– Rhonda Clark
“Well, tell me….” Everett Slavens always began our meetings with that familiar refrain. I marched into Dr. Slavens’ office in the fall of 1983 as a first-term freshman at Ouachita Baptist University (Arkadelphia, AR), to ask why I had missed certain points on an exam and, strangely, to object that I had been given points I felt I did not deserve. By the end of that conversation, a bond had begun that lasted more than thirty years. Dr. Slavens was my academic advisor and, though I never really adjusted to saying “Everett,” even twenty years after I graduated from OBU, he was my friend.
All who took Dr. Slavens in college knew the basics – that he was blind, but could perfectly spin the narrative of a history lecture on myriad topics from memory (dates and all!). Of course, there were all sorts of rumors that he actually could “see” anyone acting up in class – that he had called out students who left the room or misbehaved. However, the students who shared multiple conversations with Everett understood that he so dearly loved learning that he made the process of academic inquiry infectious. He so highly valued the evolution of one’s mind that he fostered a magical oasis of creativity. And for that reason, on a nearly weekly basis over three and a half years, I trekked to his office nestled in a squat, no-frills building constructed as temporary housing decades before. In the heat of the Arkadelphia days, we would sit and just talk – talk for an hour – punctuated by the ringing of the chimes every quarter hour and the click of Dr. Slavens’ watch opening, so he could feel the watch face and tell the time.
The adventures we shared tell a story of an unconventional instructor. During a Model UN trip to St. Louis, he spirited me away in the school car to tour “his” town (he had been a graduate student there) and to experience the beauty of a cathedral. I know, you are asking how a blind man did this: though he had not lived in St. Louis in decades, he still had the street map memorized, so he gave me directions and we drove all over town. It all worked well—except for that one small incident where a four-lane avenue had been changed to one-way sometime after he left graduate school.
From attending orchestra concerts to experiencing new foods, these school trips became opportunities for me and many other students to explore. Here was a man who once had to define for me the word “provincial,” but never judged my journey. He valued all sorts of learning, backgrounds, and mindsets. Our rapidly expanding worlds in college were not an indictment of rural life, but opportunities to expand on our already rich journeys by experiencing others’ worlds.
To say this man was encouraging is an understatement. There are countless students who would come forward and attest to his sense of authenticity in supporting a student’s intellectual journey. I don’t know how many times, when I doubted something would work out, he made it happen. I remember when I realized I wanted to study Russian literature and language, I felt there were no options. Keep in mind we lived in Arkadelphia in the early 1980s. There was no Russian program, no internet, no easy way to travel to any programs. But we searched for options and found a correspondence course from The University of Oklahoma, Norman, where I could begin studying Russian. And then, through the generous funding of the Honors Program, I was fortunate to be named the first Ben Elrod Scholar. OBU (and my parents) funded my trip to Russia to study in the summer. This was 1986 – Gorbachev, Glasnost’, and, unfortunately for me, Chernobyl. I thought the trip was off for sure, but Dr. Slavens calmed me down and talked me through my panic carefully. We determined the risks were manageable and the trip was still on.
That summer I had a lot of firsts – I had never been away from home for any real length of time – never been on a boat, a train, a plane, in the north, away from my twin…. And my dad, who firmly believed in travel, said, “we’ll see you off at the airport.” Despite my assurances that there was air travel between Little Rock and New York City, he packed the family in the station wagon and drove me to New York, all the way to JFK, so my first flight on a plane was from NYC to Helsinki. Upon my return, Everett helped me locate an instructor of Russian in Little Rock. He made calls and, through connections I never fully understood, found me Nina Krupitsky, a wonderful Ukrainian immigrant living in Little Rock, who was fluent in Russian and trained as a language teacher. I did not have a car in college until senior year, when my parents lent me one, in part so I could pursue these lessons. I would drive home 2 ½ hours to where my parents lived in Russellville every other weekend, work Friday and Saturday nights at the local yogurt shop, make enough money to pay for my Russian lesson, drive back via Little Rock, and stop to take the lesson. I can attribute a lot of this “make it work” success to Dr. Slavens’ encouragement.
And then we applied for graduate schools that year and dreamed big. Dr. Slavens navigated me through the sometimes frustrating waters of graduate applications and we ended up with an assistantship (funding!) for an MA in Russian Studies at the University of Minnesota.
I also had the great fortune that Dr. Slavens and others had secured a wonderful Fulbright professor from the University of Helsinki, Dr. Martti Haikio, to teach in our political science department. Dr. Slavens played an integral role in making sure that this Fulbright instructor and his family felt right at home.
Part of the wonder of the relationship with Dr. Slavens was his ability to describe and enjoy other people. His awareness of the depth of this opportunity came through in our talks. He taught me to evaluate, appreciate, and understand those moments. Years later, on a couple of different trips to Russia via Finland, Dr. Haikio welcomed me to visit with his family and helped me trek from the airport to my ferry from Helsinki. He became a part of our little joke, somewhat true I think, that “all roads go through Arkadelphia.”
After college, Everett and I stayed in touch. At first, we would send long letters on cassette tapes. Throwing them into an envelope and writing “free matter for the blind” on the stamp area, our conversations shifted from the hot, humid climate of the South to frigid Minneapolis. I knew I “wasn’t in Kansas anymore” in those first few days in the city. I so enjoyed sharing these moments with Everett. Through my first marriage to a Russian man, to my Ph.D. in history, to my first teaching job, the death of my father, my divorce, my second marriage – life marched on and so did the consistency of this friendship. I remember one time Everett was in upstate New York visiting a dear friend. I lived in Erie at the time, so I said, “I’ll come get you,” and, in our typical OBU adventure spirit, I raced to Rochester and said, “how would you like to see Niagara Falls?” He said he would love to, so within a few hours, we were standing in the roar of the falls, being sprayed with the cool water and soaking up the summer multilingual sounds of tourists. It was a nice day.
There is really no substitute for knowing someone deeply cares about you and your journey. I cannot say that Everett Slavens was the only one at OBU who did this. Many others also had a tremendous influence on my development. There certainly were many committed teachers and mentors at Ouachita. My co-conspirators on my journey also included my suitemates and hallmates, friends, boyfriends, bandmates. All our journeys were enriched and, in my case, made possible, by the support of my family, friends, and my mentor, Dr. Everett Slavens. Everett, I will carry your lessons forward, learning to listen more and talk less, and always waiting for the possibilities from that simple refrain, “Well, tell me….”
Rhonda Clark began her academic career in a small college in Arkansas, studying history and then moved to Minneapolis to study Russian Aria Studies (MA) and Russian History (PhD) at the University of Minnesota. She added an MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh to capitalize on her love of archival and historical resources. She teaches in Clarion’s Department of Information and Library Science in the Local and Archival concentration. She lives in an oil-era historic home in Titusville, PA.