Vanderbilt Magazine

Bess Parks continues a teaching legacy

Bess Parks (submitted)

All the people who strongly influenced Bess Parks, PhD’78, were educators.

Parks’ grandmother, Bessie Warren Leach, attended art school with famous American artist Georgia O’Keeffe and was one of the first female students at the University of Alabama. Later, she was a special counselor to the dean of women there. Parks’ mother, Allie Hayden, who taught in a three-room schoolhouse before her marriage, went back to college at the age of 54 to finish her bachelor’s degree. She taught fourth grade through her mid-60s. With role models like these, Parks was destined for a career in education.

“I was used to working with my little brothers and sister. I was the eldest daughter and in charge of the house and the little people,” Parks says, laughing. “I had plenty of practice.”

After one of her education professors at Jacksonville State urged her to apply for a scholarship to the University of Alabama master’s program in special education, Parks found her calling. She was teaching in the learning disabilities program at Athens State College when the opportunity to attend Peabody College for her doctorate became a reality, with the encouragement of her husband, Harold—also a Peabody alumnus.

“Other schools had early childhood education, but I wanted to combine early childhood and special education. That’s what sent me to Peabody. And, of course, it had such a good reputation,” she adds.

Now retired, Parks is a master gardener with more than 7,000 hours of volunteering. To continue the legacy in education to which she owes her own career, she wants to give back to those who need help paying for higher education. Through the establishment of two charitable remainder unitrusts and a retirement plan beneficiary designation, she’s found a way to do that. All three gifts will be used to endow a scholarship in elementary education—the Allie Hayden Scholarship—in memory of her mother.

“Education was very important to her,” Parks says, “and I want her remembered for going back to school at the age of 54 to get her bachelor’s. She used to stress that everyone should be able to make a living, and she believed that higher education was the key.

“I feel as strongly about education as she did,” Parks continues, “and I’m so impressed that [through Opportunity Vanderbilt] you can graduate from Vanderbilt without debt.”