Look at that beautiful face. I always did think Dr. BJ looked a lot like poet Elizabeth Bishop. She sure did have the heart of a poet. She also had a gorgeous contralto, something a lot of her students didn't even know.
Dr. Betty Jean (BJ) Seymour was my mentor at Randolph-Macon College way back in the early 1980s. We all called her "Dr BJ," and she was one of the finest professors that college has had to offer. She had been a former Asst. Dean of Students when the college first went coed in the early 1970s, but when I knew her, she was Professor of Religious Studies and a damn good one. At that time in my life, I was an avowed atheist, all intellectual snobbery, and the only reason I took a class in religious studies was that it was either that or philosophy to fulfill distribution requirements, and my friend Amy Thomas highly recommended Dr. BJ. I rolled my eyes and signed up. What can I say? I had a crush on Amy.
The rest, as they say, is history. BJ didn't convert me to Christianity--that wasn't the goal of religious studies courses--but she DID make me realize that a person can be a Christian (and she did eventually get her divinity degree) and not walk around judging, proselytizing, and oppressing people all the time. She opened my mind to the understanding that, like anything in life, we make things what we choose to make them. For her, Jesus spoke a message of freedom from oppression; the fall was a fall not into sin but into a state of human-ness caused by the gift and curse of freedom of choice; God was more about love, human kindness, and compassion for others, celebrating life instead of slamming doors on others and damning them to hell. At least once a semester she would take me to Pizza Hut in Ashland and we'd share a mushroom pizza, thin crust, with a pitcher of Michelob.
And she pushed me. She challenged me to come into some of her other sections of classes and participate on discussion panels or to read a paper I'd written for her. She once dropped to me some ideas she'd had about Melville's Billy Budd; I developed those ideas into a paper to send out for publication. She encouraged me to just skip the Master's degree altogether and apply to a new PhD program in religion and literature at Emory University. In fact, I wound up doing a second major in religious studies, just because I was taking all of her classes out of sheer intellectual curiosity anyway. After that, I was fond of telling people I majored in "English and BJ Seymour." I think, that of the ten classes required for that major, all but two I took with her. On graduation day, it was Dr. Seymour who slipped away--temporarily--from the ranks of faculty members to take her place behind me in the front row with the other honors graduates, and she proudly slipped the R-MC hood over my head and arranged it gently so it would hang correctly down my back. My Dad was totally okay with BJ hooding me and beamed from the bleachers.
Well, I didn't go to Emory because I couldn't afford it; Penn State offered me a full ride and assistantship for a master's in English, so I went that route instead. But BJ was with me when I got the acceptance letter, and we went for ice cream together to celebrate.
When I won the Stephenson Scholarship to Israel in May of my senior year, the award didn't quite pay the entire cost of the trip, so BJ generously wrote out a personal check for the couple of extra hundred dollars I needed. She never wanted that money back. So when I won, two years ago, the BJ Seymour Alumna Award, I didn't even ask what the honorarium was. I promptly gave it back to the college in BJ's name. The plaque hangs proudly by my other awards and degrees in my bedroom.
I have never lost my interest in religious studies, though my own spirituality fell by the wayside for a time when I was caught up in the horrors and spiritual sickness of alcohol addiction. That burden I put down nine months ago, and I'm sure BJ would be pleased to know that God is back in my life. I owe so much to her.
The biggest debt of gratitude I owe to BJ Seymour is my love of teaching. She nurtured that in me probably without even intending to. My students, from Day One, have always called me "Joyce," never "Professor Luck," and I follow BJ's lead in everything I do in the classroom. I see my students as intellectual equals and try to challenge them to think for themselves. I never see a student as "dumb"; at worst, I see some as uneducated, and it pleases me to no end to bring them the food and the spoon and show them how to use them, instead of shoveling facts down their throats. At times I am not always the best teacher--I can get lazy just like anybody--but when I'm good, you can bet that's when I'm channeling BJ. Just this past semester, I had a student write an essay I knew was potentially publishable, so we spent some time together reworking it as a piece of creative nonfiction and she has submitted it to NCTE for a scholarship. If she wins that, in a very real sense, she can thank Dr. BJ for that, too.
God, I already miss BJ already. But I feel 100% sure she and I will be meeting again some day.
R-MC honors her service to the college here. And if you want to make a gift to the college in BJ's name, information to do so is also there. Thanks for reading.