Voices: Three generations of Cowboy spirit

Grace Mitchell (center) with her father Kevin Mitchell (left) and her fiancé Carlo Serna (right) at the BGCT Family Gathering in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Grace Mitchell)

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Hardin-Simmons University emphasizes that everyone—from faculty to staff, students to alumni—are all a part of the HSU Family. This means something different to my immediate family.

I am a third-generation HSU student. My grandmother attended HSU in the 1950s, my father in the 1980s, and I am currently in my senior year at HSU. We have many memories of how HSU helped us develop into the people we are today.

Willa Johnson, Grace Mitchell’s grandmother, in the HSU Cowgirls. (Photo courtesy of Grace Mitchell)

A grandmother’s memories

My grandmother, Willa Arlene Johnson, attended HSU from 1952 to 1955, earning her Bachelor of Business Administration degree in business education. She was active on campus as the reporter for the Alpha Chi Honor Society and a council member for the Baptist Student Union—now known as BSM.

She was most proud of her involvement in the HSU Cowgirls, marching and dancing alongside the Cowboy Band in parades and performances. Even though my grandmother now uses a walker, she still remembers the steps to their signature dance, “The Old Gray Mare.” Whenever I visit her, she always demonstrates and has me step along with her.

Willa Johnson, Grace Mitchell’s grandmother, as Alpha Chi secretary. (Photo courtesy of Grace Mitchell)

She loves to tell me stories of when she was in school and had virtually no money. “I could go to the cafeteria and buy a cup of coffee for a nickel and a cookie for a dime, and that was my breakfast,” she says. When my grandmother was at Hardin-Simmons, “only the rich girls had cars,” so she stood on the corner and hitched a ride downtown to her job every day. These experiences helped her appreciate her blessings and be grateful for what God had given her.

After graduating, my grandmother taught high school typing, shorthand and other business classes. Later, she taught special education and elementary school students, as well. She taught not only academic subjects to her students; she shared the love of Christ with each one.

A father’s legacy

Almost 30 years after my grandmother graduated from Hardin-Simmons, my dad transferred to HSU from Midwestern State University close to his hometown. He graduated from HSU in 1984 with his Bachelor of Behavioral Science degree in religion and a minor in theatre.

My dad had an interesting mix of classes from the theatre and theology departments. He enjoyed both, recalling that they seemed to be the two majors where everyone had a beard. He remembers with fondness his professors H. K. Neely, Omar Hancock, Ray Ellis and Jesse Fletcher, then president of HSU.

Dad says if he had not had a patient professor and individual tutoring, he might never have graduated or been in the ministry in any qualified way.

Kevin Mitchell, Grace Mitchell’s father, in a school play at HSU. (Photo courtesy of Grace Mitchell)

“Because Hardin-Simmons is a small school, I got assistance that foundationally made it possible for me to get a degree and even go on to get a doctorate,” he said. “They gave me the one-on-one attention that I needed. HSU is a family where people support you.”

My dad went on to earn his Master of Divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and his doctorate in ministry from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is currently the pastor of First Baptist in Pecos, Texas.

He uses things he learned in his Bible classes every day, but he also uses the things he learned in his theatre classes. My dad has preached while dressed like the innkeeper in Bethlehem. He also performed a dramatic reading of “The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson. Just like my grandmother, my dad uses the things he learned at HSU to touch the lives of people around him with the love of Christ.

A daughter’s decision

When driving through Abilene, my dad always stopped to tour the HSU campus, telling us which buildings were new and in which buildings he took classes. I remember being bored as a child, thinking or saying, “Yes, Dad, we’ve seen your name on the Alumni Wall.” As a senior, I told myself that while I wanted to go to a Christian school, I would go anywhere but HSU.

Thankfully, my teenage rebellion subsided after I toured the HSU campus. Like so many students, when I stepped on campus, I felt like I was coming home. It seemed like everyone knew each other. Even if they didn’t, they met each other with a smile. I met not only admissions counselors but even was welcomed by the head of the English department.

I began my time at HSU in 2015 and will graduate with my Bachelor of Arts degree in English education this spring. HSU has helped me grow in many ways. I have taken classes preparing me for a career as an English teacher or equipping me to further my education. I have learned how to think hard and well, hearing from all sides before making a decision. I have worked in the university marketing office at HSU, giving me skills as a writer and leader. I have found the love of my life and will marry him in Logsdon Chapel this June. But most of all, like my grandmother and father, I have been strengthened in my faith at HSU and encouraged to love others.

Grace Mitchell with Ruth, her sister, and Willa Johnson, her grandmother. (Photo courtesy of Grace Mitchell)

Grace Mitchell is a senior at Hardin-Simmons University. She works as a staff writer for the HSU Marketing Department and as a social media manager for Logsdon Seminary. You can find her on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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