Roger Kirk wasn’t supposed to stay in Texas for long.
The Columbus, Ohio, native was offered an assistant professor spot at Baylor University in 1959, one he eagerly accepted to have a chance to experience the Texas-style charm he had heard stories of from friends.
Now, he is preparing for his 56th consecutive year of teaching at Baylor, on track to break the university record of 55 years of service set in 2013 by now-retired history professor Rufus Spain.
“I knew some people who were from Texas and they thought so highly of Texas, and I thought, ‘Gee, it’d be kind of interesting to go there and spend a few years teaching at Baylor,’ ” said Kirk, now a distinguished professor of psychology and statistics. “I just came here and I fell in love with Texas, fell in love with Baylor and that’s why I didn’t leave.”
Interim Provost David Garland said it is a rare for a professor to teach that long, let alone with the same institution.
Besides Kirk and Spain, only three other faculty members have accumulated at least 50 years of service at Baylor — track and field director Clyde Hart; retired religion professor Bob Patterson; and the late Lily Russell, an administrator who helped plan and direct the student union building and later served as Baylor’s official university historian.
Garland said Baylor is honored to have retained a professor of Kirk’s stature, noting that he is among just 23 professors to receive Baylor’s highest recognition of Master Teacher.
“I think it demonstrates their commitment to the students, to the discipline that they’re teaching and their commitment to the university,” Garland said. “Many people will start their first teaching job somewhere and they’ll move somewhere else, so this is an extremely rare feat.”
Spain, 91, applied to more than 15 Southern colleges but was drawn to Baylor’s religious affiliation and Christian-infused education principles.
The university at that time also was more focused on teaching instead of research, and Spain had freedom to teach recent American history post-1890 to his students, who appreciated his firsthand accounts of major U.S. events.
For example, Spain served in World War II, including the D-Day invasion at Normandy, as well as the Korean War, though he was not directly involved in combat.
“When I got down to the 1930s (in lectures), it was all recollection on my part,” Spain said. “I covered World War II in a couple weeks, but I didn’t dwell on it, but the students were very interested in it, of course. They were interested in the Depression, too.”
Spain taught at Baylor for “only 41 years” before being named head of the university’s retirement program in 1998.
He recalled being surprised last spring that his time spent producing newsletters and organizing events for retired faculty was still being counted toward his overall service at the university.
“That was the first time I even realized I was building points, so to speak,” Spain said. “In contrast, Dr. Kirk has been a teacher the whole time, and I admire him for it . . . he’s an authority on statistics, and his books are widely used. He’s a real scholar, I can’t lay claim to that.”
But Kirk, who coyly dodges questions about his age, admits that teaching wasn’t part of his early career plans. He originally majored in music at Ohio State University, but after deciding he lacked the musical talent to continue playing trombone at a professional level, he earned a doctorate in psychology.
New professors in the psychology department at Baylor were required to teach statistics because they had recently taken those courses in completing their graduate coursework. But Kirk soon fell in love with teaching the subject and gradually transitioned away from psychology courses.
Two of the five textbooks he has written are now national standard course material for college statistics. Kirk also founded Baylor’s Institute of Statistics in 1991 and served as its director for 10 years.
In addition, Kirk is a fellow at four different professional research organizations, including five different divisions of the American Psychological Association and the American Education Research Association.
Kirk even managed to spark up a romance during his tenure at Baylor, pursuing and marrying associate piano professor Jane Abbott-Kirk, a pianist who celebrated her 40th anniversary with the university this past spring. The match was suggested by former Baylor music department faculty member Mary Ellen Proudfit, whom Kirk consulted with about dating prospects.
The couple are now active in ballroom dancing, practicing three times a week and performing competitively. Kirk said he and his wife teach a tango class at the Cultural Activities Center in Temple.
“Our first date was at Poppa Rollo’s Pizza,” Kirk said. “I remember exactly where we sat; we were up in the balcony. I remember what she was wearing, all of those details. It was a very conscious effort on my part to get back to my roots in music, because I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to date someone that had a music background?’ ”
Kirk has no plans of slowing down just yet.
He just wrapped a summer statistics course, he is working on three journal articles on experimental design and statistics, and he will be delivering a presentation at the American Psychological Association convention in Washington, D.C., in August.
“I have no intentions of retiring,” Kirk said. “I’ll keep teaching as long as I’m physically and mentally able.”
Retirement also wasn’t a consideration a year ago, when Kirk was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He took a break from teaching as he underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation for the disease, but knew he would return to the classroom.
“I love the opportunities I have here, and I can’t imagine teaching someplace else,” Kirk said.