By Terri Finch Hamilton
Adapted from Centralight Winter 2018
A 91-year-old world traveler sends future teachers on foreign adventures, and a beloved choral music director leaves a legacy beyond her imagination.
A retired special education teacher encourages future teachers to carry on her compassion, and a young alum from Flint, Michigan, starts a scholarship at a site that nurtured his dreams.
Support for Central Michigan University comes in all sizes and varieties. Here's a closer look at a few of the gifts and givers to CMU's Fire Up For Excellence campaign.
Travel for future teachers
Suzanne Baber dreamed of world travel, but she was nearly 80 when she packed for her first trip to Paris. Two trips to Italy followed, then Ireland and London.
She doesn't want today's teacher education students to wait that long.
So Baber, a 1948 CMU graduate, established the Suzanne Baber Endowed Scholarship for Teacher Education Study Abroad. Now, students with financial need from CMU's teacher education program will study in the far-off countries she loves.
Baber, now 91, can't wait to hear their stories.
"You get involved in history when you travel, you learn about other people," Baber said from her home in Lake Orion, Michigan. "You realize that other people speak different languages and come from different cultures, but they're just like you, really."
That's great knowledge for a new teacher to have, she said.
"Teachers need to know that every child has a story."
Baber has given to CMU for 35 consecutive years, donating to scholarships, public broadcasting, the library, the Biological Station on Beaver Island and more. An education classroom and a room in Park Library are named after her.
Paying it forward
LaMarcus D. Howard made his first trip to CMU in the seventh grade, riding a charter bus from Flint, Michigan, as part of a college readiness program.
"Having a scholarship in my name has always been a goal of mine, and now it's a dream come true." — LaMarcus D. Howard, scholarship creator
As he neared graduation a few years later, college still seemed like a distant possibility.
"I wasn't the most academically prepared," Howard said, but his desire to attend Central was fierce.
"After visiting every year on that charter bus," he said, "it felt like a family."
After high school, Howard attended a six-week summer course at CMU, designed to jump-start his college career. The program was run by CMU's Multicultural Academic Student Services. The three college-level accelerated classes were tough.
"It was my blessing in disguise," he said. "It taught me study skills, how to manage my time. That's where my love for Multicultural Academic Student Services started."
Now, he's paying it forward.
Howard has started the LaMarcus D. Howard Scholarship to be awarded through MASS. As a CMU student, Howard received a $500 scholarship each year for three years through that office.
He worked with the office during all four years on campus. Later, as a graduate student, he oversaw Men About Change, the office's mentoring program that builds leadership skills and offers academic guidance to young men.
"I'm not even close to being rich, so I can't do an endowment — yet," said Howard, associate director of disability services at Eastern Michigan University. "But I can give a thousand dollars a year."
He's asked his friends and family to donate toward the scholarship and invites alumni to chip in, too.
"Having a scholarship in my name has always been a goal of mine, and now it's a dream come true," he said.
Howard graduated from CMU in 2009 and earned a master's degree in 2012.
'She'd be so honored'
When Nina Nash-Robertson died last January, hundreds of touching tributes flooded in about CMU's beloved director of choral activities.
Her husband, John Robertson, recalls some touching feedback Nina received before she died.
"One of her students told her, 'You give your heart to everyone,'" he said. "That perfectly summarizes her."
Nash-Robertson had recently retired after 35 years of teaching, conducting, encouraging and celebrating her love of music. As students, former students, family, friends and colleagues grieved, many made memorial contributions toward a scholarship her family planned in her honor.
John and their daughter, Jenny Robertson, who graduated in 2008, added their own money and established the Nina Nash-Robertson Endowed Scholarship for Choral Studies and the Nina Nash-Robertson Endowed Choir Fund for Choral and Vocal Studies.
The scholarship will be awarded to exemplary choral studies students who show great promise as future choral educators. The fund will go toward expenses, from touring to outreach and recruitment.
In addition, CMU's choral rehearsal room was dedicated in Nash-Robertson's honor.
She loved taking her students to perform abroad, traveling to China, Slovakia, France, Italy, the Czech Republic and her native Ireland. John said she would be thrilled to know there's money to pay for that travel.
"Every overseas tour she did, she had to raise money to do it," he said. "So many students had trouble finding the money. Some of her students had never left Michigan. It was so important to her that they see a bigger world."
Jenny said she and her father wanted to do something Nina would have been excited about and proud of.
"I have so many memories of my mom organizing fundraisers for choir trips overseas and staying up until one in the morning writing letters of recommendation for student scholarships," Jenny said.
"She would be so happy that we're continuing her legacy. It helps us, as well. We're still grieving."
'Teaching them was an honor'
Diane Thomas knew her special education students often felt left out.
So she made a spot for everybody.
One of her kids was in charge of the buzzers for the quiz bowl team, carefully packing them up and transporting them to and from each match.
Another lugged the marching band director's ladder out onto the football field at every game.
No kid ate lunch alone. Not on her watch.
"That would be the pits," the retired teacher said. "I worked very hard not to have a stigma attached to special education kids. I tried to find a place for every student I had."
Now others are following her compassionate lead.
Last summer, Thomas, a 1979 graduate, and her husband, Doug, arranged for a trust now worth $500,000 to establish the Thomas Family Endowed Scholarship in Special Education to support undergraduate special education majors.
"I want to help students who can't afford to go to college to be able to go," Thomas said.
She had no plans for college herself but tagged along on a CMU visit with her best friend.
"I fell in love with the campus," she said. "I told my dad, 'I want to go to college. I think I want to be a teacher.' That one decision completely changed my life."
Thomas went on to a rewarding career teaching special education, from kindergarten through high school, including 24 years at Arlington High School south of her home in Findlay, Ohio.
Now Thomas mentors student teachers at Bowling Green State University.
"I love it," she said. "I can impart some of the tricks from my bag."