, but while I was away, did you happen to drink any of my liquor?” Me: “No, Dr. Wingard. I’m 21. If I wanted it, I could buy my own. I don’t even know where you keep it.” Dr. Wingard: “Under the sink counter. Ah well, I could swear the bottle is emptier. It’s just as well. I don’t drink with my medicine. I should have known you wouldn’t take any. You young people don’t know how to drink proper whiskey and gin, with your wine coolers and light beers.”

    Finally, almost a decade after my graduation, she and Katherine Lovvorn drove an hour to see the high school production of “Noises Off!” I directed. After the show, I was granted a review: “Gerald, I saw this show in England last summer, with Vanessa Redgrave as the maid. Barring Miss Redgrave’s performance, your production was far superior.” That was better than any “A” I could have recieved.

  11. These departures at Shorter are sad and each has a personal story. In many ways they are carbon copy of forced departures at Baptist Seminaries starting in the 80’s as my friend Ellen Rosenberg wrote me in a letter I have published in the Baptist History site of in the Harvard Expository writing stream.
    AS Ellen said in that letter the bigger focus is what the fundamentalist SBC leadership of the likes of Nelson Price and Jesse Helms; their network to a larger national strategy we now see in the Tea Party. The lunacy now on the board of Alabama Public Television in the David Barton affair as well as some of the darker right wing forces Chick Fil A now find themselves entangled in have much in common with the debacle at Shorter.

  12. Tracey Morris Wofford, BSM '94, MA '04.

    Proudest moment of my Shorter-on-the-Hill time was a final class grade of A from Dr. Wingard. She was everything written about in these posts. I remember being amazed that I could simultaneously feel terror and worship all at once for such a tiny person.

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