The teachers you can count on for an “easy A” are always popular with students.
But teachers like University of Mobile English professor Dr. Frances A. Garner – the stern ones who keep you after class and demand you do better – are truly loved.
For evidence, just look at the name on one of three buildings in UM’s Academic Park. Frances Garner Hall, a 5,500-square-foot classroom and office building, is home to UM’s English department and World Languages and Studies faculty in the College of Arts & Sciences. It is one of only two structures on campus named for a faculty member who has served at the Christ-centered university – Rosemary Adams Hall is the other.
The story behind Frances Garner Hall begins with a petite powerhouse professor who wasn’t afraid of anything.
Born to Teach
Frances Adrien Garner always knew she would be a teacher – it was in her blood. Her parents were teachers, as were most of her nine aunts and uncles.
“If you’re supposed to be a teacher, it’s something you can’t avoid. You might try, but it won’t work for long,” she was quoted at age 66 in an article published by the Mobile Press-Register in 1995.
Garner was 81 years old when she died on Jan. 31, 2010. Born on May 31, 1928, at her mother’s family farm in Morgan County, Alabama, she was raised in Mobile and graduated from Murphy High School in 1945. She attended Judson College, then earned a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish from Peabody College, now part of Vanderbilt University. She taught in Mobile (Westlawn Elementary and Vigor High School), Maryland and – when it was still a territory – Hawaii. After earning a Master of Arts in English from Duke University, she returned to Mobile and took a chance on a new Baptist college that was set to open in the fall of 1963.
In a photo of the charter faculty and staff of Mobile College, now the University of Mobile, Garner is in the second row, fourth from the left. She stands directly behind Dr. Gene Perkins, the acrobatic professor who had the unusual ability to balance upside down by one finger on a block of wood.
Garner isn’t the only woman in the photo – but she was the only female faculty member that first year. The 1964 Rampage yearbook notes that she served as sponsor of the Young Women’s Auxiliary.
Later, Garner earned a Doctor of Philosophy in English from the University of Tennessee and rose through the ranks to full professor, becoming the first dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. She was selected by a faculty committee to receive the university’s prestigious Megginson Teaching Award in 1992 and retired in December 1996. A few months later, in April 1997, the UM Board of Trustees named her professor emeritus.
‘I’m Not Afraid’
Teaching English around the world wasn’t something she intentionally set out to do when she began her career in 1949. Some friends tried to discourage her globe-trotting.
“I’m not afraid. Something can happen to you wherever you are. I want to try to make a difference in the world,” Garner said in the Press-Register article.
She and her Mobile College colleague, Dr. Hazel Petersen (who became the first female academic dean in the nation at a Baptist college), were among the first American teachers to venture into war-torn Vietnam in 1989 following the Vietnam War. They had volunteered to teach English as a second language to Vietnamese educators.
Gun bunkers lined the airfield as she landed. The teachers lived in a state-run hotel where most of the other residents spoke only Russian. There was only one flush toilet at the school campus where they taught. Food was scarce and there was no telephone service. But this hard-working professor said she didn’t have time to think about being scared.
“You can’t live your life being afraid,” she said.
She would continue teaching English as a second language in more countries, including China and Nicaragua. While English was her passion, she was passionate as well about the need for Americans to become bilingual.
“If we’re going to live in a global economy, we’re going to have to learn how to speak different languages,” she said.
The Queen of English
Upon her retirement, Garner was conferred the title “The Queen of English” by students and faculty.
“She got this name because any time we (in the dean’s office) had a question about English grammar or usage, we would put it to Dr. Garner to resolve,” said Will Edmonds, then a recent graduate working for academic dean Dr. Audrey Eubanks.
When Edmonds graduated from UM in 1997 with a degree in global business, Garner presented him a copy of “Fowler’s Modern English Usage.”
“I knew it was the kind of gift that she gave, as it was an extension of who she was. I still have it and use it. I cherish her note and signature on the inside cover,” said Edmonds, now a National Board Certified Teacher of French at Barton Academy for Advanced World Studies. Recently, Edmonds was named Alabama Secondary Teacher of the Year and Alternate State Teacher of the Year for 2022.
“For me, Dr. Garner represented the heart of Mobile College/University of Mobile. She was concerned with not only the academic student, but the student as a whole. She impacted me and my time at UM even though she never taught me, which to me is all the more amazing,” he said.
A Teacher and Friend
“Effective teacher. Skilled administrator. Special friend of students.”
The plaque on Frances Garner Hall cites a few reasons the university named a building for the English professor.
Those she taught say her impact went even further.
“Dr. Garner was feared and loved. If you worked hard, she was your fiercest defender. Woe be to the person who didn’t give their best effort. Anyone that survived her class (and many did not), emerged as a much better writer,” recalled UM President Lonnie Burnett, a 1979 graduate of then-Mobile College.
Tim Hebson said Garner was an incredible advisor.
“I was not an English major, but I wanted her as my adviser because she demanded the best in all her students,” said Hebson, a 1981 graduate and dean of students emeritus at The University of Alabama.
Susan Thomas took English courses from Garner for four years and considered the teacher a mentor who was “real involved with all her students.”
“When I was in school, everyone knew you had to work hard to get good grades in her class. You couldn’t slide by in her class,” said Thomas, a 1977 graduate.
A Life-Long Impact
One story illustrates the impact a teacher can have in a student’s life – and demonstrates the caring and mentoring community that is still woven into the University of Mobile culture today.
Brian Boyle graduated in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree from UM, and again in 2015 with a master’s degree. Now vice president for advancement, he said his freshman-year experience with the professor had a life-long impact:
As a freshman in my first year of college, I had the opportunity to take a literature class taught by Dr. Garner. Those who had her know of her distinct teaching style, and her high expectations. As someone who had typically done just the bare minimum to “C” my way through school, I thought I could do the same in her class. However, after turning in an essay assignment that I though was solid C work, she returned the graded paper with a bright red “F” written at the top. Further, she had written copious amounts of critical notes all over each page. You could actually feel the heat coming from the paper.
She asked me to stay after class for a brief word. I braced for what I knew would be a less-than-complimentary scolding. What I received instead, however, was something that literally transformed my thinking and my self-confidence. She told me that I could do better and that she believed I had a gift for writing. She encouraged me to take pride in my ability, and not waste it. That may not sound like much, but what I heard her say was that she, Dr. Garner herself, believed in me. The impact of that was profound and has carried with me all the years that have passed since then. I wanted to make her proud. I got an A in that class and took her classes again as often as I could. I will always be thankful for that exchange, and her belief in me. And I find myself still wanting to make her proud.
UM Legacy: People of the Halls
The UM Legacy story collection celebrates the rich history of the University of Mobile by sharing the stories of people past and present who helped make UM what it is today. This story is part of the “People of the Halls” series spotlighting the people behind the names of the buildings and sports facilities at the University of Mobile. Read more UM Legacy stories at umobile.edu/umlegacy.