Imagine two wise women—professors, in fact—both artists, both writers, one with a turquoise nose piercing and her hair kept up in a trusty pinch clip, the other with fiery curls and a wrist covered in friendship bracelets.
As a student in both the Creative Writing and Studio Art Departments, I’ve had the absolute pleasure of working with both these women. Pat Geary and Penny McElroy (always Pat and Penny, never Professor) have been teaching at the University of Redlands for 30 years and 32 years, respectively. They’ve become my mentors and my friends during my time at the U of R. I wanted to hear about their experiences with college and mentorship, so we had dinner together to learn more about one another.
It turns out Pat and Penny are best friends.
Pat teaches fiction, other creative writing courses, classes through the Johnston Center, and yoga. On top of that, she’s also been painting for eight years and takes art classes here at the University. She earned her B.A. in art history from Vassar College and her M.F.A. in fiction writing from University of California, Irvine.
“I started writing when I was four, but I wanted to be a ballerina,” Pat said. “I took ballet off and on for 30 years, but I didn’t like to perform, so...” She laughed.
Pat taught at Louisiana State University for five years before growing homesick for her native Southern California; fortunately, a position at the U of R opened up, and she has been here ever since. Not only have I been fortunate enough to take three classes with Pat, she was also the primary reader for my fiction capstone, and I’m currently taking an independent study course with her to refine my novel-writing skills.
“I never expected to teach in a million years,” said Pat, recalling a time when she thought she’d go to Paris to write and paint. “I didn’t think I’d have to work for a living,” she added, much to Penny’s amusement.
But while Penny’s aspirations weren’t quite as romantic, she didn’t think she would be a teacher, either. She was born in Michigan and attended Alma College, where she earned her degree in social work. After she graduated, Penny worked for a couple years as a social worker at a drug and alcohol abuse treatment center. When she wasn’t working, Penny took art classes, and she quickly fell in love.
“I got a D in art in sixth grade,” Penny said, “so I didn’t do any art seriously after that until I started taking classes when I was older. My family always made stuff, so art was a part of my life, but I thought I wasn’t any good at it because I got a D.”
Deciding to make art a bigger part of her life, Penny began working and taking art classes at Hollins College in Virginia, and then attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she earned her M.F.A. in graphics. She taught at Bethany College in Kansas for two years, but, finding Kansas too isolated, she came to the U of R, seeking a greater connection to the rest of the world. I’ve taken three classes with Penny, who teaches graphic design and typography, and she is currently one of the advisors for my studio art capstone class.
The two didn’t miss a beat when it came to the topic of their own mentors.
“I had the most wonderful mentor in graduate school,” said Pat. “That’s actually how I got to Redlands. His name was Donald Heiney, and he’d gone to Redlands and met his wife there. He was a great scholar and a fabulous novel-writer. He just championed me the entire time. He helped me with every book I ever published.”
“My boss at Hollins was a wonderful mentor to me,” said Penny. “Her name was Baylies Hearon Willey. She was the most student-centered person I had ever met. Every detail of what we did was important, and yet she was extraordinarily non-perfectionistic. She asked me what I wanted to do, what my life plan was, and I told her I wanted to do something with art. And she said, ‘I think we can work that out,’ and that was a tremendous gift to me. She asked me to be a TA in the art department, and I became an assistant to Nancy Dahlstrom, my other mentor. I learned a lot about how things run in art departments, how to take care of a studio, how to help students make their art. Nancy just pulled me into everything she was doing. She was a model for me of how to blend art and life and teaching.”
I asked Pat and Penny about their favorite part of being professors, to which they laughed, and Pat replied, “The students—there’s only one answer for that. It’s all about the students.”
“And you, Taylor,” Penny said, “you are a model for a student that professors love to mentor because you receive it all, but you don’t just slavishly take it. I can trust you to evaluate what you get.”
“I never feel like I’m completely redirecting you,” Pat added.
“Right,” agreed Penny. “Ultimately your work is not my work.”
While I’m certainly glad that Pat and Penny enjoy being my mentors—and I will be forever grateful for their support and plan to keep in touch with them after graduation—I myself am striving to reach the high standards of mentorship that they have set for me when I help others.
I’ve always enjoyed working with kids, and I’ve been a mentor in the Big Buddies program for almost three years now. I’ve also coached middle school volleyball, and I tutor kids of all ages. I don’t see teaching in my future plans, but then again, neither did Pat or Penny.