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Honoring a Mentor

By Pedie Pedersen, PhD ’70

Prof. Tara Burkhart, Professor Emerita of English since 1982

Ed. note: What motivates someone to endow a scholarship in honor of a friend or mentor? While the reasons are many, for Pedie Pedersen ’70, a new scholarship honoring former English professor Tara Burkhart came about as thanks for a lesson learned—and a lifetime friendship.

At the beginning of my sophomore year, I learned that my English class would involve a lot of writing. “Piece of cake,” I thought, since writing had always been my forte, and practically everything I had ever written before had always come back with that wonderful A on the top of the page.
And then I met Mrs. Burkhart. Suddenly, my As turned into Cs! Eventually, I got smart, and went to talk with her. Mrs. Burkhart told me that I wrote better than most, just needed to do a few things to make my writings excellent. Being a sophomore, and still thinking that I knew it all (or most of it), I resisted her recommendations. Naturally, I continued to receive a big fat C on my papers.
What Mrs. Burkhart asked wasn’t difficult: just write my paper a couple of days before, then re-read, and make the corrections I already knew would make it better. Easy enough, you would say. But remember that we weren’t as smart as we thought we were at that age! So I fought Mrs. Burkhart most of the semester. Sometimes I wrote my papers her way, sometimes I didn’t. And she always knew! I even went so far one time as to re-type a paper I had submitted to a biology class. Yes, I re-typed it exactly the way it had been originally, the way that had earned me an A. You already know what it earned from Mrs. Burkhart. Eventually, I came around, did what she asked, worked my buns off, and made a final grade of B in her class. I can’t tell you how relieved I was about that, because my mother (also a college professor) would have killed me if I had made a C in English!
Twenty years later, I was the college professor. One day the words came out of nowhere, and I consciously understood what both my mother and Mrs. Burkhart had been trying to teach me all those years ago. It was so simple—always do your best. Neither accepted anything less from me, and both always showed me a better way to do things. Although I had never put it into words before, I also realized that I had been doing what they had taught me, and that I had also tried to teach the same thing to my students.
After my great epiphany, I called Mrs. Burkhart, and we had numerous opportunities to visit and to talk on the phone. And, yes, I did tell her about the biology paper. She just smiled, as if she already knew. So much for my great plan to fool her!
Mrs. Burkhart touched my heart, my mind, and my soul. She did what every teacher hopes to do—she touched lives. You see, the lesson was never just about writing—it was about life, and what kind of person I would become.