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Couple's success demonstrates the power of perseverance

It's a storyline that could have come from a classic American novel: work hard and be rewarded.

Except in this case, we're not talking about a work of fiction. Rather, this is a true-life story of a couple that learned early on about the value of getting an education—and achieved success because of it. "From my earliest memories, the only thing I heard from my parents was, 'Get an education.' My father passed away three weeks before I turned 5, but my mother continued his mantra: 'Get a good education,'" says Rubye Coleman-Sanders (Ed.D. '77), who recently celebrated her 40th anniversary year of receiving her doctorate from the University of Georgia. "I wanted to do my best because my mother never let us forget that she wanted us to have a better life than she had, and the only way we were going to achieve that was through an education."

Today, Rubye and Johnny Sanders, Jr. (M.Ed. '75, Ed.S. '76, Ph.D. '78) are enjoying retirement—she after 30 years of teaching in higher education, he after 33 years in high school and college-level classrooms. Rubye's most recent position was as a professor of education at Lander University in Greenwood, South Carolina, where she was the first African-American woman to become a tenured full professor. Johnny retired as an emeritus professor in counseling and development in the College of Education at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, where he was the first African-American man to receive a tenured professorship.

Now, after the bustle of juggling careers, raising a family, and working their way up through the halls of academia, Rubye and Johnny can look back on their careers and see how their perseverance paid off.

Small-town start

As the sixth of seven children, Rubye found her role as an educator early in life. Her oldest sister graduated from high school the year she was born, and by the time Rubye entered grade school, her sister was working as a teacher in their hometown.

"When I was in the fourth grade, I gathered the kids in the neighborhood to be my students; I taught them everything that was taught to me in school," she says.

A similar sentiment was taught in the Sanders household. Johnny's parents worked blue-collar jobs—he worked in a cotton mill for 40 years, she was a presser in the local laundry for over 30 years. Johnny is the youngest of six children and the only child to graduate from college. But each set of parents pushed their children to achieve more. "They always impressed upon their children the need to finish high school; they both inspired me to achieve not only my high school education, but also my college education," says Johnny. "Fortunately, my mother lived long enough to see me graduate from undergraduate school."

Johnny grew up in Enterprise, a small city along a railroad line in southeast Alabama. Rubye hailed from Union Springs, a much more rural town located about an hour north of Enterprise. Each graduated from high school in 1967, but their paths didn't cross until they ended up at Alabama State University in Montgomery for their undergraduate degrees. Rubye received her bachelor's in business education in 1971, while Johnny, who received a football scholarship to Alabama State, graduated with honors in 1970 with a bachelor's degree in health, physical education, and recreation.

After graduation, Rubye and Johnny knew they wanted to be together. But like most new college graduates, career and personal goals aren't always in alignment. Rubye went on to Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, to receive an M.Ed. in business education, while Johnny began teaching high school in Georgia. While he was teaching, he was accepted into the master's degree program in rehabilitation counseling at the University of Georgia.

"I like to think I inspired him to go ahead and get his master's degree," says Rubye with a smile. "We weren't competitive, but we wanted to be at the same educational level. So we moved to Athens in June 1973. We were married in Athens, and I was hired as head secretary in the Language Arts Department (in the College of Education)."

Overcoming roadblocks

Looking back on their time at UGA, both Rubye and Johnny give a great deal of credit to their professors and advisors who also became mentors and friends. Graduate school is often a time when personal and professional endeavors mix and mingle, and this was the case for the new Sanders family.

"I will forever be appreciative of Dr. Ramon Veal, who gave me an opportunity to work in the Department of Language Arts, which allowed me to meet the dean of the College of Education, Dr. Joseph Wiliams," says Rubye. "I also met Dr. Calfrey C. Calhoun, Dr. Dickerson, who was head of the Department of Development and Professional Laboratory Services, and Dr. Ronald Goldenberg, coordinator of student teaching."

At this point, it was 1973; Johnny completed his master's degree in 1975 after teaching and coaching football and basketball in Sparta, Georgia, for three years. Rubye, who still had a desire to teach, met with the dean of the College of Education. That led to a job as a graduate teaching assistant for Goldenberg. "I had not given the doctoral program a thought, but I seized the opportunity, and I applied to the doctoral program," she says.

Among the faculty Rubye worked with was Calhoun, head of the College's Department of Business Education from 1958-1983. His work had national reach; two of his textbooks were used for years in classrooms across the country, and his scholarship led the way for national standards for business education. He later served as dean of the School of Technology at East Carolina University as well as other positions of leadership in K-12 education and statewide organizations.

Johnny also found support and encouragement from faculty as he worked toward his multiple degrees in counseling and human development services. His advisor and major professor, Tim Field, recalls Sanders as an exceptional student who was focused on his education.

"I oversaw his entire doctoral program; I chaired his dissertation committee, and I also chaired the doctoral exam, so I probably had a part in that," says Field, who now publishes research journals through his Athens-based publishing company. "Johnny was a really good student. He was a professional, young, and on his way up. And he took his academics seriously. He was just the kind of a fellow you'd want in your doctoral program.

"He was a good person and probably represented our program and university very well years down the line."

Field was instrumental in providing financial assistance for Johnny's graduate studies, via stipends and a graduate assistantship at UGA. Drs. Wayne Antenen, George Gazda, Richard Page, Jack Crisler, Andrew Chisolm, Warren Bonney, and Jack Sink also served as excellent role models during his graduate studies at UGA and throughout his professional career.

But while Rubye and Johnny continued to climb professionally, they did it while catching the curveballs that life tends to throw at you.

For one, Johnny's mother died in 1974. "She lapsed into a coma for about 60 days, and all of my instructors were very concerned about my situation and made sure I continued my studies," says Johnny. "I'm very appreciative of that today, and it helped in my transition from Sparta."

Also, their time in Athens saw the birth of their son, Quentin. Already juggling a job and classes, Rubye worked with her professors to manage the work while caring for a newborn. Thankfully, the couple received support and encouragement from across the College of Education.

"During my pregnancy, the people in the student teaching office were very supportive," says Rubye. "When I had complications and our son arrived early, I was allowed to do whatever was needed to accommodate my circumstances. My husband said luckily our son was born on a Saturday; I had just turned in my last assignment the day before he was born."

But Rubye agrees that the support from faculty, both personally and professionally, made a difference.

"I am so thankful for the support of Dr. Calhoun, who was my major advisor—he took me under his wings, he liked the idea for my dissertation, and he kept me focused on that," she says. "I cannot complain about anything that happened at the University of Georgia. It made our marriage stronger, and it prepared us for the world of work."

A steady rise

Because their experience at Alabama State provided them a solid footing for academics at the University of Georgia, Rubye and Johnny knew they wanted to use their degrees to give back and teach at historically black colleges and universities. So for several years, the couple taught at Alcorn State University, Fayetteville State University, and Jackson State University. But before long, each realized that to advance in their respective fields—he in counselor education and she in business education—they would need to move to different universities.

It's a challenge many couples in academia face, but Rubye and Johnny had a plan: Work at different universities, but stay within a 100-mile radius of each other. He ended up with a tenure-track position at Winthrop; she landed a tenure-track position at Lander.

From there, the couple rose through the ranks, receiving awards and accolades along the way. Johnny received the 2008 Counselor Educator of the Year Award from the South Carolina School Counseling Association—the first counselor-educator from Winthrop to earn this distinction—and both have also worked as consultants and lecturers in their areas on state, national, and international levels.

Education continues to be a priority in the Sanders family. Their son, Quentin, is equally accomplished. He received a bachelor's degree in biology/teacher education from Lander University, then went on to receive a Ph.D. in cellular and molecular biology and genetics from the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medicine in New York City and a law degree from Northwestern University in Chicago. Their daughter-in-law, Precious Elmore Sanders, also holds bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees. Johnny and Rubye are the proud grandparents of a 3-year-old granddaughter, Violet.

In retirement, the couple travels nationally and internationally, and recently moved back to their home state of Alabama, where they met 50 years ago. They also continue to give back to education. In the past year, they have established scholarship funds at the University of Georgia and at Alabama State University, each with the goal of supporting a first-generation student from an underrepresented population studying teacher education. Recipients must also plan to teach in underrepresented communities.

"We worked in the field of higher education, and we know how difficult it is, especially now, for students to come up with the money to go to school," says Rubye. "We wanted to pay it forward. We instilled in our son the same values our parents instilled in us—to try to achieve at your highest level, and then give back. We are pleased to know that our contributions to UGA and ASU will help future generations to achieve their educational goals."

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