By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
BLUE MOUNTAIN – Retiring Blue Mountain College President Bettye Rogers Coward has a favorite spot on the Tippah County school’s campus.
Nestled near the administration building is a manmade waterfall that has become among the town’s most popular places for taking photographs. Coward envisioned the landmark when she first came to the college in 2001 after a 30-year career at Mississippi College, but it wasn’t among her early priorities.
Instead, she followed the advice she’d once received from her brother, an Air Force pilot. Asked about the plane’s instruments, he told her, “You deal first with those that will kill you.”
“On my first day, I could picture the waterfall,” Coward recalls. “But I couldn’t do it right away because that wouldn’t kill you.”
What loomed much more dangerously was a lagging enrollment of 404 students that threatened to jeopardize the school’s future.
That is where she began her focus and is where she has seen one of her biggest accomplishments. The student body grew during her tenure to 555 students, and the residential population ballooned from 87 to 271. The college became coeducational and added graduate programs and men’s intercollegiate athletics.
“We said we must grow enrollment, but we must grow with the kind of student who benefits from what we have to offer and contributes to the culture,” she said.
But a growing student body hasn’t been the lone feat for the college’s first female president, who will officially retire on June 30. She’ll be replaced by Barbara Childers McMillin from Union University in Jackson, Tenn.
There have been large triumphs like nearly doubling the college’s operating budget and smaller ones like the waterfall, which was completed around 2005 or 2006 to make an unsightly drainage ditch look much more beautiful.
“Dr. Coward transformed every aspect of Blue Mountain College,” said Carl White, president of the BMC Board of Trustees. “There is not an aspect of the life of the liberal arts college that she didn’t transform and strengthen, from the physical plant to the staff to the student body and the life on campus. She literally did 20 years worth of work in 11 years.”
The tenure began with a scare. Just as she began her work on the campus, Coward was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I knew what had to be done, and I had to give leadership to it,” she said. “I said a prayer that I’d get up every day and do everything I could that day and see where it leaves me.”
At the time, the college was renovating Stevens Residence Hall. When the furniture for the building arrived in July, Coward, who had then undergone four treatments, met the truck and carried the first piece to the third floor. That was when she knew she would be OK.
“If you’ve been given some more days, you better take advantage of them,” she said. “I feel I’ve invested the best I have here.”
Trustee Mitch Waycaster of Tupelo characterized Coward as a visionary, servant leader with a tireless work ethic, the ability to maximize financial resources and an overall commitment to excellence in Christian higher education.
Coward and her husband, Tom, will move to Florida to spend more time with their two grandchildren. She’ll be missed not only by the college, but also by the community.
“She is such a quality person,” said CREATE Foundation President Mike Clayborne. “She is very intelligent, very compassionate. You don’t have folks like that come along every day.”