Breaking The Glass Ceiling
As told to Verlie McAlister Edwards & Leanne Ivey
Editor’s Note: Verlie Edwards became friends with Iron Butterfly Dr. Mary Lee Herrington through her best friend Leanne Ivey, Mary Lee’s niece and caregiver. Both know their lives have been enriched by this amazing lady.
She broke the Glass Ceiling long before anyone knew there was a Glass Ceiling. In 1967, Mary Lee Sowders Herrington, along with her husband, Bill Herrington, received their Doctorates in Education from Baylor University at the very same time. They were the first husband/wife duo to achieve this outstanding accomplishment at Baylor!
Was this extraordinary achievement something she had set as a goal? Actually, it wasn’t. “When Bill began commuting to Baylor at night and during the summers, I decided to join him and began working on my doctorate,” she said. “You know your marriage is strong when it survives both partners working toward doctorate degrees simultaneously.” At the time, these lifelong educators were teaching at Navarro Junior College in Corsicana, Texas and it was an easy commute to Baylor in Waco. Both had already received bachelor and master degrees (his from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches and hers from Baylor).
Receiving her doctorate is not the only tie Dr. Mary Lee has to Baylor. Baylor was always where she wanted to attend. After starting at Kilgore College in her hometown, she eventually transferred to Baylor where she ultimately earned her bachelor, masters and doctorate degrees. To date, this 93-year-old Baylor Bear (she’ll be 94 on August 27, 2021) bleeds green and gold! Her apartment at The Westmore Retirement Center in Westworth Village, Texas, is filled with Baylor décor along with tributes to her career and family. Anytime her Baylor Bears are playing football, basketball or baseball, Dr. Mary Lee will be watching on TV!
In 1990, she “paid forward” everything she gained through her relationship with Baylor by establishing the Sowders-Herrington Endowed School of Education Scholarship Fund. She did this in honor of her and Bill’s parents who never attended college, but sacrificed for their children to achieve their goals of higher education. Each year she receives thank you letters from the students who benefit from this scholarship. She is blessed to hear their stories and is so happy to play a small part in their education.
The official description of the scholarship fund reads: “The Sowders-Herrington School of Education Scholarship was established in 1990 by Drs. William B. and Mary Lee S. Herrington of Waco, Texas to honor the memory of Mr. M. E. Sowders of Kilgore and Mr. C. G. Herrington of Lufkin, Texas. These two men were the fathers of the Doctors Herrington and were the examples of dedication and sincere commitment that motivated the Herringtons to pursue their careers in the field of education, educational psychology and elementary mathematics teacher training.”
Dr. Mary Lee noted that the only thing she ever wanted to do was be a teacher. She began her career teaching in elementary school in Kilgore. That’s where she met her future husband who was teaching on the secondary level. She saw him at the first teacher’s meeting of the year and soon after a mutual friend introduced them. It was “love at first sight” for Mary Lee and three months after their first date to church, Mary Lee Sowders married Bill Herrington on December 19, 1954. Because both were teaching, they had to marry at Christmas or wait until the summer. “We didn’t want to wait until summer,” she said. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2004.
The future Dr. Mary Lee and Dr. Bill not only shared a cherished marriage (he passed away in 2009), they also shared careers that impacted thousands of students. From their positions in Kilgore they were recruited to teach at Navarro Junior College in Corsicana and then it was on to Baylor University in Waco where each taught in the school of education. Dr. Mary Lee said seeing people learn and “get it” is what she most enjoyed about teaching. She has former students that still correspond with her and come to visit.
Over the 30-plus years she taught school, Dr. Mary Lee said the biggest change she witnessed was how students dressed. In the early years, students came to school neatly dressed and “looking sharp.” When she retired, jeans, t-shirts and flip flops were the accepted attire. She wasn’t a fan of this change. She thought it looked a bit lazy and disrespectful. But she accepts that life and trends change!
At Baylor, Dr. Mary Lee was the only female professor in the education department, but said she was completely accepted by her male counterparts. What advice would she give to future teachers? “Work hard. Take an interest in your students. Teaching will make you feel very, very good. It is a rewarding profession to go into,” she said.
This member of the Greatest Generation has seen many changes. There have been several firsts: first telephone (originally if anyone called you, they called the local grocery store and someone had to come tell you), first TV (after she married) and first steps on the moon by U.S. astronauts.
Faith has always been an important part of Dr. Mary Lee’s life. “I don’t ever remember not going to church.” When she decided to move from Waco to Fort Worth to be closer to her niece, Leanne, leaving her home church was difficult. She taught Sunday School and was very active in her church. She was thankful to meet Pastor Jamarc Davis and become a member of The Walk Church USA. The church brings weekly worship and Bible studies to her retirement center and Dr. Mary Lee is a faithful participant.
Recommendations for a long, fulfilled life? Be careful, eat right and surround yourself with happy people. These days, Dr. Mary Lee enjoys visits from friends and family, especially her niece, Leanne Ivey, great nephews Scott Ivey and wife, Aubrey, & Jeff Ivey, and great-great niece Ella Ivey and her twin brothers, Nathan and Noah Ivey.
Dr. Mary Lee Herrington is a true inspiration and Iron Butterfly that continues to fly forward.