By Tajuana Cheshier
Stepping out in faith and seeking guidance from the Lord is how Dr. Elizabeth Ann Saunders has made many of the big decisions in her life. When she chose to be one of the first black students to attend Freed-Hardeman in the late 1960s instead of another school where she would not have been in the minority, Saunders prayed about her decision. In 1967 she became Freed-Hardeman’s first black graduate. Eleven years later, Saunders sought guidance from the Lord when she was a candidate for a teaching position at her alma mater. She became Freed-Hardeman’s first black faculty member in 1978.
“I’m always learning and I’m grateful for all of my experiences,” said Saunders, who retired in the spring. She completed her 40th year teaching at FHU in various departments, with the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences comprising a majority of the years. She was one of the first teachers in Graduate Studies in Education. Her brave choices opened the doors of diversity for generations of women and minorities.
A Chester County native, Saunders attended first through 12th grades in the local schools. Her father, George Saunders, was one of her teachers, and he carried her books on their walks to school each day. She grew up knowing the value of education and the importance of literacy.
She taught English and reading five years at Haywood Junior High, taught reading one year at Anderson Grammar School and English and reading two years at Haywood High School. She commuted from Henderson to Brownsville with her mother, who taught at Haywood High School. Her 40 years teaching at Freed-Hardeman brought her many years of professional fulfillment, and she continues teaching two online classes for graduate education students.
Saunders served as the university’s Master of the Bell at Freed-Hardeman’s Tolling of the Bell ceremony Aug. 22 to commemorate the beginning of the university's 149th academic year. During the ceremony, Saunders told FHU students, “No one gets a diploma without help.”
Several weeks later, she reflected about the many people along the way who supported her, including her maternal grandparents, Elizabeth and Roger Ruth. Several teachers/mentors throughout elementary and secondary school gave Saunders the educational, social and emotional foundation and support she needed. “I remember teachers/mentors like Ms. Pauline Anderson, who let me be her student worker; Mr. Wendell Bloomingburg, who assisted in advising; Coach Hoyt Kirk, who was very welcoming in his class; and others who helped me as a student at FHU.”
When Saunders returned to FHU as a faculty member, several administrators and mentors assisted her, including Dr. B. J. Naylor, Dr. J. D. Thomas and the late President E. Claude Gardner. She also referred to her co-worker and friend, Dr. Carol Waymire, and said,“She and I applied for the same position in 1978 at FHC. We were hired as teachers and became best friends. We still remain the best of friends after 40 years. She was instrumental in helping me through the years at FHU.”
Since beginning her career helping students improve their literacy skills, Saunders marvels at the ways technology has changed how educators teach. “When I began, I didn’t have a computer, and now I’m teaching an online class,” Saunders said. “In a traditional classroom, I enjoy the interaction with students; however, in an online class, I’m able to get in more content.”
Although she’s winding down her time in the classroom, Saunders plans to continue teaching and learning in Wednesday night Bible class and Vacation Bible School, traveling on mission trips and reading her Bible daily. She reads the entire Bible each year.
“I read the Bible as I walk on the treadmill each morning,” Saunders said. One of her favorite scriptures is Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths."
To honor her parents, Nyla and George Saunders, and grandparents, Elizabeth and Roger Ruth, Saunders established the Saunders-Ruth Scholarship to assist an FHU undergraduate education major.
George Saunders taught history in Chester County Schools for 37 years and her mother, Nyla, was a cosmetologist who taught those skills in Haywood County for 15 years.
“We can always use additional contributions to the scholarship fund,” Saunders said. “I am grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to teach many students who also have had an impact on my life.”
How to Contribute
One wishing to contribute to the Saunders-Ruth Memorial Endowed Scholarship may send a check to the Office of Development at Freed-Hardeman University, 158 East Main Street, Henderson, TN 38340 and designate the scholarship.