By Bryan Hearn ′09
Photography by Justin Fox Burks
THE TEACHER-SCHOLARIf you stepped foot on the Rhodes campus in the last two decades, chances are you encountered North Parkway, Thomas Lane and Gail Streete.
Next fall—for the first time in 21 years—Rhodes will be without her. Streete, professor and department chair of Religious Studies, is retiring after a distinguished career. In 1990, Streete made the trek down to Memphis (a city she had only visited once), taking that same right onto University and finding a welcoming, Southern college that she would call home. Although a northeasterner and not a barbecue fan, Streete soon discovered that she loved Rhodes and the city of Memphis. It was here, after all, where she met and married her husband, Jack Streete ’60, professor emeritus of Physics. “We got married in 1992, the day after Christmas,” she reminisces.
Recently, as buzz of Streete’s retirement began to spread, members of the Rhodes community lauded her and her contributions to their education and to the college.
“Professor Streete is not only incredibly informative, but she also brings humor and passion to the classroom,” says Jerica Sandifer ’12. “Her course on Gnostic scriptures is one of the most enlightening classes I’ve taken at Rhodes.”
Years since his instruction under Streete, Greg Neill ’94 still recalls the influence that she had on him. “Professor Streete, like many faculty at Rhodes, sees beyond a simple utilitarian view of education as vocational training,” he says.
Neill says he was inspired by her class, “Female Images of Salvation.” He adds that his autographed copy of Streete’s book, Her Image of Salvation: Female Saviors and Formative Christianity (Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), is still one of his most treasured possessions.
Streete’s colleagues, like Professor Bernadette McNary- Zak, admire her for her leadership, groundbreaking research and steadfast commitment to student learning. “She is the superb exemplar of a teacher-scholar who is a committed citizen of the department, college and discipline through her constant, selfless service,” McNary- Zak says.
Philosophy Professor Pat Shade notes that Streete has been a warm and enthusiastic collaborator. “Gail played an instrumental role in helping diversify the authors we teach in Search. She’s also invited me to guest lecture in two of her courses, thus broadening her students’ exposure to different disciplinary perspectives.”
The 2011 recipient of the non-student Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award and 1999 recipient of the Dean’s Award for Research and Creative Activity, Streete has published four books, five journal articles, 15 book chapters and 22 reviews or review chapters. Not only is she an accomplished researcher and the former W.J. Millard Professor of Religious Studies from 2004-10, she is also actively involved in the Rhodes community.
It wasn’t a surprise to her colleagues or students, then, that Streete received the 2008 Jameson M. Jones Award for Outstanding Faculty Service.
“In a small community like Rhodes, you get so much energy from others,” she says.
Energy she has indeed. Since 1990, Streete has served on 18 committees, chaired the Tenure and Promotion Committee and the Educational Development Committee, raised awareness for domestic violence both on and off campus and helped program various study abroad initiatives.
Streete enjoys working with the National Coalition Building Institute, a series of prejudice-reduction workshops, because they “help people share stories and work toward solutions of problems.”
When Streete shares her story about the origins of her career, she’ll start by telling you about working as an academic librarian at her alma mater, Drew University. The particular section to which she was assigned was, not surprisingly, theology.
“I spent so much time with the books in my section. I ordered them, I read them and I recommended some to students. I had my master’s in classics, but I started taking some classes in theology to keep up with what people were doing in the field. It was inevitable that I would go on to get my doctorate,” she says.
Streete is renowned for her research in the study of women in the New Testament and early Christianity.
“When I was writing my dissertation I wasn’t focused on the role of women, but I was reading some extracanonical materials with strong women characters in them. So I read more and more because they were so fascinating,” she says.
What is interesting to Streete about these women characters is that “they’re ambiguous. They’re positive because they are so strong, but they’re negative because they don’t usually survive and they don’t always have leadership roles within the church.”
Contemporary scholars have taken interest in Streete’s books, namely her fourth and latest, Redeemed Bodies: Women Martyrs in Early Christianity (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), because of the connections she draws to modern-day martyrs.
Throughout her writing process, Streete was not only captivated by the stories of Thecla, Perpetua and Felicitas but also with the stories of modern martyrs, including Columbine and female suicide bombers in the Middle East.
“It’s very difficult to connect things that happened hundreds and hundreds of years ago in a different context to what’s happening today, but there are some connections,” Streete says. “That’s the part of the book that people are the most excited about, and I never would have expected that. Martyrdom may seem like a bizarre form of world-denial, but unfortunately, it’s still relevant today.”
One of the goals of Rhodes’ Search and Life programs, according to Streete, is to help students understand “that religion is a part of culture,” adding, “the more informed that we are about all religious traditions, the better.” Streete will disagree with anyone who believes that our society is “evolving out of religion.” “We’re not expanding our religious frontiers,” she says. “We simply cannot ignore religions and expect to understand the world in any deep way.”
When Streete retires, she doesn’t plan on severing ties with Rhodes altogether. She’ll miss teaching on a daily basis, shaping and implementing policies at the college and above all, interacting with students. “Not only are Rhodes students bright, they are also really nice people—they care about others and they care about making a difference,” she says.
Streete plans to spend more time with Jack, her stepchildren, John, Ellen and Elizabeth ’84, and her six grandchildren. She also hopes to travel, research and run (“not faster, but farther,” she clarifies).
Streete also has embarked on an ambitious creative passion. “I started writing stories using our dogs as characters,” she confesses. In one story, Laika (her husky) and Sonya (a Border collie mix) want to go to the zoo to meet wolves. In another, her old husky Keetah has what Streete calls a “Memphis adventure” in which she runs to Beale Street and meets a friendly chow named Handy (after W.C., of course) who teaches her about racial discrimination, music and barbecue.
Although Keetah may never get to Beale Street and have that conversation with Handy, we’ll likely see Gail and Jack Streete and their dogs taking strolls down North Parkway and Thomas Lane this fall.
GETTING IT, TEACHING IT
Turn the clock back to spring 1971. Flowers are blooming outside of Palmer Hall, and senior Deborah Nichol (later, Pittman) is walking across campus. She is thinking how wonderful it would be to return to teach at Rhodes one day.
Graduation day passed, as did an impressive 15-year tenure as a banker for Union Planters Corp., where Pittman became the first woman senior vice president of a national bank in Tennessee.
Following a desire to return to the classroom, Pittman, already a CPA and CFA, completed a Ph.D. in Finance, and in 1992, found herself back at her alma mater teaching in the Department of Economics and Business.
Now, the former French and Economics and Business double major is revered in the Rhodes community for her excellent teaching, innovative research and dedicated mentorship. After a distinguished career at Rhodes and in the corporate world, Pittman has decided to retire.
The recent news surprised numerous Rhodes alumni who were inspired by Pittman. “I’ve told many people over the years that nobody ‘gets it’ better than Debbie Pittman,” says Frank Byrd ’90, director of Fielder Capital Group in New York City.
Whatever “it” is, Pittman gets it. She gets, for example, how to give students a rigorous education that will prepare them for careers in business.
“I still remember hours spent laboring over spreadsheets of pro forma financial statements in the computer lab, tracking down the errors that she identified,” says Jason Greene ’91, who is now an associate professor of Finance in the College of Business at Southern Illinois University.
Pittman also understands that students need to solve real-world problems in order to be prepared after graduation. She says that presenting “complex business problems” to students is what she’ll miss most about teaching. She explains, “It’s like a permanent mind game of how to give students a conceptual framework for making good business decisions that they can use in their careers.”
What makes Pittman such a successful teacher? Alumni still recall the ways in which she assisted, inspired and challenged them. Jon Wood ’02, now an equity research analyst for Jeffries & Co. in New York City, believes that he “would not have been able to find such a great job without her deep contact network in the professional community.” Wood was one of numerous alumni who hosted the 25 Rhodes students who traveled to New York City with Pittman annually for a career tour during winter break.
Back when she was a senior, Pittman learned firsthand about the power of Rhodes connections. Her Economics and Business professor, George Harmon ’56, had a next-door neighbor who was an executive at Union Planters Corp. As it turned out, the neighbor’s company was looking for an international banking analyst. That analyst would end up being Pittman.
Just as Professor Harmon helped launch her career, Pittman has helped numerous Rhodes seniors find their first positions in the corporate world.
“Pittman has catapulted the careers of more Rhodes graduates than perhaps any other professor,” Byrd speculates.
Although her steadfast commitment to students hasn’t wavered, there have been many changes in business classes since 1971. “The intriguing part about teaching in my field is that nothing stays the same for long, and one must always stay on top of new topics,” Pittman says. “I perpetually reinvented my courses out of necessity, but also because I love to experiment to find something that works better.”
As opposed to previous decades, now there is a lot more “hands-on” work done in case courses. When students create models of cash flow forecasts on computers, Pittman can help them out individually with their work, giving them instant feedback.
In addition, the business environment has changed, which led Pittman and Rhodes to make changes to their curriculum. When she was chair of the Department of Economics and Business from 2006-08, she helped construct a major in International Business. “Globalization of business is a long-term significant trend, and our students want to participate,” she says.
Despite these larger changes in business, Pittman and her department maintained their commitment to the liberal arts approach to teaching. She explains, “We initiated several team-taught case courses involving ‘real’ companies that required integration of economics, finance, management, strategy and accounting. We also added an ethical component.”
For Pittman, Rhodes students must understand business ethics in order to be prepared for their careers. “We want graduates who can not only answer questions, but also question answers,” she says.
Count Pittman as a graduate who does both. She takes continuing education classes at the Meeman Center for Lifelong Learning, for which she served as the director from 1997-2000. She has also served the Rhodes community as a member of 10 committees, including the Budget Team for four years and the Finance Committee of the Board of Trustees for six. In addition, she’s introduced her research to the larger business community through 10 published manuscripts and five published articles in the popular press.
In her retirement, she plans to spend more time with family and friends. She adds, “I’ve recently become interested in improving my gardening skills, and I am thrilled that I can now ride my bicycle on the Green Line, which is so close to my house.”
Chances are, we’ll still run in to Pittman, ever the lifelong learner, in a classroom in the Meeman Center. And everywhere, from Wall Street to Front Street, Rhodes graduates sit in their offices, thanking Professor Pittman for helping them get there and for preparing them for the complex challenges they face every day.