Professors Ekstrom, McMahon Retire
By Daney Daniel Kepple
Photography by Justin Fox Burks
Pete Ekstrom has vivid memories of his first glimpse of the Southwestern, now Rhodes, campus in 1974. Thanks to a weather delay of his flight from the snowy north, he arrived in Memphis at 1:30 a.m. and, to his surprise, was met by sociology professor Jack Conrad and a welcoming committee of students. Arriving at the college the following morning, he was astounded by the grandeur of Memphis in March. “I still remember the azaleas and the stunning beauty of the place,” he says. “When I heard the term ‘urban campus’ I was picturing dingy old buildings in the warehouse district someplace.”
Two “six-degrees-of-separation” experiences before his arrival also boded well. His adviser at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had also taught Sid Selvidge ’65, who was leaving the faculty to pursue a career as an entertainer. In fact, it was his position that interested Ekstrom. Also, a graduate school friend spoke highly of political science professor Mike Kirby. After meeting the faculty and students of the Anthropology/Sociology Department, Ekstrom was sold. He has never looked back.
By then he was accustomed to taking unexpected paths. A geology major at Beloit College, he had worked for a mining company in the Northwest Territories near the Arctic Circle. He has vivid memories of the beginning of his stay.
“The ice was breaking up and no planes could get in or out for a month. I got to know my Inuit colleagues and enjoyed that very much. It was my first exposure to an exotic place and I loved it!”
After graduation he joined the Peace Corps. His assignment in Ecuador was “life-changing. A new world opened for me then. It was like stepping off the edge of the earth. I loved the place and the people. That was in 1965-66, a time when there were many changes happening in the world. After that, I knew I wanted to work with people rather than rocks.”
Back in the States, he worked part time at The Smithsonian while enrolled in a master’s program at The American University in Washington, DC, where he studied Latin America in depth.
“I hung out at the Pan American Union because they had good coffee and it gave me a chance to converse in Spanish,” he recalls.
There he heard about a Quechua language course taught by a Cornell professor who was an Andean expert. All the other people in the class were anthropology grad students headed for the field. Ekstrom became a convert.
He took time to marry his college sweetheart, Rhodes geology instructor Carol Ekstrom, in 1967 before heading for a Ph.D. program in anthropology in Urbana.
“Then I became Carol’s field assistant while she was working on her master’s,” he says. “We took turns in that role after that. It all had to do with Ecuador.”
The couple spent the summer of 1970 together there, and Pete spent two more years in the field researching his dissertation.
When Pete Ekstrom joined the faculty at Rhodes, there was also a need for a geology instructor. Thus, from the beginning the Ekstroms were involved in interdisciplinary courses. In 1979 they took their two-year-old daughter Ingrid and 14 students on a two-week survey of the Southwest that became a sought-after third-term course. When the third term was eliminated, Ekstrom converted the course into an ecological anthropology class that includes a field trip over fall break.
He was also an early advocate of service learning, teaming up with religious studies professor Michael McLean on a course that involved field work in Honduras.
The Rhodes professors, who worked with a rural development agency founded by peasants, allowed the agency to set the agenda.
“We never knew what we would be doing before we got there,” Ekstrom recalls. “That was part of the pedagogy, for the students to learn that they had to accommodate others, that they couldn’t set the agenda. We walked from village to village and slept in sleeping bags on concrete floors. The students came to understand the reciprocity of service, that they could learn a great deal from the people they were serving.”
After a pause he adds, “That was one of the most worthwhile things I have ever done. It was very gratifying to watch the students have the life-changing experience I had in the Peace Corps.”
When Honduras became too violent—“There were too many guns around”—he teamed up with anthropology/sociology colleague Tom McGowan on an oral history project in Memphis in which the students were assigned to write life histories of socially-isolated elders.
“They learned many of the same lessons,” Ekstrom muses. “They learned about the reciprocity of service, and they learned that they could not set the agenda. They had to negotiate the relationships with their interview subjects. They loved it.”
As he ends the Rhodes phase of his life, Pete Ekstrom is looking forward rather than back, but he is gratified to see the college where he spent his career embracing the principles he holds dear.
“I learned at Beloit that education is best when it is experiential and interdisciplinary,” he explains. “The geology department at my alma mater has always believed that students should do geology. And I learned more in my two years in the Peace Corps than at any other time of my life. I like the idea of Rhodes’ new open curriculum that lets students take ownership in their education.”
He says he won’t be hanging around the campus once he retires.
“I believe in clean boundaries and it’s time to look at life differently now,” is how he puts it. “I have enjoyed my time here immensely. I’ve had great colleagues and students, great interchanges on so many levels. The people are what I will miss.”
But he’s not worried about how he will spend his time.
“I love the outdoors, and one of the reasons I decided to do this now is that I am still in good enough shape to enjoy cross-country skiing, canoeing, kayaking, bicycling. It appears that we will have a child on each coast, so I will need lots of time to visit. And I plan to get more involved in environmental activism, which has always been an interest.”
The Ekstroms, who have owned a cabin in the upper peninsula of Michigan since 1981, recently purchased a house in a nearby town, about 1,000 miles north of Memphis. Pete relishes the idea of beginning a new life there.
“I’ve never been bored in my life,” he says. “I don’t intend to start now.”
“The time of my departure must have been preordained,” Professor Marshall E. McMahon says of his retirement, his voice, as usual, only half serious. “In August of 2008, when I will actually retire, I will be 64 which, as you know, is two to the sixth power. I will have worked at Rhodes for 36 years which, of course, is six to the second power.”
In fact, much of McMahon’s life might have been preordained. The Fort Worth, TX, native chose to attend the University of the South because “It sounded like a cool place.” The small, all-male liberal arts college isolated on a plateau in middle Tennessee would seem to be an unlikely place to find a wife, but that is, in fact, where McMahon met the woman who would become his best friend and soul mate.
“Betty was up from Agnes Scott. We met on a blind date.”
Betty Armstrong McMahon is one year to the day older than her husband, and the two decided to marry when she graduated.
“It was a hard year,” McMahon says. “Very hard. Betty taught at a preschool in the mornings, worked for the university in Admissions in the afternoon and typed term papers at night. I worked as a lab assistant and finished my degree.”
Since both wanted to attend graduate school, they had to find a place that would accommodate both their ambitions.
“We chose Nashville,” he says. “I could work on a Ph.D. at Vanderbilt and Betty got her master’s at the University of Tennessee School of Social Work that was located there at the time.” When she finished the program, Betty got a job at the State Psychiatric Hospital in Nashville. Their daughter Elizabeth was born in 1969.
The following year Mark received a job offer from Gettysburg College. Some friends were horrified at the thought. “One said, ‘You’d better be careful up there. Remember what happened to the last Southerners who went to Gettysburg,’” he recalls.
“It was a perfect opportunity, though, because it put me within striking distance of Washington. I could work on my dissertation in the Federal Reserve library.” He finished the dissertation and received his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt in 1972.
That was also the year that Dr. George Harmon, former chair of the Economics Department at Rhodes, then called Southwestern, came to town and visited one of McMahon’s classes.
“He invited me to interview in Memphis that spring and the students just bowled me over. Most Gettysburg students were from the Northeast and had a huge investment in coolness. A big smile met very little response there. Here, though, I fell in love with the friendliness and work ethic of the students. That feeling has never changed.”
The move to Memphis was a good one for other reasons. For one thing, Betty’s parents and her sister and brother-in-law, potters Brin and Dale Baucum, were here.
“Having that extended family nearby was a huge benefit to all of us.” Daughter Mary was born in Memphis, and the family settled happily into the midtown community.
When Harmon left to become president of Millsaps in 1974, McMahon became chair of the department, a position he occupied for a total of 10 years. He has served the college in many other capacities as well—teaching in the Meeman Center, chairing and working on a variety of faculty committees, advising the honor societies Mortar Board, Omicron Delta Kappa and Omicron Delta Epsilon as well as the Social Regulations Commission. He was on the British Studies faculty and the Rhodes Board of Trustees. In return, Rhodes has presented him with two of its highest honors—the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award and the Clarence Day Award for Outstanding Teaching.
Although he spent two years as associate dean and three as dean, outstanding teaching has been his hallmark. Several generations of students have sat mesmerized in his classroom, learning concepts they had never imagined to be within their grasp. McMahon says his wizardry as a teacher has two roots.
The first is terror.
“I am pathologically afraid of failure,” he admits. “In the early years I spent hours and hours on class preparation and even on the exact wording of tests. It’s gotten better through the years, but it’s still there.”
“I just truly love the students. That’s no exaggeration. They know I’m into tough love, that I will hold them to standards. On the other hand, I’m always available if they need to talk. I have found doctors, counselors and jobs for students, and I’ve been pleased and amazed through the years at how they let me know how much I mean to them. Most understand when I force them to do things, it’s for their own good. Many are not embarrassed to use the word ‘love.’ Virtually all of them use the words ‘Thank you.’”
Nor does it wear off with graduation. Betty McMahon says, “It never fails. No matter where we are—California, New York, Europe—someone will holler across the street, ‘Professor McMahon!’”
Mark McMahon knows he will miss the students, but these days he’s feeling a stronger pull—nine-year-old granddaughter Isabel Griffith, who lives with her parents Elizabeth and Lewis in Birmingham, and two-year-old grandson Liam Ferguson, a Memphis resident along with his parents Mary and Glenn.
“We don’t get to see Isabel often enough because she’s so involved in her activities in Birmingham, so we will definitely be spending more time there,” he says.
Otherwise, “For the first 15 months we will avoid all involvements that require commitments—except for family.” The couple plans to travel—Betty is also retiring from her long career as a social worker—first to Florida, to Colorado in the fall, to Washington, DC, and to the Northwest to visit family.
“That may be enough to get it out of our systems,” McMahon speculates. “After that, we’ll just see.”